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Kissing the specious present goodbye

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Forgive me for complaining, but recent decades have not been easy ones for my peeps. I am from birth a member of the WHAM tribe, that once proud, but now embattled conglomeration of white, heterosexual American males. We have long been — there’s no denying it — a privileged group.  When the blessings of American freedom get parceled out, WHAMs are accustomed to standing at the head of the line. Those not enjoying the trifecta of being white, heterosexual, and male get what’s left.
Fair?  No, but from time immemorial those have been the rules.  Anyway, no real American would carp.  After all, the whole idea of America derives from the conviction that some people (us) deserve more than others (all those who are not us). It’s God’s will — so at least the great majority of Americans have believed since the Pilgrims set up shop just about 400 years ago.

Lately, however, the rules have been changing in ways that many WHAMs find disconcerting.  True, some of my brethren — let’s call them one percenters — have adapted to those changes and continue to do very well indeed.  Wherever corporate CEOs, hedge fund managers, investment bankers, tech gurus, university presidents, publishers, politicians, and generals congregate to pat each other on the back, you can count on WHAMs — reciting bromides about the importance of diversity!— being amply represented.

Yet beneath this upper crust, a different picture emerges.  Further down the socioeconomic ladder, being a WHAM carries with it disadvantages.  The good, steady jobs once implicitly reserved for us — lunch pail stuff, yes, but enough to keep food in the family larder — are increasingly hard to come by.  As those jobs have disappeared, so too have the ancillary benefits they conferred, self-respect not least among them.  Especially galling to some WHAMs is being exiled to the back of the cultural bus.  When it comes to art, music, literature, and fashion, the doings of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays, and women generate buzz.  By comparison, white heterosexual males seem bland, uncool, and passé, or worst of all simply boring.

The Mandate of Heaven, which members of my tribe once took as theirs by right, has been cruelly withdrawn.  History itself has betrayed us.

All of which is nonsense, of course, except perhaps as a reason to reflect on whether history can help explain why, today, WHAMs have worked themselves into such a funk in Donald Trump’s America.  Can history provide answers? Or has history itself become part of the problem?

Paging Professor Becker 

“For all practical purposes history is, for us and for the time being, what we know it to be.” So remarked Carl Becker in 1931 at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  Professor Becker, a towering figure among historians of his day, was president of the AHA that year.  His message to his colleagues amounted to a warning of sorts:  Don’t think you’re so smart.  The study of the past may reveal truths, he allowed, but those truths are contingent, incomplete, and valid only “for the time being.”

Put another way, historical perspectives conceived in what Becker termed “the specious present” have a sell-by date.  Beyond their time, they become stale and outmoded, and so should be revised or discarded.  This process of rejecting truths previously treated as authoritative is inexorable and essential.  Yet it also tends to be fiercely contentious.  The present may be specious, but it confers real privileges, which a particular reading of the past can sustain or undermine.  Becker believed it inevitable that “our now valid versions” of history “will in due course be relegated to the category of discarded myths.”  It was no less inevitable that beneficiaries of the prevailing version of truth should fight to preserve it.

Who exercises the authority to relegate?  Who gets to decide when a historical truth no longer qualifies as true?  Here, Becker insisted that “Mr. Everyman” plays a crucial role.  For Becker, Mr. Everyman was Joe Doakes, John Q. Public, or the man in the street.  He was “every normal person,” a phrase broad enough to include all manner of people.  Yet nothing in Becker’s presentation suggested that he had the slightest interest in race, sexuality, or gender.  His Mr. Everyman belonged to the tribe of WHAM.

In order to “live in a world of semblance more spacious and satisfying than is to be found within the narrow confines of the fleeting present moment,” Becker emphasized, Mr. Everyman needs a past larger than his own individual past.  An awareness of things said and done long ago provides him with an “artificial extension of memory” and a direction.

Memories, whether directly or vicariously acquired, are “necessary to orient us in our little world of endeavor.”  Yet the specious present that we inhabit is inherently unstable and constantly in flux, which means that history itself must be pliable.  Crafting history necessarily becomes an exercise in “imaginative creation” in which all participate.  However unconsciously, Everyman adapts the past to serve his most pressing needs, thereby functioning as “his own historian.”

Yet he does so in collaboration with others.  Since time immemorial, purveyors of the past — the “ancient and honorable company of wise men of the tribe, of bards and story-tellers and minstrels, of soothsayers and priests, to whom in successive ages has been entrusted the keeping of the useful myths” — have enabled him to “hold in memory… those things only which can be related with some reasonable degree of relevance” to his own experience and aspirations.  In Becker’s lifetime it had become incumbent upon members of the professoriate, successors to the bards and minstrels of yesteryear, “to enlarge and enrich the specious present common to us all to the end that ‘society’ (the tribe, the nation, or all mankind) may judge of what it is doing in the light of what it has done and what it hopes to do.”

Yet Becker took pains to emphasize that professional historians disdained Mr. Everyman at their peril:

“Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities.  Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices… The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history… It is for this reason that the history of history is a record of the ‘new history’ that in every age rises to confound and supplant the old.”

Becker stressed that the process of formulating new history to supplant the old is organic rather than contrived; it comes from the bottom up, not the top down.  “We, historians by profession, share in this necessary effort,” he concluded.  “But we do not impose our version of the human story on Mr. Everyman; in the end it is rather Mr. Everyman who imposes his version on us.”

Donald Trump as Everyman’s Champion?

Becker offered his reflections on “Everyman His Own Historian” in the midst of the Great Depression.  Perhaps because that economic crisis found so many Americans burdened with deprivation and uncertainty, he implicitly attributed to his everyman a unitary perspective, as if shared distress imbued members of the public with a common outlook.  That was not, in fact, the case in 1931 and is, if anything, even less so in our own day.

