“History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.'” (Eduardo Galeano)
My husband and I are having dinner at a local farm-sourced, regional-brewers kind of place when I notice the TV set over the bar is playing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, that 1962 cult classic, mental/emotional slugfest between a manipulative Joan Crawford and a deranged Bette Davis. Both of them on the far side of their ingénue years.
When the server—a young woman in her mid-20s—comes to take our order, I ask if she knows the film. She scrutinizes the action on the TV screen and shakes her head. Never heard of it. I give it a strong recommendation. It may be camp, but it’s first-rate camp and it was nominated for five Academy Awards.
This exchange got me thinking about the increasing transcience of culture and knowledge. How what’s happening in the ever-changing nanosecond fills and floods our attention to the exclusion of everything that came before.
The Seduction of Now
It’s very seductive to think of the past as something finished. Over. That it has no connection or relevance to who we are now or where we’re headed. That we can re-invent ourselves at will, without a backward glance, and no price to pay.
Our high-tech world, with its rapid flow of new, disposable “product” and seemingly endless streams of “content” not only encourages this attitude, but practically demands it. When something “brand new” happens every 15 minutes, our attention is sorely taxed just scrambling to keep up. Who has time to reflect? To make connections?
Though each of us has a personal life that begins with our birth and ends with our death, we’re also part of a much larger world with a long and complicated past that affects our little blip on the timeline.
Okay, no one is going to argue that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a force to deepen ones understanding of the world. But an existence composed solely of what’s-happening-now leaves us with no compass to steer by, no yardstick for comparison on serious, larger-than-our-lifetime issues—say, global warming or the worldwide resurgence of nationalist movements. Without an understanding of what “went before,” we might not even realize it is a resurgence. That the current global trend toward nationalism has roots in the European fascist movements of the 1930s and the Jim Crow laws of the American South—the latter going back to the Civil War and that defender of slavery, John C. Calhoun. That nationalism is not without links to the European conquerors of Columbus’s “new world.” All of it a shorthand for the belief that some people are created more equal than others. That some people don’t even have the right to exist.
Without a sense of how today’s headlines fit in along the timeline of human history, we’re left vulnerable to all who would prey on that ignorance. And they are out there.
In a State of Disconnect: Clueless about History
A quick survey of polls targeting common misconceptions (and just plain ignorance) about history makes for fascinating—if frightening—reading.
A 2006 poll by the now defunct McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that one in five Americans could name all five Simpson cartoon family members, but only one in a thousand people could identify all five First Amendment freedoms.
A 2012 ACTA survey revealed that fewer than 20% of college graduates could correctly identify the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.
A 2010 survey, cited by The Atlantic, reported more Americans knew that Michael Jackson composed “Beat It” than knew that the Bill of Rights is a body of amendments to the Constitution. And one in three did not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees the right to a trial by jury.
Fifty percent of Americans surveyed also suffer severe timeline confusion. They identified the American Revolution as happening after either the Civil War or the War of 1812. And more than a third had no clue at all in which century the American Revolution occurred. One can only hope continued sell-out performances of Hamilton will provide some hints.
In light of the video that went viral this summer—a man harassing a woman for wearing a shirt with the flag of Puerto Rico (“You should not be wearing that in the United States of America!” he shouted repeatedly.)—it’s worth noting that a 2017 poll revealed almost half of Americans don’t know that the people of Puerto Rico are United States citizens.
Perhaps the most shocking—and saddening—statistic I came across was cited on NPR’s All Things Considered: Forty percent of Americans cannot identify what Auschwitz was.
In fact, fewer than half of Americans know that Hitler did not take control of Germany by force, but was democratically elected. We’ll return to this later.
Why Does This Matter? Why Should We Care?
Not knowing what came before, as I said, renders us prey to spin doctors, Russian hackers, unscrupulous politicians, and hucksters of every stripe.
It leaves us vulnerable to the lies of others, told for their own nefarious purposes.
“I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” said then-presidential candidate Trump at a 2015 Birmingham rally. “And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of [Muslims] were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”
Trump stirred up a lot of anti-immigrant feeling with these words, sowing the seeds of support for his notorious Muslim Ban, but politifact.com gave him a “Pants on Fire” rating for that speech. That’s code for one big fat whopper.
PolitiFact cites a September 17, 2001 Associated Press report that debunked “rumors of rooftop celebrations of the attack by Muslims” in Jersey City. And wildfire rumors of Muslim-Americans cheering the fall of the World Trade Center in Paterson, N.J., turned out to be a nasty lie spawned by chain e-mails and fanned by shock jock Howard Stern.
The historical truth? Muslim residents of Paterson mounted a banner in that city saying “The Muslim Community Does Not Support Terrorism.”
We fall for solutions that have failed us before.
Trump sold his tax cuts for the rich by promising American workers that with more money in their boss’s pocket, they would benefit from increased wages and bonuses. It was gonna be “beeeeautiful.”
If there’s one thing we should be wise to by this point, it’s the bald-faced lie of trickle-down economics—that when you let the rich keep all their money, out of gratitude they will pass pots of it along to the peons who made them rich in the first place. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate, exposed the nonsense of trickle-down more than a hundred years ago in his Cross of Gold speech:
There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through to those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.
The term “trickle-down economics” was coined by American humorist and commentator Will Rogers to ridicule President Hoover’s dismal stimulus efforts to cure a Great Depression many economists feel he played a large hand in creating. Hoover, a cheerleader for “rugged individualism,” believed that only the voluntary action of “socially responsible capitalist leaders” (know any?), not government intervention, would restore economic order.
