Monday, November 28, 2011

Repeating History (Cleveland Post, October 20, 2011)

I have been fascinated by the past for as long as I can remember. It started out with the dresses - I wanted to live in "olden times" because I wanted to wear pretty dresses when I pretended I was Cinderella going to the ball. Contemporary fashion at this stage in my life was no help. It offered only the ugly present - loud colors, fake fibers, bell bottoms and mini skirts that couldn't twirl.

The desire for long dresses lead me to read historical fiction, which lead to tales of adventure. And, as books for young people are generally written by adults who want youngsters to learn a thing or two, I came out with a respect for history, for education, for knowledge, and for truth (sneaky buggers!).


The past is all around us but usually keeps to itself. Not this week.

Innocently plowing through a book on my "should read" list, I was startled to read about Wall Street and bailing out the bankers. Occupying Wall Street wasn't an option for the people on the page, but the blame for the economic mess had a familiar ring.

A little further on, another zinger: "First it proceeded to save most of the bankers who were not already wholly liquidated, dead or in jail. Usually, that was accomplished, indeed, by having the depositors agree to lose a more or less great part of their savings."

"It" was the New Deal, and the economic disaster being blamed on Wall Street was the Great Depression. The book hiding such electric connections between past and present was The Mind of the South by W. J. Cash It was published in 1941, before 'Great Depression" had earned its capitalization and when there was only the World War.

We've been here before.

Yeah, yeah. Everybody knows "those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it." Or something like that.

That sounds good. But for what purpose do we study history? What do we hope to learn?

How to avoid wars tops the list for me, followed by how to govern justly, and provide citizens with the framework for all to live and prosper.

Just because we learn it, does it mean we have to implement it? I think that, for some things, some folks - with much fidgeting and sweating and embarrassment, answer "no."

Again from The Mind of the South: "The Democratic politicians in Washington who managed the practical distribution of relief funds, observing cannily that money spent in a section which was certain to be Democratic anyhow could have no effect for political purposes...these politicians dealt with Dixie with a striking niggardliness."

According to Cash, Works Progress Administration wages in the South were as little as half of what was paid in other areas less certain to deliver Democratic votes. Surely we know better than to play those games?

And on the subject of fears of political favoritism at the University of North Carolina, William Powell writes in North Carolina Over Four Centuries: "Republicans charged that non-Federalists were dismissed from the faculty, that anti-Republican books were used, and that the young men of the state lost their Republican principles after a stay in Chapel Hill." The Republican legislature took steps against the university, only to draw criticism from around the country.

Of course, this legislature was acting at the opening of the 19th century, and these Republicans were Democratic Republicans, evolutionary forebears of Democrats as we know them. Last week's elections show some (on both sides) still see monkeying with education as a partisan tool.


Back when the past mainly held my interest with satin and petticoats, it offered one other attraction. Security. Watching your parents watch the evening news in the late 60s was a scary thing. Society was changing in a very disorderly and disrespectful manner. There was a sense that "back then," society had been orderly, that folks knew what things were proper and how to properly do them, and all those other problems could be worked out politely if people would just be patient.

That perception is not history. It is nostalgia.

As a culture, we've been here before. As individuals in this place and time, this is new territory. We haven't got everything worked out the way it ought to be, and even things that are settled don't stay that way.

There's still lots of adventure to go around.

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