Still, Becker’s construct retains considerable utility.  Today finds more than a few white heterosexual American males, our own equivalent of Mr. Everyman, in a state of high dudgeon.  From their perspective, the specious present has not panned out as it was supposed to.  As a consequence, they are pissed.  In November 2016, to make clear just how pissed they were, they elected Donald Trump as president of the United States.

This was, to put it mildly, not supposed to happen.  For months prior to the election, the custodians of the past in its “now valid version” had judged the prospect all but inconceivable.  Yet WHAMs (with shocking support from other tribes) intervened to decide otherwise.  Rarely has a single event so thoroughly confounded history’s self-assigned proctors.  One can imagine the shade of Professor Becker whispering, “I warned you, didn’t I?”

Those deeply invested in drawing a straight line from the specious present into the indefinite future blame Trump himself for having knocked history off its prescribed course. Remove Trump from the scene, they appear to believe, and all will once again be well. The urgent imperative of doing just that — immediately, now, no later than this afternoon — has produced what The New York Times columnist Charles Blow aptly calls a “throbbing anxiety” among those who (like Blow himself) find “the relentless onslaught of awfulness erupting from this White House” intolerable. They will not rest until Trump is gone.

This idée fixe, reinforced on a daily basis by ever more preposterous presidential antics, finds the nation trapped in a sort of bizarre do-loop.  The media’s obsession with Trump reinforces his obsession with the media and between them they simply crowd out all possibility of thoughtful reflection.  Their fetish is his and his theirs.  The result is a cycle of mutual contempt that only deepens the longer it persists.

Both sides agree on one point only: that history began anew last November 8th, when (take your pick) America either took leave of its senses or chose greatness.  How the United States got to November 8th qualifies, at best, as an afterthought or curiosity.  It’s almost as if the years and decades that had preceded Trump’s election had all disappeared into some vast sinkhole.

Where, then, are we to turn for counsel?  For my money, Charles Blow is no more reliable as a guide to the past or the future than is Donald Trump himself.  Much the same could be said of most other newspaper columnists, talking heads, and online commentators (contributors to TomDispatch notably excepted, of course).  As for politicians of either party, they have as a class long since forfeited any right to expect a respectful hearing.

God knows Americans today do not lack for information or opinion.  On screens, over the airways, and in print, the voices competing for our attention create a relentless cacophony.  Yet the correlation between insight and noise is discouragingly low.

What would Carl Becker make of our predicament?  He would, I think, see it as an opportunity to “enlarge and enrich the specious present” by recasting and reinvigorating history.  Yet doing so, he would insist, requires taking seriously the complaints that led our latter day Everyman to throw himself into the arms of Donald Trump in the first place.  Doing that implies a willingness to engage with ordinary Americans on a respectful basis.

Unlike President Trump, I do not pretend to speak for Everyman or for his female counterpart.  Yet my sense is that many Americans have an inkling that history of late has played them for suckers.  This is notably true with respect to the post-Cold War era, in which the glories of openness, diversity, and neoliberal economics, of advanced technology and unparalleled U.S. military power all promised in combination to produce something like a new utopia in which Americans would indisputably enjoy a privileged status globally.

In almost every respect, those expectations remain painfully unfulfilled.  The history that “served for the time being” and was endlessly reiterated during the presidencies of Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama no longer serves.  It has yielded a mess of pottage: grotesque inequality, worrisome insecurity, moral confusion, an epidemic of self-destructive behavior, endless wars, and basic institutions that work poorly if at all.  Nor is it just WHAMs who have suffered the consequences.  The history with which Americans are familiar cannot explain this outcome.

Alas, little reason exists to expect Becker’s successors in the guild of professional historians to join with ordinary Americans in formulating an explanation.  Few academic historians today see Everyman as a worthy interlocutor.  Rather than berating him for not reading their books, they ignore him.  Their preference is to address one another.

By and large, he returns the favor, endorsing the self-marginalization of the contemporary historical profession.  Contrast the influence wielded by prominent historians in Becker’s day — during the first third of the twentieth century, they included, along with Becker, such formidables as Henry Adams, Charles and Mary Beard, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Frederick Jackson Turner — with the role played by historians today.  The issue here is not erudition, which today’s scholars possess in abundance, but impact.  On that score, the disparity between then and now is immense.

In effect, professional historians have ceded the field to a new group of bards and minstrels.  So the bestselling “historian” in the United States today is Bill O’Reilly, whose books routinely sell more than a million copies each.  Were Donald Trump given to reading books, he would likely find O’Reilly’s both accessible and agreeable.  But O’Reilly is in the entertainment business.  He has neither any interest nor the genuine ability to create what Becker called “history that does work in the world.”

Still, history itself works in mysterious ways known only to God or to Providence.  Only after the fact do its purposes become evident.  It may yet surprise us.

Owing his election in large part to my fellow WHAMs, Donald Trump is now expected to repay that support by putting things right.  Yet as events make it apparent that Trump is no more able to run a government than Bill O’Reilly is able to write history, they may well decide that he is not their friend after all.  With that, their patience is likely to run short.  It is hardly implausible that Trump’s assigned role in history will be once and for all to ring down the curtain on our specious present, demonstrating definitively just how bankrupt all the triumphalist hokum of the past quarter-century — the history that served “for the time being” — has become.

When that happens, when promises of American greatness restored prove empty, there will be hell to pay.  Joe Doakes, John Q. Public, and the man in the street will be even more pissed.  Should that moment arrive, historians would do well to listen seriously to what Everyman has to say.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His latest book is “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War”.

Andrew Bacevich.

Source: Salon: in-depth news, politics, business, technology & culture > Politics

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