Trickle-down economics failed in the close of the 19th century. It failed in the Great Depression. It failed in the massive tax cuts to the rich known as “Reaganomics” that started an almost 30-year slide into the financial crash of 2008. And it is failing under Trump. A 2018 analysis of Fortune 500 companies reveals that fewer than five percent of workers will get a one-time bonus or wage increase from the Trump tax cuts. If they still have a job. AT&T and General Motors both cut 1,500 jobs. Kimberly-Clark dumped 5,000 workers. It seems that most companies poured virtually all of their tax-break money into stock buybacks, making the richest folks even richer.
Trickle-down economics does one thing and one thing only: It robs from the poor and middle classes, and gives to the rich.
Blinds us from seeing how attacks on others are attacks on all of us.
Recently, I read a piece (sorry, I didn’t copy the link) where psychologists discussed how people tend to mentally catalog only those things they perceive as affecting them directly. For example, if you’re not a union member—a teacher, a nurse, an auto worker—you might think that current efforts to cripple or destroy unions have little to do with you. “Right to work” laws, attacks on overtime pay. But you’d be wrong.
History shows that the advantages labor unions have fought for and won (starting with the right to unionize) have generally benefited all American workers.
Before there were unions, many people worked six, even seven days a week for an average workweek of 61 hours. It was the unions, waging massive (and sometimes bloody) strikes in the late 19th/early 20th centuries that brought us the 8-hour day and the weekend. A half-century of struggle culminated in the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
When unions are strong, the middle class tends to flourish. When they are weakened, as is happening now, income inequality increases for all workers and the purchasing power of the middle and poor classes shrinks. A lot. Benefits disappear, too.
Speaking of benefits, it was the rise of unions in the 1930s and 1940s that we have to thank for employer-sponsored health insurance. When unions used their numerical clout to negotiate health care for their members, many other employers scrambled to stay competitive by offering the same. By 1950, a majority of employers offered some type of health insurance to their workers. With the current two-pronged effort of the GOP to weaken unions and sabotage the ACA, the future of employer-sponsored healthcare is something to keep on your radar.
In its first national convention (1881), the American Federation of Labor started the ball rolling to end child labor. State after state responded to this call until the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act abolished child labor nationwide.
Allows those in power to cheat us of our rights.
If you don’t know the Bill of Rights guarantees you a trial by jury for criminal cases and serious civil cases—and inhibits the court from overturning a jury’s finding—you might be bulldozed by your adversary into waiving your right to a jury trial in exchange for one heard (and ruled on) solely by a judge. This is increasingly a power tactic of corporations who feel juries tend to be sympathetic to individuals claiming damage or loss rather than to the big companies alleged to have screwed them.
It’s easy to take from people what they don’t know is theirs. Remember those 999 people out of 1,000 who could not name the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment? They are at risk for believing the current propaganda that a press who criticizes the president is un-American. They may fear to speak out because some politician with an agenda says protesting government actions is “illegal.”
Well, here they are, the five freedoms guaranteed to all Americans under the First Amendment to the Constitution (at the very top of the Bill of Rights):
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
We are allowed to holler with all our might against those who would violate or destroy our democracy. And we should.
We fail to recognize the signposts of eminent danger when they’re right before us.
Recently, a guest on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes said of the current fight against widespread attacks on voting rights, “The Civil Rights Movement continues. It is eternal.”
Ditto the fight against fascism. Fascism did not end with the surrender of the Nazis any more than white supremacy died with Abraham Lincoln’s signature on the Emancipation Proclamation or the passage of the 13th Amendment.
I mentioned up-top a poll that found fewer than half of Americans know that Hitler did not take control of Germany by force, but was democratically elected. As Emory University history professor, Deborah Lipstadt, explains, “The Nazis didn’t come into office on January 30, 1933, and decide on a genocide the next day. They slowly broke down a democracy. They destroyed it.”
She goes on to cite the “steady drumbeat of attacks” that began under Hitler. “First on the press, then on the courts, then on institutions, [the] slow takeover of institutions.”
Connecting the Dots
To have a solid grasp of what came before is to have a richer understanding of what we’re seeing now. A guide to sift truth from lies. A way to answer the always-pertinent question: From whose viewpoint is this coming and what do they stand to gain by pushing this particular agenda? Instead of bouncing from tweet to tweet, history gives us a telescopic lens to pinpoint the connections. And it cannot be said enough: Everything is connected.
The films and books, the music and paintings and theatre of the past have messages for us, too. Not perhaps the kitschy romp of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but there is much worth our attention in the dusty archives of film, the overflowing shelves of the library, in Shakespeare’s plays and John Donne’s poetry.
One book that Americans are rediscovering is a little dystopian novel, 1984.
Written 68 years ago by English author George Orwell, it’s been flying off the shelves, as they say, topping the best-seller list at Amazon in January 2017—after Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts” to justify Trump’s complete fabrication about the size of his inaugural crowd.
That tells you what happened. It doesn’t tell you why it matters. To do that, I will close with a paragraph from an article written by Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker in 2017, “Orwell’s 1984 and Trump’s America”:
“And so, rereading Orwell, one is reminded of what Orwell got right about this kind of brute authoritarianism—and that was essentially that it rests on lies told so often, and so repeatedly, that fighting the lie becomes not simply more dangerous but more exhausting than repeating it. Orwell saw, to his credit, that the act of falsifying reality is only secondarily a way of changing perceptions. It is, above all, a way of asserting power.”
To know what came before us is a great gift–enriching, fascinating. It is also a warning.