History Still Matters

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No wonder, then, that many people now began to argue that we no longer had a usable past, that if there are lessons to be learned from history, they have no application in these swiftly altered conditions. Looking to the past for guidance, it was said, can only inhibit the capacity to first detect the emerging characteristics of the future and then to find new ways of dealing with them. As Carl Schorske wrote in his account of Vienna at the turn of the century, “The modern mind has been growing indifferent to history because history, conceived as a continuous nourishing tradition, has become useless to it.”

The lack of historical continuity and communication between the generations is, to me, one of the most disquieting features of our time. What is happening today, this very minute, seems to be our sole criterion for judgment and action. And all of our yesterdays have little relevance.

Not long ago, after giving a speech, I was asked, “Mr. Moyers, who was this fellow Churchill?” Driving back to New York that evening I thought of the little girl who said to her mother, “Momma, you know that vase that’s been in this family for generations?”

“Yes, why?”

“Well, this generation just dropped it.”

You can stop history after all. Just by dropping it.

What difference does it make? You’ll find the answer in George Orwell’s novel 1984—about life in a totalitarian society, where the state controls everyone and everything, including the minds of its citizens. (Actually, they’re not citizens any longer, they’re subjects.) The power of despotism rests, of course, on the police, but it also depends upon a complete rejection of the past—its rejection, abolition, and manipulation. Big Brother banishes history to the memory hole, where all facts inconvenient to the state, or the party, disappear. “The past,” writes Orwell, “is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the state chooses to make it.” Six means eighteen, two plus two equals five, war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. The past, you see, is indispensable to memory. Without it, people are at the mercy of the rulers, because there is nothing against which to measure what they are told today.

Lincoln knew the power of memory to shape a people’s continuity and character.

In the words of 1984’s doomed hero, Winston Smith, “History has stopped.” Now, if history can be erased in the totalitarian society by design, it can be eroded by ignorance in a free society. I worry that my own business—broadcasting news—helps to make this an anxious age of agitated amnesiacs.

Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, said in his acceptance speech, “Our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember.”

Abraham Lincoln would have been appalled by that refusal to remember. He knew the power of memory to shape the continuity and character of a people. In his first inaugural address he talked about “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land. …” Those words define something especially human, a power of transmitting experience through generations of time. They connect us emotionally and spiritually to the human beings who came before and who will follow. They are the ties that bind. They do even more than that—they make us an alert people. Mark Twain wrote that a cat, once it had sat on a hot stove, would never do it again, but neither would it sit on a cold stove. We human beings are different. We can count and weigh and sort our experiences and the reflections they prompt and we can share them with others. History ceases to be a row of bare facts waiting to be memorized by schoolchildren. No longer does it stand like an old picket fence in our backyard, slowly and silently rotting away. It becomes a real world, inhabited by “villains and heroes and regular folk passing this way on swift journeys.”

In his short story “The Shore and the Sea,” James Thurber tells of the lemmings, those strange little rodents of the Nordic countries, who are accused of such suicidal propensities that periodically they stampede by the thousands into the sea. The mass frenzy begins when, viewing the sunset on the ocean, “a single excited lemming” starts the exodus by crying fire and running toward the sea. “The world is coming to an end!” he shouts. And as the hurrying hundreds turn into thousands, the reasons for their headlong flight increases by leaps and bounds and hops and skips and jumps: others begin to cry that the devil has come in a red chariot; still others that the world is on fire. The panic increases, the rumors multiply, and pandemonium prevails as the lemmings by the thousands leap into the sea and disappear beneath the waves, some crying, “We are saved!” and some, “We are lost!” An old scholarly lemming watches the futile self-destruction of the mob, tears up all that he has written about the species, and starts all over again. The moral, according to Thurber, is this: “All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.”