Losing touch with our past weakens us

At what point does a nation move from attempting to grow and evolve beyond its past, to considering its past illegitimate — and then forgetting it?  What effect does this have on a people?

21st century America offers a surfeit of examples, from recasting the Founders as racists builders of an aristocratic or plutocratic society to the effort to reform our literature.  Here are three snippets of this process in action.

  1. Losing Sight of History“, James Bowman, The American Spectator, 29 November 2007
  2. Ken Burns’s War“, James Bowman, The New Criterion, 30 November 2007
  3. Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom (1987)

What might be the effects on America?

1.  Losing Sight of History“, James Bowman, The American Spectator, 29 November 2007 — Excerpt:

Not that anyone could be surprised at the feminist production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington this fall, but it has got me wondering if anyone will remember, in another generation or so, that people used to be different from the way they are now – or the way they will be by that time.

Oh, people will know it in theory, perhaps, but they will have got so far out of the habit of trying to imagine themselves back into the world of their great-grandparents that stories of their curious customs and habits will appear to them as fairy tales do to us, or the Greek myths. People will as soon believe that the abduction of Helen of Troy caused the epoch-making Trojan war as that the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused the equally epoch-making World War I. It just won’t be credible. People don’t do those sorts of things, any more than they converse with gods and giants.

… Such people look at the past and its cultural artifacts and they can only see themselves reflected in them. Soon, perhaps, that will be true of everybody.

All historians will be like Ken Burns, who showed us earlier this fall that even the brand name of World War II is susceptible to being put on something barely related to the original event and exploited for commercial gain. Marketed – and how! – as history, his TV series “The War” ran for 15 seemingly interminable hours in September and October on PBS and was almost without interest in the past as it was before it was the past, which is to say, in the political or military realities of World War II, or the cultural reasons why people thought at the time that it was “a necessary war.” No, Ken Burns is only interested in why Ken Burns thinks it was a necessary war – and in congratulating himself and his subjects for having the right feelings about it now.

All this retrospective emotion! All these weepy violins and plangent pianos! All this scolding of people long dead for their racial and sexual attitudes! It’s another imposition of the present upon the past, another manifestation of our increasing inability to see anything among the generations who have lived before us but less-perfect versions of ourselves.

2.  Ken Burns’s War“, James Bowman, The New Criterion, 30 November 2007 — Excerpt:

Moreover, Mr Burns presents the war through the lens of contemporary pre-occupations with race and ethnicity, the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese-Americans and so forth. Like the focus on emotion, this is a way of looking into the past and seeing only ourselves. To spend our time alternately raking up people’s retrospective feelings and scolding their contemporaries for not having the exquisite social consciences we have acquired over the last 40 years is nothing but a form of self-congratulation – the characteristic mode of liberal thinking in our time. It’s easy to say now, if not necessarily quite to believe it, that it was a necessary war, but it is also necessary to answer the question why people thought it was necessary at the time – which had very little to do with the reasons why we think so now.

In other words, “The War” is presented to us as if people at the time thought they were fighting for the reasons why, in retrospect, we think they should have been fighting – partly because they themselves now think, being as much creatures of their culture as the rest of us, that they should have been fighting for these reasons. There is a kind of silent conspiracy between the film-makers and their interviewees to suggest that all that sacrifice was for the sake of more liberal racial attitudes or to oppose the Holocaust. But it wasn’t. Nobody outside of Germany knew about the Holocaust at the time. What was it for, then? The question doesn’t seem to interest Ken Burns very much.”The greatest cataclysm in history grew out of ancient and ordinary human emotions,” his voiceover narrator intones: “anger and arrogance and bigotry, victimhood and the lust for power.” Well, that’s that sorted out then.

The screenwriter, Geoffrey Ward, says that this is “war as people experienced it,” but that’s that’s precisely wrong. It’s war as people now want to remember it, both morally and emotionally, even though they felt very differently at the time. Glimpses of the war as people experienced it are occasionally afforded by clips from contemporary newsreels and popular films such as Flying Tigers with John Wayne. In the Burnsian context, these are automatically and invariably provided with an ironic commentary. Their unfailingly upbeat, resolute, confident tone is jarring and so is made to look slightly tasteless by the funereal one so carefully cultivated by Ken, “The Undertaker,” Burns. But if we can get over our feelings of superiority and condescension to them, these snippets might remind us that there is another way of looking at things, and one which has room for more kinds of feelings than the three kinds – first empathetic sorrow, then moral indignation and finally self-congratulation for feeling the other two – that Mr Burns seems comfortable with.

