Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Perspective that History Gives Us

Randall Stephens

I post here a brief talk I gave to history students at our annual Senior Banquet.

“Clio, the muse of history, is as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis.”
- Arthur Schopenhauer, 1851

We can hope that today the muse of history is at least a little less infected with the STDs of falsehood. In fact, I think it is much less so. History today is not chained to nationalism, bigotry, and religious zealotry as it was over 150 years ago. And maybe historians now cast a more critical eye on the past.

One thing that good history—the non-infected kind—can do is provide deep insight or perspective on the present. Someone who is informed by history can engagingly read current events, discern the issues that animate contemporary political battles, and see things more clearly through the eyes of history.

Last year, I delivered a little talk at this banquet about how history relates to the life of the mind, how it enriches our intellects and encourages us to better understand our world. This year—a year that has been rocked by traumatic events and social chaos—I’d like to focus on the perspective that history provides for us.

The famous American historian of race and slavery Kenneth Stamp wrote that: “With the historian it is an article of faith that knowledge of the past is a key to understanding the present.” How might this statement be true? How can our knowledge of the past lead to a better understanding of the present?

Let’s take a few examples from 2010 and 2011.

America’s most violent, memorable conflict, the Civil War, still has us reflecting on the legacy of race and racism. We still wonder how it is that this country holds together. (Eighteenth-century anti-federalists would be shocked that our republic operates as effectively as it does.) We still worry about the enormous political divisions that pit one American against another.

To quote southern novelist William Faulkner’s character Gavin Stevens: “The past is never dead; it’s not even past” (Requiem for a Nun, 1951). This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, off the coast of Charleston. When we think of that bloody conflict, is it true that the past isn’t dead, that it’s not even past? In some sense . . . yes. Two weeks ago an NPR reporter observed that

It's been nearly 150 years since the war began. But even now, the city of Charleston is still figuring out how to talk about the war and commemorate the anniversary.

Last December in Charleston, there was a re-enactment of that Secession Convention. It was followed by a Secession Ball—billed as "a joyous night of music, dancing, food and

Costumed revelers waltzed and sang Dixie. Many South Carolinians were appalled; the NAACP protested outside. . . .

Many people in Charleston talk about using this anniversary to right the wrongs of the Civil War centennial, 50 years ago. Then, it was celebrated as a joyful tribute to South Carolina's Confederate heritage. Now, many remember the 1961 anniversary with embarrassment.

We could go on by looking at the historical parallels of or the differences between contemporary American political battles that have set pro-labor and anti-labor groups against each other and similar struggles from long ago. The political and intellectual fracturing of America, too, could use a historical perspective. (A plug for Historically Speaking here: Read the Daniel Rodgers forum!) Comparisons between our current economic meltdown and the recessions and depressions of yesteryear would also shed light on where we’ve been and maybe tell us something about where we’re headed.

But let’s shift our gaze to world affairs and think of how a historical point of view might inform how we view major events or natural disasters.

The Japanese earthquake and tsunami was unimaginably horrific. No one living in that part of the world had seen anything like it before. But throughout recorded human history natural disasters much like it have changed societies and altered the way men and women live. In fact, the New York Times published a story about stone tablets, some six centuries old, that warned of and recounted the devastation wrought by tsunamis. Among other things, these markers remind us that men and women have been learning from the past and applying those lessons to the present for ages. ("On Stones in Japan, Tsunami Warnings — Aneyoshi Journal," April 21, 2011.) It also humbles us when we view the world from the perspective of the long arc of history. We are not removed from natural and historical processes that have always shaped human life.

Moving across the globe we might think of other ways that our meditation on the past helps us understand the present. . . .

Is Europe in decline, as so many pundits have shouted from the rooftops? Is England in particular on the ropes? Is any of this talk of downward mobility anything new? "The country is used to the idea of national decline" writes Ian Jack in the April 24 issue of Newsweek, "'declinism' became a feature of British historical study many years ago—the U.S. is just now catching up. Public fears over the nation’s capability date back to at least the Boer War." You need to know something about the history of European nations and the long economic development of the West, of course, to make such judgments.

What about the revolutions that are reforming/realigning North African and Middle East nations right now? These seem to have come out of the blue, yet, of course, such political and social upheavals are the result or years of oppression and have a history that is politically complicated and deserving of serious attention. What might we learn about how contemporary revolutions will play out? Certainly we could look at past revolutions in third world nations and former colonies to get a clearer picture.

I conclude by highlighting the words of southern novelist Robert Penn Warren, who remarked with sternness: “The past is always a rebuke to the present.” The past makes us think about larger trends and gives us perspective and a more complete picture. We cannot afford to ignore the nuances and the fascinating point of view that history gives us. Without it we would roam about dazed, amnesiac, and blind to the world around us.


LD said...

Gah! Every blog I look at today is rattling my cage about the relationship of the present to the past, and vice versa.

I guess I should stop looking at history blogs. ;)

This is an interesting take on a question which continues to vex me.

I guess I'm worried about "the leap" between whatever past we're looking at -- say, antebellum social reform movements -- and whatever present applications it may have -- say, environmental activism. (I'm just pulling something out of thin air here.)

How one draws that line from past horizons to present questions without implying a linear connection between two vastly different contexts is a puzzle to me. I'm not saying it ought not to be tried. I just don't quite know how to do it yet.

Randall said...

I'm a big fan of the idea of the foreign-ness of the past. The last thing historians need to do is flatten out distinctions between the present and, say, the Revolutionary era.

At the same time, there's a slight danger that historians will paint themselves into an antiquarian corner when they give up on a usable past.