Friday, May 09, 2003

Method for the Easy Understanding of History

The popular understanding of history is sometimes ridiculed for of its crudity. Every event is likened either to Munich or Vietnam because the Americans, those blithering idiots, haven’t heard of any other historical events, even, apparently, their own Revolution and Civil War. The premise of this highhanded attitude may be factually correct, but its implication is wrong. It wouldn’t really help, except to provide a little stylistic variety, if we could broaden the range of historical example in public discourse. George Bush is a lot more like the preening, bigoted Louis XIV than the eloquent, complicated Winston Churchill, for example, but he’s not that much like Louis XIV either. And the situation of our maturing Empire is just like the instance of Rome under Trajan except that it differs in every conceivable way. The salient fact is that history provides political debate many ideas but no evidence at all. The ignorance that matters is not a failure to remember dates and names but the habit of treating the past as if it were the present.

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