3.  Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom (1987)

Imagine a young person walking through the Louvre or the Urrizi and you can immediately grasp the condition of his soul. In his innocence of the stories of Biblical and Greek or Roman antiquity, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and all the others can say nothing to him. All he sees are colors and forms — modern art. In short, like almost everthing else in his spiritual life, the paintings and statues are abstract.

No matter what much of the modern wisdom asserts, these artists counted on immediate recognition of their subjects and, what is more, on their having a powerful meaning for their viewers. The works were the fulfillment of those meanings, giving them a sensuous reality and hence completing them. Without those meanings, and without their being something essential to the viewer as a moral, political and religious being, the works lose their essence. It is not merely the tradition that is lost when the voice of civilization elaborated over millennia has been stilled in this way. It is being itself that vanishes beyond the dissolving horizon. {page 63}

… Teachers of writing in state universities, among the noblest and most despised laborers in the academy, have told me that they cannot teach writing to students who do not read, and that is is practically impossible to get them to read, let alone like it.

… The latest enemy of the vitality of classic texts is feminism. The struggles against elitism and racism in the sixties and seventies had little direct effect on students’ relations to books. The activists had not special quarrel with the classic texts … Shakespeare, as he has been read for most of this century, does not constitute a threat to egalitarian right thinking. And as for racism, it just did not play a role in the classic literature, and not great work of literature is ordinarily considered racist.

But all literature up to today is sexist. The Muses never sang to the poets about liberated women. And this is particularly grave for literature, since the love interest was most of what remained in the classics after politics was purged in the academy, and was also what drew students to reading them. These books appealed to eros while educating it. So activism has been directed against the content of books … Never, never must a student be attracted to those old ways and take them as models for him or herself. However all this effort is wasted. Students cannot imagine that the old literature could teach them anything about the relations they want to have or will be permitted to have. So they are indifferent.

… I began to ask students who their heroes are. There is usually silence, and most frequently nothing follows. Why should anyone have heroes? {pages 65-66}

… This is the first fully historicitzed generation, not only in theory but also in practice, and the result is not the cultivation of the vastest sympathies for long ago and far away, but rather an exclusive interest in themselves. {page 108}

Afterword

If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

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For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

Forecasts on the FM site about the American spirit, the American soul:

  1. Diagnosing the eagle, chapter IV – Alienation, 13 January 2008
  2. Americans, now a subservient people (listen to the Founders sigh in disappointment), 20 July 2008
  3. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  4. A philosphical basis for the Batman saga, 23 July 2008
  5. The American spirit speaks: “Baa, Baa, Baa”, 5 August 2008
  6. We’re Americans, hear us yell: “baa, baa, baa”, 6 August 2008
  7. The intelligentsia takes easy steps to abandoning America, 19 August 2008
  8. Symptoms of a fever afflicting America’s culture, 5 November 2008
  9. The corruption of a nation is usually hidden, but sometimes becomes visible, 21 November 2008

22 thoughts on “Losing touch with our past weakens us

  1. There may be some early indications of a bit of a ‘sea change’. One thread is the move by so many people to trace their roots (distant relatives, etc), even to the point of popular programs (in the UK and Oz at least in programs like “who do you think you are”) of tracing the recent ancesters of well known people. The rise of geneology sites is quite interesting.

    Plus, the current/coming rec/dep-ression, tends to wake people up to studying recent history for parallels, basically to make some meaning out of things.

    And, I predict, we are going to see the return of muti-generational homes again. Like where I grew up, where 3 generations living in one home was normal (we had no money). Will that fill the current ‘black hole’ we see in so many places? Eventually but not overnight.

