How history will see us

The White House tonight as the sun was setting. Photo by Mark Wilson. Source.

As a historian (am I still a historian?), I’ve always fascinated by the perspectival problem, the fundamental problem of historiography, or the writing of history. How do we see momentous events that happen in our own lives differently than people will understand them generations, centuries down the road?

My mother told me once that she was annoyed about the news coverage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination because it preempted some of her favorite television shows. (I mean, I doubt she was dancing during his funeral, but she was not exactly, cough, a liberal.) The news affects us, down the road, in unanticipated ways; the major conclusion she drew from the Kent State shootings and the Sterling Hall bombings was — seventeen years later — that I should under no circumstances be allowed to attend college at UW-Madison. That perspectival discrepancy — the fact that my mother’s perceptions of the 70s were nothing like my university history professors described them — convinced me early on what we think is the important news may not really be the important news. (And then I did years of graduate reading that stressed the same thing: thank you, Annales.) But I always felt judged by those professors, late baby boomers all: my generation was not liberal enough, politically engaged enough, eager enough to demonstrate and hit the streets for what we believed. We weren’t aware of enough of history.

800px-Potsdamer_Platz_from_the_Info_Box_1996

The Potsdamer Platz as I saw in in 1996, from the perspective of the Infobox. Source: wikipedia.

In the late 80s, I think I felt mostly like I was trying just to figure out who I was and what I thought — and not get eaten alive by the economy (the latter is an ongoing theme in the life of the average Generation Xer). I remember thinking, when I saw the Potsdamer Platz a-(re)-building on my first ever trip to Berlin, in the spring of 1996, that my whole life I thought history was something that was happened somewhere else and for the first time I thought — no, history is happening here, it is happening now.

Part of the Potsdamer Platz as it looks today. I chose this view because this was the location of the Berlin premiere of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, in 2013.

Part of the Potsdamer Platz as it looks today. I chose this view because this was the location of the Berlin premiere of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, in 2013. Source.

My perception that no history was happening in my own life, in my own space, changed on September 11, 2001. Since then it has seemed like a lot of history has happened. But what, specifically?

I remember how I felt the day that Colin Powell testified before the U.N. Or when I learned that the Affordable Care Act had passed. Or on day when — despite my many reservations about the man’s politics, which have persisted to this day — Barack Obama was sworn in as president. I felt (perhaps mistakenly?) like the U.S. was just a little less racist on that day than it usually is.

If I think of everything that happened today — the SCOTUS decision on same sex marriage, following its decision yesterday to uphold health insurance subsidies; President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of slain Charleston pastor Clementa Pinckney; 60 people killed in terrorist attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France; the death at the hands of police of one of the two convicts whose prison break has been fascinating the US for the last few weeks; the Greek debt situation — which of those things will I remember?

The big momentary aggravation of the day was the fallout from a petty dispute between the Dean and a professor in our department on the heads of a bunch of students. Followed by getting soaked during a cloudburst when there was no place to seek dry cover. Probably the most immediately significant thing to me personally is that after a lot of irresponsible squabbling, the state of Florida finally passed its budget for the next fiscal year, happily ensuring that the university will remain open and I will be paid.

To me, the biggest thing feels like the judgment in Obergefell v. Hodges.

How did people feel the day after the judgment in Brown v. Board of Education? Does anyone today still remember 1954?

Shortly after I heard the news and watched a bit of the Facebook lovefest, I had to attend First Year Orientation. The advisors in my school (a division of my College, which is a division of my university) work in a computer lab with between fifty to one hundred entering students who are trying to figure out what classes to take. We do this several times a week all summer until everyone is correctly registered for classes.

I heard a little chatter about it — mostly to the effect that the students didn’t see what the big deal was if members of the same sex wanted to get married. I’m not claiming this attitude is typical of all university students — our university, and our college in particular, has a typical student profile that makes the students likely to be either centrist or politically uninformed. I do think it is the majority attitude in the under-twenty crowd. And this gives me hope, it’s one of the things that kept me in classrooms well beyond the time I should have left them behind me. I admit that I fear they will judge us just as I judged my baby boomer professors — as people who really did not understand the arc of history, who stood in the way, who made things impossible, who ruined the environment.

