Ken Burns

Peak History

gc2smFrom the keyboard of Thomas Lewis

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Published on The Daily Impact on June 14, 2016


We live in a country whose citizens — make that residents — are increasingly averse to complicated thought, indifferent to veracity, and reductionist in their thinking (every thing and every thought and every person is and must be either one kind of thing, or another kind of thing, no additional choices allowed). In such a country history has few friends.

History is too hard. You have to find out what happened, and then you have to figure out the context of the events — what led up to them and what followed — so you can tease out their significance for your time and place, and even after doing all that it may not be clear. Far easier to decide first what history means, and look up a few facts to “prove” it. Works for Fox News. And what they have made of journalism, we are making of history.

The stories of contemporary history are short and punchy, crafted for an audience suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder; their lessons are simple and obvious, as befits an audience capable of obeying rules, not of evaluating them — you know, nine-year-olds. (Soon we will have a population of adults who will not cross the street without holding a grown-ups hand, because, you know, that’s the rule.)

A recent case in point: the American Civil War. It is now almost universally spoken of as a war that was about only one thing, slavery. Knowing that, as all right-thinking folks do, it follows that everyone who fought for the Confederacy was fighting to maintain slavery. Period. Because they were wrong to do so, a very popular line of “thinking” goes, we should scrub from our history and our world every vestige of their existence, eliminating their flag from our sight, rooting out and destroying their statues from our county seats and capitals (you know, like ISIS is doing in the cradle of civilization) and reducing their biographies to simplistic diatribes.

Now we could see in this an evil hand, an intent to make sure that our children never learn that good people fight in bad wars for good reason,  that bad people support good wars for bad reasons, that causes and outcomes are complicated, and can be both good and bad at the same time. Because if they do learn that, they are far less likely to allow some tinhorn president to fight any damn war he wants to for trumped-up reasons.

But the reality is probably dumber than that. While I was trying to figure out how to express my view of it, Ken Burns did it better, not the first time that has happened. He delivered the commencement speech to this year’s graduates of Stanford University (damn him, he still looks too young to be a graduate, let alone advise them). Most of the news coverage hyperventilated over his blistering condemnation of Donald Trump. But mostly he talked about history and our misuses of it:

… we live in an age of social media where we are constantly assured that we are all independent free agents. But that free agency is essentially unconnected to real community, divorced from civic engagement, duped into believing in our own lonely primacy by a sophisticated media culture that requires you—no—desperately needs you—to live in an all-consuming disposable present, wearing the right blue jeans, driving the right car, carrying the right handbag, eating at all the right places, blissfully unaware of the historical tides that have brought us to this moment, blissfully uninterested in where those tides might take us.

We are, in other words, in the grip of a terminal case of cultural Alzheimer’s Disease, increasingly unaware of the people around us, unable to remember where we came from and who we are, deprived, in other words, of the resources we need to set a rational course, we are reduced again to children who can only follow orders. So we grasp the nearest grown-up’s hand and await instruction.  


Thomas Lewis is a nationally recognized and reviewed author of six books, a broadcaster, public speaker and advocate of sustainable living. He also is Editor of The Daily Impact website, and former artist-in-residence at Frostburg State University. He has written several books about collapse issues, including Brace for Impact and Tribulation. Learn more about them here.

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