    The danger is always: without being able to put things into context and have some sort of understanding (even just from the sort of folk knowledge of “ok grandson I went though this myself” kind, or even stories handed down or maybe folk music) then extreme idiologies (religious and non-religious) can start to make inroads in popular consciousness. Those of us who have studied history a bit have read many, far too many, examples where that has occurred.

    Old navigators maxim: “If you don’t know where you have come from and you don’t know where you are now, you have a snowballs chance of getting to where you want”.

  2. Bloom’s: and the result is not the cultivation of the vastest sympathies for long ago and far away, but rather an exclusive interest in themselves.

    I think this describes the intolerance of the homosexuals to any cultural employees who supported the Yes on 8 campaign.

    This is where politically correct conflicts with the truth; of today, of the past.

    I think the biggest truth that is hidden is the date, and the reasons, of when the US lost the Vietnam War.

  3. Tom, normally I leave this sort of thing to FM. What are you talking about?

    Homosexuals, Vietnam? In the word of the immortal Manuel (ref Fawlty Towers) … Que?

    Now I cannot comment on the first thing, but for Vietnam there is massive a body of evidence about, arguably, the first true 4GM v a 2 GW force (for the experts I know there are others but I’m trying to keep it simple). There was no one date, just a set of creeping changes and escalations. Ending in the 2GW finally gving up, as per Israel vs Hezbollah or USSR vs Afghanistan. Exhaustion finally sets in. And the normal people of the aggressor force quite rightly, since it is their money and blood being wasted, finally say .. “what is the point of this” …. and then find out it is some sort of crazy fantasy by their elites .. and then get, again quite rightly, very pissed off.

  4. Oh please.

    People’s interpretations of the past are always colored by the times they live in. That’s nothing new, and it’s probably inescapable — asking people to view the world from a vantage point outside their own experience is like asking a fish to contemplate how its fishbowl looks on the outside.

    Why is it a national crisis of the soul when a PBS documentary talks about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, but it’s not when most Americans believe that America was the primary engine of the defeat of Nazism? The Russians suffered and bled on a scale orders of magnitude larger than we did — and did more to break the back of Nazi Germany than did any other single nation — but they have largely been written out of the narrative that’s taught to Americans, whether in public schools, private schools, or works of popular history (like “The War”).

    That’s a far greater sin of omission than any Ken Burns has ever committed. One could even argue that it contributed directly to the current mess we’re in, by steeping Americans in a mythos of unilateral triumphalism that has little relation to any historic reality. I would suggest that it’s not a coincidence that the Bush Doctrine was developed at the same time that this misleading “Greatest Generation” narrative was experiencing a nationwide wave of interest, propelled by numerous popular books and movies.

    If you want to find an instance of forgetting our history that’s worth getting agitated about, that strikes me as a much better place to start than “The War” is…

  5. Yup, Jason, it’s an evil conspiracy by the Bush administration to hide the past.

    Let’s see, “The Greatest Generation,” Tom Brokaw, copyright 1998. Bush takes office 2001.

    And I suppose it’s a coincidence that the vets were entering their 80s and starting to leave us in large numbers when “The United States Congress created the Veterans History Project in 2000. The authorizing legislation…was signed into law by President William Jefferson Clinton on October 27, 2000.” (http://www.loc.gov/vets/about.html)

    If Americans are unaware of the Soviet contribution to victory in WWII, maybe a more likely explanation is the majority of government-run schools suck.

    Oh please indeed.

  6. Bloom’s complaint against the shallowness of modern education is essentially a protest against the vanishing influence of the original middle class. This class, memorialized in England in the writings of Galsworthy, retreated behind the walls of classical culture in horror at the habits of the growing lower class. That the prosperity of this middle class was dependent on the labor of the lower, and would someday have to paid for, somehow escaped them. The same thing is evident today, as the cultured classes recoil at the crudeness of hip-hop and heavy metal, while failing to acknowledge the social conditions that produced hip-hop and heavy metal.

  7. “Yup, Jason, it’s an evil conspiracy by the Bush administration to hide the past.”

    Ease up on that straw man, there! What did he ever do to you?

    I didn’t say that the Bush administration planted the “Greatest Generation” story, I said that it wasn’t a coincidence that a policy of macho unilateralism was developed at a time when Americans were fixated on an historical narrative that — incorrectly — asserted that macho unilateralism won us a world war.