But of course: the big chatter is about which math to take, which biology professor to avoid, how to take the same English comp as one’s friends (how did people ever navigate that before text messages?). Which dorm is good, which cafeteria, what’s going on tonight when Orientation is over.

I wonder if they will remember. Or if the vital questions will have moved on for them. To them, the civil rights movement years are like the Great Depression seemed to me.

I hope they will remember that we tried. I hope they will remember that we were happy. I hope they will forget that we ignored what was going on in Tunisia and Greece. I hope they will forgive our many historical oversights. I hope they will make a better world. I hope we have helped them do that, just a little, today.

~ by Servetus on June 27, 2015.

18 Responses to “How history will see us”

  1. Reblogged this on Windows into History (Reblogs and News) and commented:
    Suggested reading – a very thought-provoking article. Reblogged on Windows into History.

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  2. Of course you are still a historian. I don’t think it’s something you can cease to be ūüôā

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  3. Tr√®s int√©ressant parce que je me pose souvent les m√™mes questions. Je ne suis pas une historienne (m√™me si c’est un sujet que j’aime beaucoup). Je suis une litt√©raire.
    En √©voquant l’assassinat de Kennedy, ma m√®re m’a racont√© que lorsque c’√©tait arriv√©, elle √©tait encore au lyc√©e (en terminale, je pense, donc en derni√®re ann√©e).Elle m’a dit quel choc cela avait √©t√© √† l’√©poque.
    (“On a assassin√© le pr√©sident Kennedy!”).
    (Je me suis souvenue de cela en regardant la s√©rie Mad men, d’ailleurs).
    De mon c√īt√©, je me rappelle des √©lections de diff√©rents pr√©sidents fran√ßais mais je crois que l’√©lection la plus marquante a √©t√© celle de Fran√ßois Mitterrand en 1981. J’√©tais encore une adolescente….
    C’√©tait la 1√®re fois que la gauche arrivait au pouvoir en France: pour certains, c’√©tait une immense joie, pour d’autres, on aurait dit la fin du monde ūüôā
    Je me demande toujours ce que les enfants n√©s dans les ann√©es 2000 se souviendront: ma fille est n√©e en 2001. Pour elle, il n’y a pas eu de Mur de Berlin. Elle avait 3 mois lors du 11 septembre…
    Et elle ne comprenait pas pourquoi c’√©tait si diffcile de faire passer une loi sur le mariage pour tous en France (c’est r√©cent pour nous aussi). Et elle ne comprenait pas pourquoi au XXI√®me si√®cle, des gens jetaient des bananes sur la ministre Christiane Taubira.
    Avec tristesse, j’ai d√Ľ r√©pondre que le racisme √©tait toujours vif. Et que certaines personnes voulaient insulter Mme.Taubira √† cause de couleur de peau.
    Or ma fille est elle-m√™me m√©tisse….
    L’Histoire entre chez nous non seulement par le biais des livres et des le√ßons mais par des √©l√©ments beaucoup plus d√©plaisants: une remarque sur la couleur de ta peau, sur ta religion, etc, etc…
    Effectivement, de quoi nous souviendrons-nous?
    Et de quoi se souviendront les plus jeunes? …..
    Je n’ai pas la r√©ponse.

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    • This question of explaining racism to children … it seems to me one of the huge challenges of parenting these days and there’s no good answer. I have a good friend, white, who has mixed race children and he’s trying to explain to his teenage son that he has to be careful with the police — something he’s never experienced himself.

