Our History Here and Now: An Introduction to The Long View
It’s mostly untrue, that hoary old chestnut about those who don’t remember history being doomed to repeat it. (And yes, I know it was George Santayana, who said lots of smart and useful things, and perhaps it is, in fact, a smart and useful thing to say, but certainly not an accurate one. Besides, it’s melted into meaningless cliche at this point, and since when do we pay heed to the empty words and phrases of cliche?)
After all, our history is too progressive to be purely circular. We’re not just spinning our wheels, here on this lonely planet. The increasing complexity of our society, our relationships, our technological achievements—these assure that we won’t be repeating our own history ad infinitum. Progress—by which I mean the forward movement of society, for good or for bad—is too mighty a force to be stopped entirely once it gets rolling, which is why despite the overwhelming obstacles gay marriage is now legal in 36 states and counting, and why we are also relentlessly building technology to replace human workers.
But despite the endless variations in our forward-moving history, these are largely variations on the same several themes, so in some larger sense Santayana was right. Or to quote Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The Industrial Revolution’s dehumanization of workers becomes the tech industry’s dehumanization of workers. The Gilded Age becomes Silicon Valley. Slavery becomes Jim Crow becomes institutional racism becomes police targeting of Black men and women. Wars become more subtle, more insidious, with drones and surveillance and hackers employed as weapons—but still are wars, still hurt and maim and kill in the name of nations or religions and some other flag we fly.
And so understanding history in the context of what’s happening today is still just as important—especially if we want to effect not just any old change, but change in the direction of what’s good. And so understanding is still key to real and lasting change—change in the direction of what’s good, what can make us better people—change in the direction of compassion, and equality, and prosperity for all.
So we learn our history, and we try our best to learn from it. But we the people, we have but only so much (and a diminishing amount) of power to push through change. Love or hate politics (and who could love it now, other than the most Machiavellian among us?) it’s crucial to the final implementation of change here in the U.S. The power of the people has ever been the important, crucial lever; two expert political strategists, Johnson and FDR, both used to say various somethings like “make me”—not a taunt of defiance but an understanding that nothing is possible without the visible will of the people behind it. Still, the final action most often belongs to legislative action and presidential power, whether FDR’s New Deal, or Johnson’s War on Poverty and Civil Rights legislation. Or to use a more current example, Obama’s Executive Order on deportations.
So politics still matters. And yet. Do we still matter to politics? Congress continue to garner lower and lower ratings each year by assuring us that we don’t, and a new Princeton study confirms that the U.S. is now more of an oligarchy than we are a democracy. Anthony Burgess in the 70’s called the U.S. presidency “a Tudor monarchy with telephones,” and it only seems to have gotten worse from there, no matter who holds the reins. True power increasingly resides on Wall Street, and in the hands of CEOs and newly-personalized corporations.
So why work to effect change? Why bother to understand both where we are and how we got here? Precisely because we, the people, still live in America, and it still – at least in principle – belongs to us. It’s time for us to understand, to examine, to challenge those too comfortably seated in the theater of power. And it’s not just a depressing time to do that – it’s an exciting time to do that as well, I think. Crisis equals opportunity: another old hoary chestnut, but one I’ll happily drag out and dust off for reuse. I’ve been reading a lot of James Baldwin lately, and he probably sums it up best in this interview with the Paris Review: “I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn’t love one’s country. You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it. There isn’t any other place to go—you don’t pull up your roots and put them down someplace else. At least not in a single lifetime, or, if you do, you’ll be aware of precisely what it means, knowing that your real roots are always elsewhere. If you try to pretend you don’t see the immediate reality that formed you I think you’ll go blind.”
This will be a column about politics, yes, and about current events. But it won’t be the kind of column that opinion writers for major newspapers write. We have plenty of terrific writers dissecting the events of the day, every day, from an immediate and pundit-y viewpoint. We don’t need one more. This column is called ‘The Long View’ for a reason: it will be, I hope, a long look at issues through the lens of ourselves, our history, at our current identities, at our relationships and our cultural past and present and the way we depend on one another. And because I’m convinced that artists understand humanity better than anyone, I hope to channel their work, and words.
I also don’t want this to be the All Ye Olde White Guys column, or the History As Written by the Victors column. The long view is the history of those who got counted, sure, but also of those who didn’t. This is just as much about the missing as the present, the unseen as much as the seen. I hope to cover artists, for example, like Melissa Hunt, who is attempting to tell the stories of the over one million mostly unidentified people buried on New York City’s Hart Island. This column, I hope, will be the a place for the silenced to speak, for art to enlighten, and for the frantic pace of politics to slow for a second while we breathe and remember and take in.
Or, a shorter way of saying all of that, I suppose: I’ve just finished an astounding graphic novel called Here, by Richard McGuire. It’s illustrated around a simple, but remarkable conceit: each page contains overlapping images from different points in past, present, and future—all located in a single corner of a living room in New Jersey. Primordial seas overlap kids’ Halloween parties overlap construction projects overlap Native American life overlaps a sea-swollen future. The effect is one that builds, and builds, until the overwhelming result of so much human (and much more non-human) life folding into itself is almost unbearably poignant. Our lives, it suggests, are short, and perhaps made up of mostly insignificant moments—yet it is precisely the long layering of time, and what we make of our own, that makes us who we are, in this, our own here and now.