Setting Down The Parallels
After a decade of wars, elections, and other calamities, our interpreter passes the baton
July/August 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 4
After ten years of writing this column, I am saying a fond farewell. Not to American Heritage or to writing in general, merely to “In the News.” I had intended to slip away unnoticed, but my good friend and editor Richard Snow offered me the opportunity for a parting word or two, and I find it irresistible. If, however, you turned to this page expecting another essay on the historical echoes of a recent news item and are disappointed, there will be no hard feelings if you stop here.
Why am I quitting now? Mainly because I find myself getting a little repetitious, at least in my own view. Each issue’s “story” is different, but the message is the same: that seeing a current event in historical perspective is a very good thing to do. It’s a safeguard against pontification of all sorts—against “the-sky-is-falling” alarms at one extreme and the “we-are-the-greatest-ever” exultation at the other. It shrinks self-importance, rebukes dogmatism, and builds courage. As a teenager I learned and loved a corny verse from A. E. Housman that runs: “The troubles of our proud and angry dust / Are from eternity and shall not fail / Bear them we can, and if we can we must / Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.” I can laugh, many decades later, at the final words, the half-cynical, half-heroic posturing, the stoic shrug with nose buried in the ale mug. But there’s still a portion of truth in the first three lines.
Take careful note that I did not say history “teaches” us anything. Historians are like expert witnesses; you can always find a couple who will extract opposing “lessons” from the same evidence. And I weary of the frequent defense of historical study by the citation of George Santayana’s statement that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I suspect he meant it less simplistically than those who quote it. The past is never precisely repeated, people often do make the same well-remembered mistake twice, and if the meaning is simply that we don’t learn much from experiences we choose to forget, it hardly ranks among the great ideas or our time. No. History is not a text on How to Plan a Perfectly Flawless Existence. What the study of it does offer, besides the inherent virtues of the long view, is a chance to meet the men and women of the past and to find that despite many differences in circumstance, they are recognizable as neighbors and kin—simultaneously admirable, maddening, predictable, and mysterious. Unearthing that streak of common humanity that binds us all throughout time has given me a slightly better understanding of how the world works as well as alternating bouts of faith in the future and reluctant recognition that imperfection will always be with us. But it’s also furnished a good deal of pleasure. All that is what I have tried to share with you whenever I pointed out a historical precedent or parallel for something that was “in the news.” But having delivered this message so often—this is the eighty-third time by my count—I have run out of fresh ways to phrase it.
By emphasizing the personal gratification of learning history, I don’t mean to discount its importance and necessity. Of course it’s important. We need both collective and individual memory in order to have a grownup identity. But I don’t like to be a Victorian, lecturing people on their duty to be inspired and improved, and in any case trumpeting the importance of history to the American Heritage audience is certainly preaching to the choir. When the editor Byron Dobell invited me to begin the series in 1988, we both had the same view: that each column should be first-person, interesting, informative, and not depressingly earnest. With that in mind I have tried not to sound Olympian and also, most of the time, tried to avoid injecting those columns on controversial topics with my own often strenuous views. Likewise to put behind me the temptation to sarcastic humor. Why possibly alienate someone whom I am trying to make a friendly fellow explorer of the past? I suppose I am not the best judge of how well I’ve succeeded in setting aside my feelings. It was not easy, and I am tempted at this very moment to step from behind the curtain and unbosom myself of a great many opinions. But better sense prevails.
The same better sense warns me not to try a review and assessment of the ten years’ worth of news events among which I fished for topics. Which was most important? If I have made any consistent point at all, it is that we may not know for a long time, and even then there will be disagreement among historians. Right now I’d venture to say it was the end of the Cold War, on which I did no column because I could find nothing to compare with it. It certainly qualifies as the happening that made me feel most upbeat, which is not all that common an experience for contemporary newspaper readers. (The print press is still where I get most of my information.) In fact, a major reason for avoiding a retrospective survey of the 1990s is that there were too many things about them that I disliked, and I don’t want my valedictory to degenerate into septuagenarian harrumphing.