    In other words, Bush didn’t create the narrative, the narrative created Bush — or at least the macho unilateralist Bush we have come to know since 9/11. His ideas were shaped by the popular thinking of the time, and the fallacious “Greatest Generation” we-won-the-war-single-handed storyline was a big part of that popular thinking.

    But, you know, feel free to simmer in outrage over things I didn’t say if that’s what floats your boat.

  8. Jason

    Thanks for the explanation of what exactly we were to conclude from “it’s not a coincidence.” I just disagree with your hypothesis. Previous presidents were just as unilateral, and predated the “nationwide wave of interest…”

    After the Cold War, Bush One had a choice of Grand Strategies. He chose Hegemony. Clinton had a choice, too. He chose…Hegemony.

    W? Fill in the blank. Nothing much has really changed. I’m expressing doubt that this or any other narrative really has anything to do with it.

  9. The same thing is evident today, as the cultured classes recoil at the crudeness of hip-hop and heavy metal, while failing to acknowledge the social conditions that produced hip-hop and heavy metal.

    The more’s the pity considering that hip hop’s rhythm bears striking semblance to Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, such as Beowulf. See, e.g.:

    Old English poems are based on alliteration. Each line of poetry is divided into two halves or “hemistichs.” Each hemistich has two stressed syllables. The first stress in the second hemistich must alliterate with one or both of the stresses in the first hemistich. (The second stress in the second hemistich does not alliterate.) It doesn’t matter how many unstressed syllables there are.

    The effect is a bit like hip-hop, except that hip-hop rhymes and carries its rhyme across more than one line.

  10. Thanks, Duncan. I wanted to compliment you earlier on your reading list, but couldn’t resist a snicker at the trivium. I like Chaucer and Gawain and the Green Knight for the same reasons, though of course Chaucer shows the corrupting influence of French culture. Vive la France!

  11. Chaucer shows the corrupting influence of French culture.

    I’ve long considered getting a “Chaucer was a Lancastrian stodge” bumper sticker. And, while I do have a “I hate Iambic Pentameter / Petrarch Sucks!” bumpersticker, the Chaucer sticker has been pre-empted by my “Hey Dude! Where’s My Bailout!” bumper sticker.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: A brilliant and witty reply. Unfortunately 99% of our population has lost any contact with our past, so almost nobody reading this has any idea what you have written.

    Even Disney movies are affected. “Black Arrow” (1984) has never been released in DVD, perhaps because it would be unintelligable to modern viewers.

  12. But son, whut do old white dudes haf to du wif me?

    I’m noticing this phenomenon particularly in law school. We go through an entire semester, boil down the course to an outline consisting of a few pages and then promptly forget most of what we just learned as we take on the next task. Apparently when I take the bar, I’ll be digging those outlines back up and relearning the stuff all over again.

    Perhaps we should be focusing on the not-quite-forgetting/exhuming process more in schools (“Bury/Disinter” for those Cryptonomicon fans out there). Something like a mental version of nice, big labels and clear plastic bins in the basement.

    I’ve never heard of Black Arrow, but I do somewhat jokingly resent the implication that I do not know who Chaucher and Petrarch are or missed the humor within DK’s post.

  13. Bowman doth protest too much. The fact that someone put on a feminist version of “Taming the Shrew” doesn’t mean history is ending. (Fukuyama’s quote struck me as possibly the stupidest thing ever said when I first heard it. My reaction when Bowman uses it is exactly the same.)

    I mean, yes, he’s correct that the present colonizes the past when people don’t strive to view history honestly and objectively. He’s correct that contemporary US society indulges in this vice too much. But he’s wrong to think this is anything truly new in world history. The Romans took older Greek ideas, and translated them into their own subtly different world picture, discarding what they did not like and keeping what they did. The Greeks surely did the same with Etruscan ideas. The recycled nature of culture is ancient as culture itself.

    It makes sense to be critical of contemporary illusions. The fact that Bowman is so worried about contemporary illusions, yet so worshipful toward the illusions of 100 years ago, or 1000 years ago, strikes me as a bit silly.

