In February of 1798, there was a fight in the House of Representatives. Not a “fight” over bills and proposals, but a real full-on, bare-knuckled, fist-throwing brawl – with Connecticut Rep. Roger Griswold beating Vermont Rep. Matthew Lyon with his walking stick after Lyon had spit in Griswold’s face. Even worse was the House fight of 1858, when Wisconsin Rep. John “Bowie Knife” Potter ripped off Mississippi Rep. William Barksdale’s toupee smack in the middle of a debate about Kansas’s constitution.
Until recently, such surreal spectacles seemed to be confined to the past. But anyone watching the evening news knows the political climate in the United States has become increasingly toxic. Vertiginous headlines, crude online commentary and vitriolic partisanship have all introduced an unexpected instability to our lives. Our democracy seems less stable, our political discourse less civil, our futures less certain than we thought. Following the news every day takes an emotional toll on us.
But studying history can help. Immersing ourselves in the past and studying how the world has changed over time gives us perspective. It teaches us the limitations of our own views. It warns us. It gives us hope.
By expanding our narrow ken, history reminds us that people have struggled before – sometimes more painfully than we could possibly imagine. Ours is just a small chapter in a much larger tale.
This is not to minimize our problems. We should absolutely be worried about the state of affairs, both foreign and domestic, particularly about global warming, which poses an existential threat to our planet. But history helps us stay out of the news-feed trap, which tethers our happiness to every headline. It helps us focus on the issues that matter.
By extension, history helps us see the limits of our own perspective. Most of the students on campus are part of a post-9/11 generation, a generation that grew up in the shadow of terrorism and two American-led wars in the Middle East, a generation that matured under a socially liberal Obama administration and voted for the first time in one of the most contentious elections in memory. These experiences shape how we see the world and what we assume to be normal.
During the past 16 years, we have been inured to believe that a state of ongoing warfare is natural, that aggressive executive actions are acceptable if we agree with their intended outcome, that covert drone strikes and government spying are necessary means to secure public safety. These assumptions may or may not be correct, but history reminds us that these ideas are relatively new. And before we can decide whether to accept them, we must recognize that our internalized assumptions exist.
Understanding these assumptions helps us better appreciate why democracies are so fragile. It is easy to assume that voting is enough; our political system can run on autopilot and we will eventually work things out. But history warns us of the need to be vigilant. The lack of meaningful civic engagement, the acceptance of cronyism and corruption, and the spread of propaganda all help to erode democratic institutions.
Perhaps even more importantly, though, history warns us that truth matters. In the past decade, we have seen a public assault on rationality itself – not just specific facts and figures, but on the very ability to know facts and figures at all. Intellectuals who have spent decades learning and studying and honing their expertise have been dismissed in favor of those who embrace, almost gleefully, their ignorance and disdain for knowledge. The lines between truth, opinion and outright falsehood have been so blurred, we seem to be questioning whether reality itself exists.
Finally, history gives us hope. Sometimes it seems like history books and the news are dominated by the big players: kings and presidents, armies and battles, elections and coups. But real progress happens on the sidelines: parents raising children, teachers teaching, scientists testing, students studying, engineers designing, workers building – good people doing good things, little by little, one day at a time. This is where real progress is made.
None of this means we should stop caring about what is happening in the news. Nor does it mean we should stop being engaged citizens. But it does mean that we can keep our perspective by putting our individual contributions to history in context.
Do not get caught up in the headlines: focus on the big picture, the things that matter. Progress depends on people living and working and contributing positively every day. Focus on doing good. After all, the world needs you.
Anthony Pirrotti is an Associate Dean at the School of Foreign Service. FROM THE DEAN’S DESK is a rotating column that appears every other week.
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