A new found love for American history
I read an interview recently with some prominent anthropologist and historian who explained why humanity has managed to keep a pretty consistent cycle of destroying itself periodically. He was basically validating the theory that history tends to repeat itself, and he explained why. Generally, the worst of human action is spaced out by several generations, and he suggested that this is why the “war to end all wars” was not, in fact, the last world war, or any war for that matter. He said that as the reality of human suffering becomes less distributed and separated by more generations, we simply forget about it and do dumb things, oblivious to history. Another story I read made the point that the Internet may have changed that, but it’s hard to say if it makes things deteriorate or get better faster. On on hand, information is freer than ever, but on the other hand, humans have a strange desire to live in willful ignorance.
Bright and cheery thoughts, right? Regardless, this fascinates me in part because one could argue that history can serve as a way to both predict a possible future and absorb some serious knowledge. Of course, there’s a certain historical musical that no one has ever head of (wink, nudge) that obviously has sparked a great interest in American history. I’ve been reading the Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton, and I can’t wait to read his George Washington book as well. Going deeper than the superficial stuff that you might get to learn in high school (if you got anything out of it at all) has been extraordinary. The United States almost never came to be, and if we’re being honest, the founding fathers were kind of a bunch of dicks. They were brilliant, well-intentioned people, certainly, but they weren’t people I’d go get a beer with. They kind of gloss over in school that Washington was a slave owner, you know? The self-evident truths were a lot of talk that didn’t extend far beyond white men who didn’t want to be accountable to the king, unfortunately.
Despite the character issues, they got it more right than wrong, and it took a fair amount of humility to leave space for the Constitution to be changed and improved. There’s no question that the gears of progress have been painfully slow, and even after the abolishment of slavery and granting women the right to vote, filling in the blanks took entirely too long, and it’s not finished. It’s staggering to think that Jim Crow laws were still a thing until a few years before I was born. That’s nuts. Still, when I read some of the theory behind the structure of the US government, I can see how things moving faster could have disastrous consequences. Washington may have had slaves, but the humility he exhibited in his farewell address is brilliant:
“Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.”
Which leads to the present. Equality for the LGBT community was a slow-moving train as well, then, in the span of a few years, the marriage issue was settled. We’ve gone from an arbitrary war on drugs to the legalization of weed in a few years. I’m not particularly interested in it, but I’ve been swayed and understand now how destructive the fake war was. Now I see a slow awakening around carbon and energy policy, and I think that’s going to blow up next. Information, history, knowledge can drive people forward if they choose to see it.
American history, and really world history, has been pretty much on the better side of what humans are capable of, and the cycles of suck do seem to get shorter over time. In a bizarre time when indifference and apathy has led us to the hottest mess of government I’ve seen in my lifetime, it’s that historical context that I lean on. The American way has been one of persistence, and I hope we can keep that up.
Originally published at jeffputz.com.