FLOTSAM & JETSAM: The limits of the past

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

The limits of the past

Sam Smith -  In recent months there have been three notable examples of a politician being judged severely by events in his or her past: Virginia Governor Northam, Brett Kavanaugh and Elizabeth Warren. In only one instance – Kavanaugh’s – does history seem significantly to help lay the ground work for present values of the target and thus is useful in defining that person today.

In the case of Northam and Warren, the flaws of the past reveal little about who they are now. And it is notable that, given the attention to these old errors, there is so little coverage of Warren’s remarkable rise as a defender of consumer rights or the list of liberal policies advocated by Northam what I could find in only one media outlet other than the Progressive Review.

But we live in a time when, thanks in no small part to the increased percentage of college degrees among the powerful, where action often takes a second place to analysis and the past challenges the present for importance.

For example, when I started as a journalist, over half the reporters in the country only had a high school education. You learned to judge people instinctively by how they were acting today. There was no Google to check out the past. 

Of course, history is important. But whether it helps to define how one is today varies markedly. History is of a different time and different folk. Were we not able to learn from history – as opposed to being defined by it – we could kiss the idea of progress good bye. And democratic policy is at its heart, imperfect people taking past failures and turning them into something better.

One of the things you find in dysfunctional families, is folk who are inexorably and interminably tied to an awful past rather than rebelling and changing from it.

A few years ago, I wrote of our problems:

The best metaphor for all this may be the dysfunctional family. It, too, can be indifferent to logic, morality, kindness, cooperation, courage and decency. Much of our behavior as victims of the elite mimics the frustrated reactions of familial victims.  We respond with increasing anger, aggressiveness or, on the other hand, apathy and surrender, but in either case with a striking lack of independence from the community that brought us down. And we easily turn on others for having failed to save us.

There are other choices. In the past these have included the creation of countercultures such as  beats and punks, in which a new generation declared its cultural independence from the past. Nothing of that scale exists right now.

And we have had efforts such as the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements that redefined an era by collectively tossing out old evils in favor of new dreams.

Part of the secret of these past efforts was that you could join without clearance of one’s correctness, and with an understanding that change included the transformation of presently misguided or indifferent hearts. It was what one did now that counted far more than where one once stood.

We live now – thanks to a variety of factors ranging from cellphones to activist group competition for funding and media – in a far more atomized world in which it is easy to ignore or suspect people and groups that once would have naturally been seen as allies. And so we are often dysfunctional even working for change. From right to left, it is increasingly common to diss those who do not share all our presumed virtues and to believe we can define ourselves simply by condemning others. The fact that in this rejected pool are the very people we need to convince or convert is increasingly forgotten or ignored.

It is easy in a dysfunctional family or community to be so used to seeing the mistakes and cruelty of those around us that we fail to see the potential of others and how to share and build upon it. Both right and left suffer from this.  Conservatives contrive  an ever growing hate list of supposed threats to freedom even as they campaign for those actually removing those liberties. Liberals and libertarians fail to unite on issues about which they agree. And both ends of the spectrum define themselves by what and who they dislike.

Part of the trick in changing all this is to understand our past but not to let it rule our present and future. If our only response to the evils of the past is anger and protest, then we have added little to the story. But if we take the past and figure out how to redefine and redraw it for time to come, then we not only defeat the wrongs of the past but start to create a better future. We learn to treat anger and protest as the alarm, and not the ambulance.

With blacks consisting of only 12% of the population and liberalism defining about a quarter of the vote, finding and building new allies couldn’t be more fundamental to positive change. Thus, neither Bernie Sanders nor Black Lives Matter can pull it off without new and stronger friends and working with each other is a good place to start.

Part of the secret is to organize by issues, and not ideology or identity. Part is learning how to enjoy the partnership of those with whom you don’t fully agree but do agree on something important right now. Part is judging people by their words and actions today and not by their past behavior or that of their culture or ethnicity. The future can’t be the future without replacing the past.

Like the member of a dysfunctional family who walks away from the anger and misery it has created in order to find and/or build a new life, so all of us can walk away from the American past that is strangling us, and find new friends and ideas that help us move forward, even if differences remain between us. We can grant these allies reciprocal liberty, the same allowance for mistakes that we grant ourselves, and the warmth that that comes on common ground.

We must, in short, become like more like what we want to be than what we and others have been in the past.  An image of possibility rather than merely more evidence of dysfunction.