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      • J’ai d√©j√† v√©cu la m√™me exp√©rience (faire attention √† la police) et avant moi, mon p√®re, parce que nous ressemblons √† des arabes, tout simplement ^^
        Mon p√®re, √©tant jeune, se faisait contr√īler tr√®s souvent (prendre l’avion …..quelle aventure!).
        Bref, ma fille sait tr√®s bien ce que c’est d’√™tre √† moiti√© noire/blanche. Ce qu’elle a du mal √† comprendre, ce sont √† la fois le comportements de haine, h√©las d’actualit√© en France: homophobie, islamophobie, racisme, antis√©mitisme…
        Et oui, c’est difficile √† expliquer √† une jeune fille de 14 ans …

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    • Le pass√© colonial de la France n’est pas encore dig√©r√© .
      Beaucoup de chansons appellent à notre conscience :
      ** Les loups sont entr√©s dans Paris” chantait R√©giani ,
      ** Yannick Noah: “Angela” ,
      ** Renaud et Axel Red : “Manhattan Kaboul”
      ** Jean-Jacques Goldman:” n√© en 17 √† Leidenstadt” …

      et ” Z” de Costa Gavras r√©sonne √©trangement aujourd’hui ,. La Gr√®ce a toujours √©t√© avec les Balkans le r√©v√©lateur de divisions en Europe .

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  4. Chacun analyse les √©v√®nements historiques et les actualit√©s des m√©dias √† travers un prisme tr√®s personnel ( nationalit√©, √Ęge , sexe , √©ducation , v√©cu , sensibilit√© , opinions politiques , situation dans la soci√©t√© …) .

    **Des √©v√®nements du XX¬į si√®cle , la chute du mur de Berlin et la cr√©ation par Lech Walesa de Solidarnosc resteront pour longtemps les plus marquants dans ma m√©moire . J’avais v√©cu avec cette notion dans mon cerveau de bipartisme en Europe et tout ce montage id√©ologique s’√©croulait devant moi . Je r√©alisais l’importance de l’√©v√®nement et √©tait triste de ne pas √™tre en vacances pour courir √† Berlin ( germanophile).

    **Les √©v√®nements de d√©cembre 1998 en Irak m’ont marqu√© , car √† cette √©poque j’accouchais √† l’h√īpital avec des images de guerre devant les yeux √† la TV . Imposer , opposer la guerre √† l’innocence d’un b√©b√© me r√©vulsait .

    **Pour le XXI¬į le 11 septembre 2001 marque un changement dans ma conception du monde , une r√©elle prise de conscience des enjeux strat√©giques ( guerre , p√©trole , radicalisation religieuse, s√©curit√© , … ) et une sid√©ration , une r√©pulsion √©norme pour ce type de monstruosit√© violente et lache .

    ** La r√©alit√© du monde ne peut plus √©chapper √† personne, sauf quelques pays encore ferm√©s . Avec les nouveaux m√©dias la parole est ” libre ” accessible , mais tous les exc√®s d’opinions , les d√©sinformations , les manipulations aussi . Se faire , √† cours terme , une opinion √©clair√©e reste pour moi une gageure , une utopie . L’analyse demande du temps et du recul .

    ** Mais dans la vie de tous les jours , nous avons le devoir d’√™tre vigilants , conscients de la port√©e de nos actions , de nos paroles . Notre responsabilit√© est engag√©e dans ce que nous faisons ou pas ( vis √† vis des humains , de la nature , ..) .
    L’√©ducation , le passage de l’information re√ßue de l’ HISTOIRE et de l’actualit√© est √©galement de notre responsabilit√© vis √† vis du FUTUR .
    Un esp√®ce d’ “effet papillon ” appliqu√© √† tous les domaines pas seulement m√©t√©orologique .

    ** Cette notion de prise de conscience √©tait pour moi l’apanage des sages √† l’√Ęge mur , de nos ain√©s les anciens , mais l’√©volution pr√©cipit√©e de ce monde moderne rend tout le monde conscient de ses responsabilit√©s .

    ** A c√īt√© reste la vie de tous les jours avec ses contraintes , ses tracasseries ,ses absurdit√©s avec lesquelles il faut se coletiner , contre lesquelles il faut lutter , il faut nager √† contre sens , pour vivre la VIE √† pleine dents et rendre celle de ceux qui survivent plus acceptable .

