Whenever we want
“History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
There seems to be a general sense of nostalgia floating in the air. We derive a lot of enjoyment when reminiscing about our favorite period of history. Whether it’s to imagine oneself in a anachronistic setting, or try to emulate a certain culture, we seem to grasp at something better we left behind.
Have we always been so fascinated with our history? Or is that the feeling that humanity’s best belongs with a past tense? What’s going on?
I have a feeling that this desire to escape into previous eras can be attributed to a general anxiety of the future. There are so many periods to choose from, why wouldn’t one just pick their favorite as something to emulate? Or is there something else to it, that our original ideas of what history ‘actually’ is has started to dissolve.
Perhaps it has a lot to do with how we learn about or relate to history. Mike Rugnetta from the program PBS Idea Channel has a perspective that might serve useful to understand how things have changed in these last few years, as well as how the relationship between the past and our understanding of history have changed.
Please take a look, I’ll be here when you get back.
In school, I was taught that American History was distinct from World History, that these narratives were related, but ultimately separated from each other. Different narratives that could be told through the stories of individual leaders, political ideologies, or cultural success and domination. Somehow, the events in one history, usually American, affected the narrative of World History. In the latter half of the 20th century and in modern times, that can be largely true, but omits the fact that America is simply a part of the World.
But with the advent of newer technologies in communication, people have started to share and learn narratives that don’t jive as well with the one that we were all supposed to adhere to. Now, with the internet, we have learned so much more about other nations and cultures that didn’t have the ability to share their stories before. Now all of a sudden, there is no longer a shared understanding of how we all came to this point: The Present.
If all truths are valid, none of them are
With such works like Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” or a larger revisionist effort to add more context to our histories, the cohesive narrative we shared has started to unravel. It used to be that the victors wrote the history books, and while that was largely true for a time, it’s changed. Now even the losers are free to tell their stories and there are more people than ever to listen.
The advent of the internet provided the ability for us to share multitudes of stories and narratives, making our old gatekeepers irrelevant, no longer able to curate how we understand the present world. An example is that more people are aware that African-American history is American history, and not just ancillary to it. There is no longer an obvious reason or set of reasons as to why we are witnessing such a chaotic time, which only adds to our confusion and fear for the future.
If the narratives with which we’ve grown up aren’t true, or are no longer the only truth, then who is to say that we cannot simply choose the one we like the most?
Evan Puschak, a.k.a. The Nerdwriter, provides his own insight as to what might be going on, and how we as a culture have become largely unmoored to the stories we had once used to make sense of the world.
According to Evan, our access to a large amounts of information has unanchored our culture from the pervading narrative that we have come to understand as our ‘history’. Without such a linear narrative, it’s easy to feel lost during a time where the future only holds uncertainty.
Those who used to be a member of the culture or civilization that once had a monopoly on history can understandably want to regain that sense of direction. Anger and antipathy towards an interconnected, global world might really be a repudiation to sharing histories of those who never had the opportunity to do so. Perhaps “Make America Great Again” isn’t an actual call to return to a glorified previous age, but rather an attempt to regain a monopoly on a cultural narrative.
There no longer exists a world history that a majority of people can agree upon. All we have now are events that happen in a narrative vacuum. Yet somehow, I am confident that a new narrative will emerge from this period. If only so that we can make sense of it all later, and be able to tell the story of how we survived this new age.
But maybe this time, it will be a true world history, because now there are more authors than ever, contributing to its writing.
Just a thought.