Moving Forward, Looking Backward

or à la On The Media:
Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: History edition

For many Americans, these are scary times. While historians don’t have any clear answers on what to do next, our training and knowledge (or, at the very least, mine!) do suggest some trends and tropes to watch for. As both media consumers and political actors, we should beware of the following when journalists, pundits, or politicians reference history.

1. “Unprecedented”
It can feel like these are uniquely frightening times, and in some ways, they are. But journalists and politicians are often careless in calling events “unprecedented,” suggesting that nothing that has happened before can prepare us for what is happening now, or that the past has been somehow smoother or better. That is often not the case, and it’s useful to know (especially from a legal angle) when a threat is entirely new.

2. Historical analogies
At the same time, the media and historians alike often seek similar situations when entering uncharted waters. Keep in mind that no analogy is a perfect fit; history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.* What analogies can do is help us understand how people responded to similar conditions and what we can learn from that.

3. Glorified leaders of the past
It might feel like we need Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Abraham Lincoln to get through this, and that no figure today comes close to their skills and wisdom. It’s helpful to remember that none of them was perfect and all of them evolved in their positions and tactics over time. This means that neither our leaders nor ourselves need to be perfect or have all the answers in order to effect meaningful change. Look for the qualities you admire in leaders of the past and emulate those. Remember, too, that change never comes solely from leaders, but from the sustained efforts of ordinary people.

4. Founders’ intent
As fresh challenges to the Constitution seem to come up constantly, it’s important to know what the blueprint for our republic means and what its authors intended. There are two important caveats. First, unless you are a “strict constructionist,” the founders’ original intent and the placement of commas is only part of the story. Interpretation of the Constitution and the document itself have evolved over time as crises have arisen and our understanding of human rights has changed. The question is, what are the bedrock principles that have held true over time and what needs to be adapted for new conditions? Second, there was no one unanimous voice of The Founding Fathers. The Constitution was a compromise that some of the founders opposed. Remember, too, that while brilliant, the founders were fallible, and they were all wealthy white men who could not represent all voices in society.

5. White man bias
Views of the past or present that rely exclusively on the voices of heterosexual white men don’t offer a full picture. This ranges from nostalgia for the past, which was in most ways worse for every group except white men, to the sometimes myopic lens of the media. We need to recognize that there are other voices beyond our usual media diet. Reading news and analysis from other perspectives—whether foreign outlets or minority-focused sites—can round out the picture. Considering policies and language itself in this light is also vital.

6. Causal explanations
Journalists and historians both seek to explain how we got here, albeit on different time scales. Particularly in online news and podcasts, unexpected explanations based on new research are popular. The study of history shows that there is no silver bullet to explain change; this is why, over 200 years later, historians are still arguing over what caused the American Revolution. There are generally many causes that make sense, some of which contradict one another. Don’t latch on to one explanation; seek out others, and expect the answers to be complex. Understanding causes fully is essential to finding solutions that work.

7. Progress
As both historians and President Obama have said, progress is uneven. Rarely do conditions improve for all, steadily and uninterrupted. It’s hard in the moment to see the longer arc, but that should remind us that fighting is not futile and we cannot expect to see results quickly.

8.The expert’s take
Historians, and scholars in all fields, often disagree or address topics from different angles. The views of any one scholar featured in the media are not the only perspective; seek out multiple interpretations. This does not mean there is no truth and that experts should be dismissed; rather, that we all need to think more like the experts and evaluate claims and evidence carefully.

To sum up: It’s complicated. Or, to quote Rick Pearlstein (read his excellent essay here): “all of American history is more surreal, more dangerous, more disorienting, and more terrifyingly conflictual than we typically want to believe.” The harder we look, the more we consider multiple (rational) perspectives and stories of the past, the better equipped we’ll be to act productively.

*As an example of the approaches outlined here, research a bit and learn why I am not attributing this line to Mark Twain.

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