“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.
14 thoughts on “The Value of What Came Before”
I love your wake-up calls. This article should be required reading in high schools and colleges.
And let me say again what I’ve said a bunch of times: Trump’s the worst.
And he’s not the only one.
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Thanks, Neil. There are so many fine pieces of writing on our current four-alarm situation–I wish they all were required reading. I think I mentioned this in an earlier post, but Nancy MacLean’s book “Democracy in Chains” is well worth reading. It will raise your hair and keep you up nights, but she really nails the current mess, tracing it in great detail back to the passing of Brown v. Board of Education.
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Once again you have put your finger on key details of the 360-degree mural of the horror that surrounds us. A focus on the lie of trickle-down economics, especially since the Reagan years, explains much of the chilling income inequality and the slow death of the middle class under which we are living. And your reminder that the single thing that makes this country exceptional is our written Bill of Rights–and that strenuous and steady efforts to undermine those essential liberties seem always to accompany each new rebirth of fascism–is an effective inoculation against passive acceptance of the nearly imperceptible erosion of our democracy. Your blog is essential reading.
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Thanks Ed. When I a teen, I thought we were ridding the world, or at least America, of unjust wars, racism, xenophobia, misogyny–that we at last were evolving to this post-fascist world. HA!
What reading and thinking about history since has shown me is that the struggle between those of a fascist bent and those who truly believe we are all created equal and prosper most when we work together–it’s a never-ending cycle/struggle. Sometimes the pro-humanity forces are in the ascendant. Sometimes the fascists. Beethoven lived in the police state of 1820’s Vienna. Shakespeare lived in the Elizabethan police state. But that was not the only truth of their times. Resistance was always alive. Much of beauty and endurance was created.
As Linda Ellerbee used to sign off on News Overnight “And so it goes …”
Amy, this is outstanding. There are so many levels here and numerous points made that it is difficult to just comment on the article as a whole, without commenting on various parts first.
I started out reading it and had one thought for a response but it broadened and changed with each of your points taken.
I am glad the film “Baby Jane” got you thinking about transience of culture and knowledge. It is amazing how many young people do not even bother researching to find historical accuracy. But I don’t think that is the norm. Or at least I pray that it isn’t . However, it is true that decades and age can sometimes change what is perceived as relevant.
I think, perhaps discovering the past and cherishing it as a diary into the future, may depend on the environment from which each person came, or how they were raised as children. Then again, raising children can be a crap shoot.
Having two sons 16 years apart, it is ironic that my younger son seems to be more knowledgable about the past while my older son could tell you everything you want to know about the 80’s and 90’s. There is no rhyme or reason why people take an interest in what they choose to reference. My millennial son would be quick to use both this film and Orwell. as a reference to make a point in a discussion. He frequently uses movies and literature, But then again, he was a film major in college and probably had to watch more black and white movies than I ever did. It was a course requirement that he relished. (To the point that he bought old super 8 film and used his grandmother’s camera and projector to make movies in college.) My older son would know the Baby Jane movie reference, but he would be more likely to use a sports metaphor to explain the political climate of the day. Quite honestly I don’t know if my children have a vast knowledge of history because I was married to an American history teacher, or because I used literary references in about everything I said while they were growing up. My students left elementary school quoting the classics and we even watched the 1935 B& W version of “Midsummer” (where a young Mickey Rooney played Puck) to celebrate Shakespeare’s B-day. So, I rather think that children are exposed to a greater value of the past, they care about it more. It makes them aware of the importance of history and they then start to notice the present and the changes around them. That at least was my goal as a teacher. Ignorance in this time of technology is more dangerous than anything else.
Your step by step explanation is eye opening and I have shared it on both twitter and Facebook. It needs to be read by as ay people as possible!
Ignorance has always left people open to lies. Societies that prevent people from reading and learning are happy when they perpetrate fear. It makes them feel superior to others. In an educated, equal society we don’t need dictators. They become irrelevant.
Your ending with Joan Baez singing Joe Hill gave me chills. She was and still is quite something. THAT voice. Her message… What a brilliant way to close…
I hope that America can make a come back. It’s articles like yours that will help make people think again. BRAVO!
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First of all, many thanks for sharing this post with others. Much appreciated. And for taking the time to respond in such detail. Your reply eloquently describes why we need good teachers and good schools. No, it’s not possible to raise everyone’s consciousness on the importance of making connections past and present, but good schools and good teachers yield informed students, who themselves become parents (teachers) who pass on to their children the value of reflection, of going beyond the surface (and hope some of it sticks).
Too bad we never had the chance to teach in the same elementary school. We would have stood their hair on end LOL.
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Yes, wouldn’t that have been fun to have taught together. We for sure would have been the dynamic duo!!!! I always felt like the lone weird one wherever I taught. LOL I was too out of the box for administrators and other teachers. But, by the end of my 36 years, when data showed how well my students consistently did they started to appreciate my style of “joyful learning’.
Isn’t it interesting that in order to recognize how effective we were as teachers they needed to see the data. Now I still get emails and FB friend requests from former students which is all the data I need. Two weeks ago, a little girl, well, now she’s a young woman, who was in my 4th grade class, friended me asking for my support in posting her activism for immigration change. When she came to me, she and her family didn’t speak English. By the end of the year she was doing brilliantly. She had heard that since I have been retired I have a vocal voice on social media for change and asked for my help. That was pretty cool. You never know how you will touch someone. But, I loved your article. I will continue to share what you write. Your ability to be spot on and get right to the point is amazing, and how you back up your data with a literary/artistic flair is the best. I so enjoy reading your pieces.
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Thank you for another excellent blog. I feel like all of your blogs should be required reading, as stated in the first comment.
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Chilling, but I agree. I am no longer astonished when I hear bigger and bigger lies and that’s an awful thing, isn’t it?
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Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our country learned from our mistakes? And prevented disasters like we’re in now? I love your analysis and how you help us put everything in perspective. Thanks for sharing, Amy! I always look forward to your posts!
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Amy, this is an excellent, chilling piece of writing. You expertly point out the active threats to the US’s Bill of Rights. I have to agree with those readers above who stated this should be mandatory reading for American high school students. Thank you for your insight and for your careful research.
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Agreed! I think history also gives us some MUCH needed perspective. The past wasn’t as rosy as it’s often portrayed. As scary (and hate-filled) as the last few years have been, things have been worse, especially for women and minorities. I think it’s important to remember this past because I do believe, if we’re not careful, it could be repeated.
Thank you for your inspiring and informative post. I guess I’m fortunate that my father instilled in me a love of history, which I think is one of the most important subjects in school. Unfortunately it’s taught in a dry manner as if it’s set in stone, rather than a constantly evolving story.
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Thanks for reading and stopping by to comment, Toni. I thought about you when I was working on this post. Know you are one to champion the significance of what the past has to tell us, and have shared that generously both with students and on your resources for teaching website. A belated happy Rosh Hashanah.