    **Suite et fin de mes divagations :
    j’ai ador√© le film argentin compl√®tement d√©jant√© , mais jouissif et salvateur ” Les Nouveaux Sauvages “de Damian Szifron et vous le recommande .
    Le cin√©ma dans toutes ses composantes est l’un des arts r√©v√©lateur photographique de la r√©alit√© du monde et une source d’√©vasion .

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    • Yes — and — the 20th century is not even a memory to most of our students and even 2001 seems a long time away for them.

      We also spent a lot of time talking about what they wanted to do (best means of picking electives) and that also made me hopeful.

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      • Il est demand√© tr√®s t√īt aux jeunes de choisir leur futur m√©tier , de se d√©terminer . Mais la vie n’est que rebondissements et hasards plus ou moins heureux , les carri√®res sont fluctuantes , les domaines porteurs sont al√©atoires .
        Les int√©r√™ts personnels parfois vari√©s , contradictoires et les font h√©siter . Une m√®re cette semaine m’a dit que sa fille s’est inscrite √† la facult√© de biologie et √† celle d’histoire pour septembre prochain , je crains pour les travaux pratiques !
        Beaucoup sont dans l’angoisse , la fuite en avant et l ‘ ind√©termination . Une fois qu’ils ont choisi une voie , ils deviennent tr√®s motiv√©s et nous parents nous soufflons enfin , en attendant la cueillette des fruits de leur p√©r√©grinations .

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        • yes, I agree an eighteen year old is too young to pick a final future career — so we don’t ask them to sign contracts. But if a student says, I want to be an environmental journalist, then I usually suggest the first course in environmental science or the introduction to writing for mass media. ūüôā

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      • Les massacres perp√©tr√©s r√©cemment donnent aux jeunes, une image du monde diff√©rente de la notre √† leur √Ęge .
        Cette barbarie perp√©tr√©e au nom d’id√©aux ou de folie meurti√®re est devenue leur lot quotidien dans les m√©dias ( Breivik en Norv√®ge , aux USA √† Colombine , Newton, Marathon de Boston, √©glise de Charleston , en France √† Nice ( Coulibali), √† Paris Charlie hebdo et le magasin casher, …, en Is√®re , en Tunisie au Koweit pour les plus r√©cents .
        C’est une guerre de tous les jours , qui diff√®re des guerres “classiques” mondiales ou non , l√† le terrain des √©v√®nements n’est pas d√©limit√© dans l’espace d’avance . Cela d√©route , d√©stabilise , personne n’est √† l’abri .
        Les humains n’atteindront jamais la sagesse . L’Histoire a souvent √©t√© marqu√©e par la folie humaine individuelle ou collective .
        M√™me si je ne partageais pas ses opinions, je pense √† Jacques Chirac et sa passion pour l’√©tude des civilisations anciennes , qui lui a fait refuser sa participation √† la guerre en Irak .
        Je pense aussi √† une professeure de scupture , qui gr√Ęce aux nouvelles activit√©s en √©cole primaire fait d√©couvrir les arts premiers aux enfants sur du tuffeau (art des Indiens d’Am√©rique , art pr√©colombien , africain , √©gyptien ) . Accompagn√©e de ses coll√®gues ils √©tudient la cuisine , les v√™tements , l’histoire , la g√©ographie, les sciences , les maths, …
        Je ne peux que revenir √† Richard Armitage par le biais de ces sujets de la violence et de la folie explor√©s dans tous ses diff√©rents r√īles…

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  5. I think I found it: the summary of what yesterday was — in America, at least.)

    (Not to be glib. Important things are happening and it’s kind of overwhelming, actually. This is just so incredibly true of my Facebook feed.)

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  6. […] diminishing practically by the second. It was a weird week to be an American — as I noted, it felt like history was happening again — with victories for marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act alongside the terrorist […]

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