What Will The Future Say About Us?

Marion Post Wolcott, "Negro going in colored entrance of movie house on Saturday afternoon, Belzoni, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi," 1939. Library of Congress' American Memory Flickr photostream.

Marion Post Wolcott, "Negro going in colored entrance of movie house on Saturday afternoon, Belzoni, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi," 1939. Library of Congress' American Memory Flickr photostream.

Here’s a fun historical game to play: if people in the past managed to convince themselves that slavery, segregation, and coverture were somehow okay, what are we convincing ourselves about right now? Thinking about this is a good exercise, if only because it reminds us that although we make it our business as historians to point out by-goners’ blind spots, we are not immune to shortsightedness of our own. Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy at Princeton, published an interesting op-ed in the Washington Post about this very subject. Appiah proposes a test to which we can put our own social customs to see if they’ll be scorned in the future: when a custom will eventually be seen as abhorrent, arguments against these customs are often commonly advanced; people can’t make moral counterarguments defending the custom, and instead resort to citing human nature or expediency as defenses; and finally, people practice strategic ignorance to avoid thinking about the true nature of the custom. Appiah argues that future generations will condemn us for our prison system, the factory farming of animals, the isolation of the elderly, and the destruction of the environment. What do you think?

Iranian Hostages, Then and Now

The New York Times recently had this short video about the Iranian hostages, who were taken during Carter’s administration, and the Iranian situation as it now stands.  Think you might find it interesting.

Iranian Hostages

The End of History?

Some say that President Reagan’s demand that Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev  “Tear down this wall!” marked the end of the Cold War, signalling “the end of history.”   Tear Down this Wall

Who Loves The Seventies? Historians

For a while now, historians seem to have been stuck on the sixties as The Most Interesting Decade in American History. But a new wave of historical work is coming out that focuses instead on the decade that brought you Earth Day, Nixon, the oil crisis, tax revolts, the end of the Vietnam War, and the Sunbelt: the lovely Seventies. I hypothesize that this shift is happening because people like studying the decade in which they came of age–thus, baby boomer historians love thinking about the sixties, and the rising generation is just moving forward accordingly. But that’s just a theory.

A couple of handy historiographies (a “historiography” is a review of the work of other historians) have recently been published that can give a sense of the scope of new seventies work that’s coming out. Recently, in the Nation, journalist and historian Rick Perlstein talked about his experience writing a book about the seventies, and surveyed other recent books about the decade—books whose approaches range from cultural analysis (why disco?), to industrial history (the roots of offshoring), to political theory (the beginnings of 80s conservatism). In the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Dalton Conley, a sociologist, looked at recent work on the changes in the American family structure and race relations during that pivotal decade. Conley also argues that many of the defining features of today’s popular culture can be traced back to seventies innovations: “From hacker culture to hip-hop, from conceptual art to cyborgs, the 1970s was a time of experimentation whose fruits we can see all around us today (the Internet is and the trackball mouse are just two of those fruits).”

Yeltsin goes to Houston (really–Clear Lake) and and shops at Randall’s

“It was September 16, 1989 and Yeltsin, then newly elected to the new Soviet parliament and the Supreme Soviet, had just visited Johnson Space Center.  At JSC, Yeltsin visited mission control and a mock-up of a space station. According to Houston Chronicle reporter Stefanie Asin, it wasn’t all the screens, dials, and wonder at NASA that blew up his skirt, it was the unscheduled trip inside a nearby Randall’s location.  Yeltsin, then 58, ‘roamed the aisles of Randall’s nodding his head in amazement,” wrote Asin. He told his fellow Russians in his entourage that if their people, who often must wait in line for most goods, saw the conditions of U.S. supermarkets, “there would be a revolution.’ ” Read the full blog/ article in the Chronicle here .  thanks to G.Campbell for this note. 

Executive Listening

Presidents have not immune to the wonders of technology. As soon as new devices were invented, political leaders put them to use. President Hayes installed the first office telephone.  It connected directly (and only) to the Treasury.  Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have experimented–some more extensively than others, with recording their conversations.  Historian Taylor Branch writes that the secret recordings of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon offer “a democratizing glimpse into how our government really works…. They humanize the institution of the presidency in a way that’s good for all Americans because we tend to think of these great impersonal institutional imperial forces and everything and forget that the president is a person like all of us: often flummoxed, sometimes passionate. A lot of things that perplex us, perplex them as well.”

Worst. Decade. Ever. (apparently not the 1970s afterall!)


They swear no babies were harmed in the making of this image.

They swear no babies were harmed in the making of this image.

Time mag ran a cover story in 2009 about the 00s, dubbing them “the worst decade ever.” The author of this article, Andy Serwer, cited the financial crash as the number one reason why the past ten years have been awful, but also advances the hypothesis that the 00s were the decade when all of the tough choices that the government has failed to make for the past century have come back to haunt us. Serwer points to the 2007 bridge collapse in Minnesota as the poster child of this syndrome:

“How many other bridges, roads and dams are death traps–in–waiting? No one knows, but you can’t help wondering if squeezed maintenance budgets are making our country less safe. A 2005 report card on American infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers (which gave mostly C’s and D’s) estimated that the U.S. needed to spend $1.6 trillion to bring our roads, highways, bridges and dams into good shape. Sure, the engineers are looking for work but know that the U.S. spends only 2.4% of its GDP on infrastructure, as opposed to 5% in Europe and 9% in China. Here again, why should a politician spend money today to fix something that won’t collapse until tomorrow? Especially if he or she could get re-elected by cutting taxes instead.”

Ouch! It’s too true.

But take heart: Serwer also argues that “there’s a natural cycle to history”, and that unless you are a total pessimist who “believes that this country is in the throes of a deep and permanent decline”, you have to see the bright side and hope that the teens of this century will bring better things.

Do you agree that history operates in this type of logical manner? Not sure I do.