Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Continuity and change in American history: the Obama moment

While I bask in somewhat befuddled glory at being described as a moderate by my old friend Waldo [I generally don't think of myself as one], I keep trying to make sense of the new era we seem to be ushering in.

I write (or attempt to write) this post more as historian than libertarian, which is a tricky task that often verges perilously close to journalism, a craft not completely dishonorable as long as one remembers to wash his hands and shave his palms after practicing it.

One of the pitfalls I try to keep my students from falling into is the overtly American tendency see climactic watershed events at every turn. The Constitutional Convention, the Civil War, the Great Depression, Hiroshima, September 11....

We like the dramatic scene set to music, and the illusion that in an instant we begin to reinvent ourselves.

The reality for historians, however, is the recognition that history proceeds as a dynamic between continuity and change, and that political or military events--however huge they appear at the time--are usually, upon reflection, less pivotal than quiet, long-term social and political trends.

President Obama himself touched on this dynamic repeatedly during his inaugural address, although most listeners seem to have heard only the change, not the continuity.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Take American foreign policy, which continually oscillates from isolationism to inteventionism, and whose stops in the middle position of engagement are notable by their rarity....

American foreign policy is driven as much by oil and natural gas pipelines in Afghanistan, the profits made defense contractors in exporting the weapons that allow other people to fight wars and commit genocide, corporate neo-colonialism, and a handful of universities, foundations, and think-tanks [all funded by the first three items mentioned] that provide the bulk of our diplomats and foreign policy experts than it is by the intentions of a given administration or the current state of affairs in Israel or Korea.

Take the argument over the purpose and size of government. Despite the constant rewriting of history by partisans of both sides of the conventional political spectrum, the long-term accretion of power by the State versus the libertarian fear of declining individual liberties, the dynamic between a government powerful enough to DO GOOD versus a government restricted to prevent it from DOING EVIL is persistent and not resolved.

As an historian I often wonder whether the specific limitations encoded into the US Constitution were entirely based on philosophy to the exclusion of technological considerations. They created no national presidential election, for example, only partly as a consideration of states' rights; it was also structured that way because--in 1787 and for decades, perhaps centuries beyond--the technology did not exist to consolidate and count the votes on a nationwide basis. Likewise, when the framers wrote the Constitution, it is instructive to recall that their treatment of slavery was conditioned by a firm belief that slavery would soon be a dying institution, since they could not foresee that during George Washington's first term of office the cotton gin would revitalize the economics of servitude.

Despite the pretensions of liberals, progressives, and big-government social conservatives, the American discussion over the size and role of government, or the nature and scope of taxation is not over--and should not be over--because that continuing argument is, in no small measure, an essential part of what defines American culture and society.

One of the primary reasons that we, as Americans, love watershed events, is that we also prefer gigantic actors to gradual processes as explanations for what happens. A prime example is the treatment of Abraham Lincoln and emancipation. The dominant historical narrative, the very first thing any kindergartener learns about Lincoln is that he freed the slaves. And while I would not denigrate Lincoln's importance as politician and war leader, many historians have stepped forth to point out that before Lincoln set pen to paper for the Emancipation Proclamation African-Americans across the South had already begun seizing the moment of civil war to free themselves.

Self-emancipation or the Great Emancipator?

Another dynamic in American history: the individual or the process?

Has Barack Obama made the time, or has the time required and therefore manufactured a Barack Obama?

The first interpretation is the one to which Obama partisans generally gravitate, because it ascribes to him an independence of those long-term processes of continuity that they see as making him a genuine agent of fundamental change.

The second suggests that events and processes create the requirements for the leaders we select; it is a less palatable interpretation for many of us, because they see it as diminishing the impact of the Great Individual in history, and most Americans have been long sold on the idea of history as biography....

Point being (and I think I have one): there is a larger ebb and flow of social, economic, and political forces in America that the political leaders we elect do not control as much as they would like us to think they do. President Obama will enjoy the usual latitude and political capital of new presidents with an assumed mandate, but he will not single-handedly redefine America, the so-called American character, or the American economy as either his partisans hope or his critics fear. He will act within the confines of history, as much a reflection of us as a people at this point in time as he will be some American Moses.

1 comment:

tom said...

Lincoln's role as Great Emancipator is even more suspect in that he only `freed' the slaves in the seceding States over which he arguably had no authority.

His Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to those slave States such as Delaware that remained loyal to the union.