Monday, December 14, 2015

A month of gifts, day 14: The Gift of History

Saturday night before the hockey game, the Spousal Unit and I went out for dinner and talked about life and stuff, as you do when you’ve got almost a quarter-century of shared history. In fact, history was one of the things we discussed. Specifically, the way some people seem to have a very selective understanding of the past, a sort of idealized vision of a world that never really existed.

(A page from the Book of Kells.)

Earlier this month I talked about my affection for science and technology, and how much I adore living in the future as we do. But I’m also glad to live in a time with so much easily accessible knowledge about the past . . . and it’s kind of sad when people don’t take advantage of that opportunity.

There are people with idealized perceptions of the past—fueled in large part, I think, by the relentless negativity of the 24-hour news cycle—as a place without random violence or scary people who are different, or whatever. If it wasn’t such a menace to the stability of our society, it would be hilarious. 

Grab a book about the Thirty Years’ War. (Go ahead; I’ll wait.) Or about one of the many, many horrible pandemics that routinely destroyed huge chunks of the population all over the world. Or a book about slavery, or the Armenian genocide during World War I, or the Holocaust during World War II, or Stalin’s terror . . .

I trust I’ve made my point. Bad things happen in every time. There was no lovely golden age where children didn’t come to grief, and regardless of what the talking heads on CNN or Fox News would have you believe in their relentless quest for higher ratings, kids are much safer, much more likely to live to a ripe old age today than at any other time in history. I would no more willingly raise my kids a hundred and fifty years ago than I would drive them around without their seatbelts on.

I’ll admit, too, that I used to keep my blinders on as much as possible, in that comfortable zone of heroes and villains. My fall from grace started in college, with a history professor who specialized in research on the late medieval/Renaissance period in central Europe. His work fascinated me—rather than an illusionary time of wholesome nuclear families, their lives were just as messy and fraught as any modern community. We just didn’t know about it before, because no one had bothered to look.

Since then, I’ve delved into the founding of the good ol’ US of A—which is even more remarkable once you understand all the negotiations that made it possible, all the squabbling and searching. One of my favorite biographies is David McCullough’s John Adams, in large part because he presents Adams as a complete person, a prickly genius who struggled with ego and faith and service. His accomplishments and his humanity are all the more remarkable when his fallibility becomes clear. And I think one of the dangers of idealizing the heroes of the past (however awesome they are) is that we can fail to understand our own capacity for courage and goodness.

(A portrait of John Adams.)

I’m not sure I believe that forgetting history means we’re doomed to repeat it. But I do think we can’t move forward until we have an honest understanding of the past rather than a naïve wish for a storybook time rather than grappling with reality. And remember, those who forget history are doomed to get a verbal smackdown from someone who’s done the homework.

(Danse Macabre--Even kings must bow to the greater powers.)

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