Our society suffers from the tyranny of the present. Presentism is the strange affliction of assuming we ourselves created all our good things — as if those without our technology who came before us lacked our superior knowledge and morality.
We naturally speak of our own offspring in reverential tones. Do this or that “for the children” — youth who are the most affluent and leisured in the history of civilization. A new Medicare prescription drug benefit will add a mountain of national debt. Yet contemporary “seniors” as a group, even apart from the largess of Social Security and Medicare, are already the most insured cohort in our society.
We rarely mention our forebears. These were the millions of less fortunate Americans who built the country, handed down to us our institutions, and died keeping them safe.
Such amnesia about them was not always so. Public acknowledgment of prior generations characterized the best orations of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, who looked for guidance from, and gave thanks to, their ancestors.
We rarely do. We argue endlessly over the academic freedom of a Ward Churchill — plagiarist and faker — as he becomes famous for calling the 3,000 murdered on September 11, 2001, “little Eichmanns.” Few in the debate pause, if just for a moment, to think of the thousands of now anonymous Americans blown apart over Berlin or on Okinawa to ensure we can freely embarrass ourselves over this charlatan.
Why do we not carry with us at the least the whispers of those who gave us what we have, from the Hoover Dam and Golden Gate Bridge to penicillin and relief from polio? In part, it is a simple ignorance of real history. The schools and university curricula today are stuffed with therapy — drug counseling, AIDS warnings, self-improvement advice, sex education, women’s/gay/Chicano/African-American/Asian/peace/urban/environmental/leisure studies. These are all well-meaning and nice -isms and -ologies that once would have been seen as nonacademic or left to the individual, family or community. But in the zero-sum game of daily instruction, something else was given up — too often it was knowledge of the past.
What history we know we often judge as illiberal, forgetting we are the beneficiaries of past sacrifices and wealthy largely because of the toil of others who were far less secure. History is also not easy melodrama, but rather tragedy.
It was hard for women to be fully equal in the pre-industrial world of rampant disease and famine, when they had 15 pregnancies or so to ensure three to four children survived to keep the family alive. In the so-called intolerant past, 9 in 10 Americans worked on the farm until dark just to feed the populace; less than 1 in 100 do so now.
Before dismissing them as hopelessly biased, sexist, superstitious or prejudiced, at least concede that most of us sensitive suburbanites would collapse after a few minutes of scything, threshing, milling and baking to get our daily loaf.
To appreciate the value of history, we must also accept that human nature is constant and fixed across time and space. Our kindred forefathers in very dissimilar landscapes were nevertheless subject to the same emotions of fear, envy, honor and shame as our own.
In contrast, if one believes human nature is malleable — or with requisite money and counseling can be “improved” — history becomes just an obsolete science. It would be no different from 18th-century biology before the microscope or early genetics without knowledge of DNA. Once man before our time appears alien, the story of his past has very little prognostic value.
Finally, there is a radically new idea that most past occurrences are of equal interest — far different from the Greeks’ notion that history meant inquiry about “important” events that cost or saved thousands of lives, or provided ideas and lessons that transcended space and time.
The history of the pencil, girdle or cartoon offers us less wisdom about events, past and present, than does knowledge of U.S. Grant, the causes of the Great Depression or the miracle of Normandy Beach. A society that cannot distinguish between the critical and the trivial of history predictably will also believe a Scott Peterson merits as much attention as the simultaneous siege of Fallujah, or that a presidential press conference should be pre-empted for Paris Hilton or Donald Trump.
Reverence for those who came before us ensures humility about our own limitations. It restores confidence that far worse crises than our own — slavery, the great flu epidemic, or World War II — were endured with far less resources.
By pondering those now dead, we create a certain pact: We, too, will do our part for another generation not yet born to enjoy the same privilege of America, which at such great cost was given to us by others whom we have now all but forgotten.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.