History is a Teacher

Why do we care about history?

Writer and philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Mark Twain took a more humorous approach with, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”  Over the weekend, I saw a bumper sticker that read “Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”  Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman—co-host of the history podcast BackStory and author of The Field of Blood:  Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil Warsays simply that “History doesn’t repeat, but it teaches.”

My executive assistant (a former Capitol guide) recommended The Field of Blood, and for the past week or more I have been absorbed in the riveting tales of mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests…and that’s just on the floor of Congress! During the turbulent and violent three decades leading up to the Civil War, bowie knives and pistols were regularly drawn on members by other members.  Duels happened with alarming frequency, including one that led to the death of one representative at the hand of another. All involved, with the exception of the poor victim, were handily re-elected.  Slavery, and its future in America, was the key issue that led to this bullying, fighting, and total breakdown of civil discourse.

Field of Blood

“The Field of Blood” by Joanne B. Freeman

In a delightful and raucous (for a history book) presentation at Politics and Prose, Freeman points to the modern echoes of our own time.  As she notes, the book tells the story of:

  • Extreme polarization
  • Fundamental disagreements about what kind of nation the United States would be
  • Splintering political parties
  • New technologies skewing and scattering the news, and complicating politics in the process
  • Conspiracy theories being spread, North and South, as the nation’s crisis unfolds
  • Panic about the impact of free speech in that fraught environment
  • Rampant distrust in national political institutions as well as rampant distrust of Americans in each other

If you agree that history is a good teacher, we can look at today’s environment in light of the decades from 1830 to 1860 and worry about our future.  No one is suggesting that we are moving towards a civil war; however, we are playing with figurative fire due to the extreme polarization of the electorate, the spread of conspiracy theories, the loss of trust in our national institutions, and the use of rapidly changing technology to transform the way news is spread. Freeman notes in her book that “Democracy is an ongoing conversation between the governed and their governors; it should come as no surprise that dramatic changes in the modes of conversation cause dramatic changes in democracies themselves.”

Conversations among our fellow citizens are critical to our civic health, which is why I so strongly support the work to tell the full history of the nation.  That work is part of this conversation.  In her epilogue, Freeman writes of the awful consequences of polarization and a lack of conversation,

“When the nation is polarized and civic commonality dwindles, Congress reflects that image back to the American people.  The give-and-take of deliberative politics breaks down, bringing accusations, personal abuse, and even violence in its wake. National political parties fracture.  Trust in the institution of Congress lapses, as does trust in national institutions of all kinds, and indeed, the trust of Americans in one another.  At such times they are forced to reckon with what their nation is, and what it should be.”

I agree with the author Lewis Lapham that “what joins Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry (all of which testify to the burdens of the past) but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination.”  We do that work through elections, through kitchen table conversations at the places where history happened, through historical scholarship, through civil discourse even when we strongly disagree with another’s position. Bullying and violence are—unfortunately—part of the American story and, shamefully, part of our character. Freeman shows in The Field of Blood, just as we see it in today’s news feeds, that it is only when we stand up to those who would divide us and push for a true reckoning of what we are as a nation, that we break through the polarization.

What happened more than 150 years ago may not repeat itself, but it can certainly teach us today, if we are willing to listen.  And that is one more reason to care about history.

Have a good week.

More to come…


The America Bowl: Presidents vs. the Super Bowls

The America Bowl pulls together all of my favorite ways of wasting time.

So says Don Steinberg, creator of the online America Bowl showdown between the U.S. Presidents and the Super Bowls.   I read about Steinberg’s web site in a recent issue of The New Yorker and had to check it out.

This all began as Steinberg was thinking about Barack Obama, the nation’s 44th president, and he wondered about the connections with other famous 44s – like Hank Aaron who wore the number for the Atlanta Braves.

Steinberg soon realized there was a football echo, too – that the 2010 Super Bowl…would be the forty-fourth, or, rather, the XLIVth.  This alignment, like the Rapture, will happen only once.

So a web site – complete with logo featuring a pony-tailed George Washington going head-to-head with a football helmet – was born over Thanksgiving.  The idea is to pit each President against his corresponding Super Bowl.  Presidents are judged on their accomplishments; Super Bowls on their competitiveness.

If you remember anything about the founding fathers and the early Super Bowls, you just know that the Presidents took an early lead.  But you’ll no doubt remember that string of Presidents that led us up to the Civil War, so the games bounced back.

One thing you’ll notice, as you peruse the matchups, is that this country has had to endure a parade of unexceptional chief executives and championship football games.  The Super Bowl, few will disagree, is a bloated, overhyped spectacle, and, more often than not, an anti-climax; this may also be true of the Presidency.

Today, as we enter Super Bowl weekend, we’re at game 41:  George H.W. Bush vs. the Colts/Bears in 2007.  Steinberg makes some telling remarks about dynasties in both politics and football.  Prescott Bush made it to the Senate, but he had to wait for a son and grandson to became President.  Archie Manning was a great quarterback for the Saints, but it took Peyton and Eli to win championships.  Steinberg gives this battle to the Super Bowls, and they lead by a 21-20 margin with three to go.

There are little gems throughout.  Super Bowl 37 (when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for crying out loud, were champs) top Richard Nixon because they avoided scandal.  Super Bowl 3 vs. Thomas Jefferson was an epic, but Steinberg eventually awards it to TJ over Broadway Joe.  It isn’t until Super Bowl 4, when the Chiefs top the Vikings and go up against James Madison, that the Super Bowls finally get a win.  What, you may ask: How does the Father of the Constitution lose, even to Hank Stram and his boys “matriculating the ball down the field”?  Well, Steinberg limits accomplishments to the time these men were actually Presidents, and Madison had that unfortunate thing with the White House being burned by the British against his record.

So, if you want a laugh on Super Bowl weekend head over to The America Bowl and see how your history and sports knowledge hold up.

More to come…


Searching the Internet and Finding…The Edge of the American West

In yet another of my posts on very interesting web sites found while searching the Internet, I bring you today The Edge of the American WestThis is a site that contains writings by historians and philosophers, leading the site to suggest that “History is Philosophy teaching by examples. ”

The interests of these men and women run the gamut, if recent posts are any example.  They do a regular This Day in History type of post, one of the most recent being about the day that Richard Nixon declared he wasn’t a crook.  To give  you a sense of the politics here, the post is entitled Yes You Are.  And Also a Liar.”   There are posts on camel metaphors (having to do with choosing cabinet members), and the day in 1972 when the Dow Jones Industrial Average first closed above 1,000.  (We may be headed back there!)

But I knew this was a website worth checking when I read Aw, that could have been MY headHere the writer tells the story of how he “taught the future professional wrestler – and now Heavyweight Ultimate Fighting Champion – Brock Lesnar.”  It is a very funny post, where the writer notes that he, “was less than impressed with Lesnar’s academic potential; his essay on Kant’s anthropology of race was likely not his finest work.”

After noting that Lesnar had wrestled in college, the writer goes on to say  that:

Lesnar parlayed his amateur glory into a three-year run with World Wrestling Entertainment, during which time he evidently vaulted to the top of his profession, wrestling the likes of Hulk Hogan and The Rock on his way to becoming the youngest WWE champion in history. As I understand it, he was known for such moves as the “spinebuster,” the “scoop powerslam,” the “rear naked choke,” and something mysteriously known as “repeated turnbuckle thrusts.” His signature line, Wikipedia tells me, was “Here comes the pain!” — a phrase that I suppose I could have utilized whenever returning Mr. Lesnar’s written work.

You just can’t make this stuff up.  Check out The Edge of the American West.  You’ll probably find more than a few things of interest.

More to come…