What is the Benefit of Having “Historical Perspective” When Analyzing Current Events?

The above tweet from linguist and writer Fredrik deBoer got me really thinking about the meaning and purpose of having a historical perspective when looking at contemporary events. deBoer was responding to a recent essay by Jonathan Chait entitled “It Is Not 1968.” Chait argues in that essay that the country is actually more unified in its views towards Black Lives Matter and police reform than social media may suggest. He argues that recent op-eds and commentaries from a number of conservative political leaders and thinkers indicate a shift in thinking that is more sympathetic to BLM’s grievances. “[Democrats and Republicans] may not agree with Black Lives Matter on the exact scope of the problem, but the two sides have a shared sense of its existence — no small achievement in a country where the two parties cannot even agree on such questions as climate science — and broad moral contours,” he explains. Chait sees these developments as a genuine victory for “reasoned, evidence-based progress.” We as a country are doing better than we were in 1968 and should ultimately proceed with caution before making any rash historical comparisons.

But deBoer pushes us to take a wider perspective and consider how the families of Philado Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and many black victims of police violence might react to Chait’s declaration of forward social progress and “historical perspective” when the price of such progress has been paid in human life and the loss of their loved ones. What good is it to say “things are better now” when the threat of violence at the hands of police still remains for many people of color today? What good is it to tell someone that “it is not 1968” when the challenge at hand is living in 2016? Are there times when “keeping things in perspective” prevents us from taking steps to ensure a better world tomorrow?

I made a similar argument a couple years ago when I wrote about the events in Ferguson, events that occurred within a short drive to my own house here in the St. Louis area. I appreciated the historical perspective that numerous writers offered in attempting to explain the looting and violence that hit the area (including a long history of urban riots in places like Watts and Detroit and others led by white supremacists for different reasons that completely destroyed cities like Memphis, Wilmington, and Tulsa), but I simultaneously suggested that such historical perspective probably offered very little solace to the victims whose businesses were destroyed amid the chaos. Likewise, I imagine any claims suggesting that police practices are more humane today than fifty years ago are probably true but of little solace to the residents of Ferguson and surrounding areas whose local governments used their police force and municipal court system to raise funds through petty fines and fees for offenses that were not a threat to the community.

To be sure, I do think it’s a good thing to have historical perspective. There’s a song by Billy Joel, “Keeping the Faith,” where he cautions that “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” I always liked that line because it warns us to avoid being overly sentimental about the past while demonstrating that the potential for a better tomorrow is always there. But at the same time I see issues with that thinking when real problems in peoples’ lives today are minimized and dismissed, especially when those people are truly disadvantaged. At its most extreme we see the worst perversions of “things are much better today” when people say things like “slavery was a long time ago. Life is so much better today and everyone is treated equally, so get over it!” That viewpoint isn’t helpful for solving the problems of today and is ultimately another way of telling someone to shut up because their concerns aren’t valid.

What are the advantages of viewing contemporary problems with a historical perspective?

Cheers

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7 responses

  1. I acknowledge that this brief response falls equally into the “this is not solace to the sufferers” camp. I think the comparisons of better/worse are not the right way to frame the questions and leads us to dumb debates over better/worse and that’s not very good history.

    What historical perspective should be teaching us–aside from the overwhelming complexity that defies a better/worse narrative–is how this process of historical change works. We should be asking–where is the intentionality that represents tradition and systems, and where does contingency and the unexpected that shape sensibilities and events intersect with it? How does that inevitably make things different–not necessarily better or worse, just different. And how do we identify those historical processes at work in current events? The answer reveals that we should be looking widely for motivations for change, should be ready to accept the unexpected, and that it is a dynamic process.

    1. This is a brilliant comment that shifts my thinking on historical perspective towards a new direction. I really appreciate you thoughts here, Christopher.

  2. Excellent point. I think the main advantage of viewing contemporary problems with a historical perspective is that we can more accurately gauge how far we have come, what progress we have made, what helped get there and what did not. To think the past has no effect or vestiges that can still harm is never accurate. We look to the grand accomplishments of the past to learn and celebrate, we have to look at the mistakes to also learn and improve. Ignorance of history is part of the problem IMHO.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Sandi.

  3. Hi Nick — Interesting post. I think a lot of folks who talk about historical perspective, talk in terms of compare and contrast, which, to me, isn’t really what history and historical perspective is about. I think one of the problems that your are wrestling with here is that questions like “how did we get here?” (which are an important question to ask!) are inherently teleological. Similarly comparing and contrasting almost always involved some sort of value judgment (progress or declension). Neither approach is very emotive or humanistic (to deBoer’s point), which forces us to rethink how we understand and tell the history of “victims” (for lack of a better word). I think historical perspective works best, when we are use it to understand and get inside of moments, ideas and arguments, cultures, to better understand the lineage of people’s experiences, creating what might be termed a historical empathy built through examples and understandings of the past. This is much more easily done we analyzing how and why people make certain arguments about the Confederate flag or the R*dskins mascot, but when talking about structures and processes (like criminal justice and policing) we sometimes lose that humanness in how we tell, explain, or understand history. I’ll stop rambling there, but I think my overall point here is that we need to be conscientious of keeping a humanistic historical perspective instead of falling into lazy patterns of analysis that are often flawed.

    1. Between you and Christoper’s comments my thinking has clarified a lot on this topic. I do think we often unavoidably compare the conditions of contemporary society to past societies, but any such practice needs to be done carefully and with a grain of salt. I agree that the progress/declension dichotomy isn’t very helpful, and that historical thinking involves what you describe as creating “historical empathy built through examples of understandings of the past.” Thanks for commenting, Andrew!

  4. It is important to see how far we have come with Equal Rights and to see how much more work needs to be done. Saying that past is in the past so forget it is living in a state of denial. BLM would not exist if this were not true. You can not know what is going on sitting in your living room and only believing what you see and hear on TV. Go out and visit your communities and find out what is going on. Start with your local NAACP. You will be amazed at what still goes on years after the Civil Rights movement of the 1950S and 1960S. It is more about than what and how things are happening but why.

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