A central theme that has been emphasized in my Historical Methods class this semester is the idea that the past is a “foreign country.” We as historians must actively work to understand the language, customs, theories, ideas, and norms of past cultures. We are observers of the past, not participants in it. The people of the past were weird, and weird in ways that are different then the ways we are weird today. They had different political, economic, social, and cultural circumstances than those we have to deal with today, and their ways of solving such problems were most likely different than the ways we would try to solve such problems today. For one, my undergrad research into antebellum mob violence in America showed me that sometimes the best method for quieting an anti-slavery, abolitionist press was to have a mob tear apart the press and kill the “perpetrator.” We no longer deal with the problems associated with slavery (in the U.S., mind you, I know it’s a problem elsewhere) and we no longer address those problems through mob violence. President Obama said so (or that we shouldn’t do so) yesterday in his second inaugural when he stated that “the patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob.” Therefore, a historian must act as a translator, or even better, an interpreter, one that is able to “solve an observed puzzle in [history] or to alert us to a peculiarity in [history] not previously observed,” according to Michael Baxandall (page 119).
I have mentioned in the past that I’m still trying to wrap my head around the consequences of these theories on the nature of historical inquiry and that in many instances I derive my understanding of history from the similarities I observe from past cultures. I find the Civil War fascinating because one of the central questions argued over–one that millions of men fought for and what 620,000 men died for–was the question of the size, scope, and general nature of the federal government, its relation to the American people, and which side was truly embodying the “ideals and principles” of the Constitution. You’d be living under a rock if you didn’t think such questions didn’t dominate our political discourse today.
So let’s go along with David Lowenthal’s theory and agree that the past is a “foreign country.” The question now becomes one of crossing borders. At what point do we leave the weirdness of the foreign country and return to the confines and comforts of our native land? At what point are we no longer observers of a past culture and instead participants in our own unique culture? Are the 1980s a foreign country? What about the 2000s? My friend Bob at Yesterday…and Today asks a similar question when he asks if the 1960s ever ended (you’ll also notice that yours truly left a comment, which in turn prompted this blog post). Some food for your historical thoughts.
Until next time.