  14. Ha ha, stupid me, the Etruscans didn’t live in what’s now Greece, they lived in what’s now northern Italy. Maybe I have a little of the disease that Bowman is talking about?

    But, see that’s the thing, not only do I have some of the disease, so do most people. Bowman has some of it, if he thinks that what he’s talking about is new. His larger point about the present mis-remembering the past in order to avoid the pain of witnessing change– is valid. His generalized complaints about how we’re changing as a society, I can only respond with, “I’m glad you noticed.”

  15. We go through an entire semester, boil down the course to an outline consisting of a few pages and then promptly forget most of what we just learned as we take on the next task

    Part of the task of education should be to boil down vast amounts of information into easily memorable maxims or – better yet – rhymes.

    For example, you can learn an incredible amount of poetry – what English poetry really is – just by grasping that most of Emily Dickenson can be sung to the Gilligan’s Island song.

    Just trust me on this. Google “Emily Dickenson,” grab a few of her poems, and hum the Gilligan’s Island song while reading them.

    You now know an amazing amount of poetry.

  16. The point is not that the past is recycled and reinvented. Rather, in this time and place, it has been completely forgotten.

    Remembering the past humbles us, heartens us, and enlightens us. Studying our predecessors makes us realize that we are not the most original and brilliant generation that ever lived, and that our ancestors struggled with the same problems of human nature that we do.

    Our generation’s ignorance is depressing. Surrounded by our material comforts, we slide relentlessly into the darkness.

  17. Remembering the past humbles us, heartens us, and enlightens us. Studying our predecessors makes us realize that we are not the most original and brilliant generation that ever lived, and that our ancestors struggled with the same problems of human nature that we do.

    Oh, absolutely. I agree that we need this. And I agree that our culture doesn’t have a great memory.

    What I was arguing against was the tendentiousness I see in Bowman’s essays. Bowman doesn’t like to hear what people recall about World War II, because he thinks its too personal and not accurate. His example of something accurate? A John Wayne flick. Uh, am I the only one who sees a problem here?

    Also, Bowman seems to confuse learning about the past, and having respect for the past, with keeping things from changing. Not only is this aim impossible, I don’t exactly see why anyone would even desire it.

  18. Listen my children and you shall hear
    How history in rhymes brings heroes near.

    Well I remember, when I was in the second grade, chanting the following rhyme.

    “” O Aaron Burr, what have you done ?
    You ‘ve shot poor General Hamilton.
    You got behind a bunch of thistles
    And shot him dead with two horse-pistols.”

    There was a girl named Hamilton in our class; so we had a glorious time substituting her name for Aaron’s.

    Pertinent to understanding how this works is Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes (Hardcover)

  19. Forgetting the past allows more hypocrisy. Where Bloom was talking sort of against feminist intolerance in the name of equality, I see a similar gay intolerance of Christians who disapprove of their lifestyle choice, but to be so intolerant in the name of ‘tolerance’ is hypocritical.

    As for Vietnam, OldSkeptic claims the US as the aggressor, but after the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the US had withdrawn all its troops. How could we be the agressor, then? Post Paris it was, more properly, a 2GM proxy war of our S. Viet allies vs. the 2GM N. Viet commie allies of the USSR. Our corrupt, incompetent, cowardly, democratic, human rights supporting allies lost; so we Americans lost, and so did democracy and human rights.

    It is exactly this 1973-1975 period in S. Vietnam, without American troops, which I feel is the most important part of our past that we’ve lost touch with. Considering I was alive and even almost voting then, and thru the 1976-1978 Killing Fields, the unwillingness to be honest about this history bothers me far more than anything from WW II.

    Altho certainly the USSR killed far more Nazis than the US, and suffered more casualties, it was the US that was decisive in saving half of Europe from a Socialst Dictator (either National or International, fascist or communist). By the way, since the USSR was killing Nazis as our heavily supplied ally, there should be a lot more condemnation of the US being allied with an inhumane, 8 000 Polish Officer murdering force. Or, even better, a recognition of the evils our USSR ally did, and an honest acceptance that winning a tough war might well require such evils on the winning side.

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