Tuesday, April 05, 2011

In The Past, This Issue Was Unimportant

CS Lewis advocated scholarly study of the past
...not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times, and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pouts from the press and the microphone of his own age. "Learning In War-Time" 1939
American attitudes toward the past were always a bit different than English attitudes, and I think there have been some cultural changes since he wrote this. We are now, if anything, even more prisoners of our own time in popular culture. History seems to have begun on November 22, 1963, and the teenage memories of baby boomers (subject to retroactive manipulation by their current ideas) are as far back as we go for any contrasting understanding to our own day. Before that, it’s WW’s, Great Depression, robber barons, McCarthyism, and black-and-white photography in general, all rolled in together as the Bad Old Days. Before that, knights in armor, Robin Hood, and people in togas inhabited the world at roughly the same time, much as Lewis noted was believed in his era.

Much is made about how those goofy American conservatives get it wrong in their historical beliefs. And they do. They get much of colonial or revolutionary history wrong. They get biblical history wrong. But they at least seem to have held on to the general idea that “people didn’t always see things the way we do now.” They have something of the past to set against the present. I think they are increasingly fighting that battle alone in this culture. (Also, their inaccuracy is overstated. They go wrong in ways a modern scholar never would, in the direction of hagiography rather than cynicism, of sweeping uncomfortable facts under the rug rather than examining them. But cynicism, or focusing on refuse, can be merely a reverse bias. There is wishful thinking on the scholarly side as well.)

In contrast, how much historical perspective does Tom Friedman give when analysing the great sweeps of our culture in the world? Most of the newspaper and magazine columnists make no mention of events before their time, and worse, only the symbolic events of even their own time: MLK, Vietnam. (Okay, except George Will, Thomas Sowell, and other conservative dinosaurs. But that’s my point.) Time and Newsweek long since gave up any longer perspective, and even the sources we might expect to be bearers of the flame, such as New Yorker or Harper’s confine their references outside the last decades to writers and artists. One can still find a bit better fare at New Republic or Atlantic (but Atlantic has allowed conservative in, so perhaps they no longer count). But highbrow slips to middle, middlebrow to low, and that precious perspective, that startling moment in reading when you realise that this author cares for your favorite soapbox not at all, yet is deeply concerned with an issue you had never considered of the least importance. And, full stop, you are painfully aware that he's smarter than you, and our age may have it wrong.

These categories of writers aren’t what Lewis was talking about as scholars in contrast to the common man, of course. They are very much the popular culture he refers to as the problem in his own day. Yet even among those, there doesn’t seem to be the ready familiarity and frequent reference to earlier eras that I remember even from the national discussions of my youth (I fully grant this memory could be suspect. I could be remembering conveniently. And I did go to William & Mary, after all, which would likely rank high in the “historical perspective” category.)

The scholars have come down a few notches since then as well, elevating popular culture to the rank of worthy studies, and imposing more modern categories back on other times and places. These are not worthless – indeed, this array of social histories are sometimes better at answering the questions of how people viewed things in other times, to set against our own to get some perspective. But they have in general weakened in this regard. We learn how medieval woman might have answered our questions, not what questions she might have asked herself. The study of law requires peering into the past and attempting to understand ideas and their development, and Volokh at least seems to do this. Whether legal academics do this more or less often than they did seventy years ago I can’t say. But literature, art, history, political science – these seem to have become increasingly present-focused, even when discussing the past.

Is it mostly the yahoo conservatives who are fighting the long twilight struggle against the dark, then, butchering their revolutionary history, their civil war history, their biblical history, but at least remembering when others would rather forget “We didn’t always think this way.”


karrde said...

Amusing sidenote:

Somewhere in my collection of C.S. Lewis writings exists an essay on the moral arguments about vivisection of animals for research. It's an issue that was big enough to grab Lewis' attention at the time, but doesn't loom large on my mental radar today. (I can't even state what has changed since then about such research. Nor can I remember whether any of the potential results of research at the time turned into actual results.)

What seemed strange was that the arguments were familiar. I could block out the words about vivisection, imagine that they were about embryonic-stem-cell research, and read it as if it had been written in 2001.

The potential for Big Cures was similar, as was the horror at the Crime Committed In the Name Of Science.

Is there a lesson? Possibly. I'd like to say that most generations see doctors and medical researchers who promise big results, and pursue research that makes non-scientists feel queasy.

I'm not sure that the same conclusion can be drawn for all such cases. But I'm surprised that medical ethicists don't remember and recall such arguments. It might help them better evaluate new arguments about new possibilities.

karrde said...

Back to the main point: if you don't have a past, all you have is the present.

If the past is muddy and hazy, and doesn't exist outside of living memory, the civilization has the same 'staying power' as all the illiterate civilizations that the world has known.

But it's hard to make that argument to someone who doesn't have any knowledge about the past, isn't it?

Texan99 said...

Though I often lose patience with the modern fads of deconstruction, I have to admit that I'm a little startled when I read an 18th or 19th century work of history, and see the heavy focus on the military and political exploits of a few powerful men of the dominant race. There's so little attention given to economics or the basic technological problems of producing and distributing food, or to the impact of social conventions regarding home and family among ordinary people (all those invisible women and other low-status folks). On the other hand, these old works of history have an extremely firm grasp on values such as virtue, honor, and duty, which is increasingly absent from modern works. Each age has its own blindness, which of course was Lewis's excellent point.