The Creeping Loss of History

There are two great horrors in 1984, the violence done to the narrator by the thugs of the thought police, similar to the actual crimes of repressive regimes in Orwell’s time and ours, and then there is the creeping loss of history, the more subtle of the two horrors, and the one that makes the violence possible.

I would argue that Orwell’s book is preoccupied with the erosion of history more so than violence.

The main character’s experience of the loss of history takes up far more pages than his brainwashing and physical abuse. When we see him broken at the end of the story, it is the loss of memory which makes him less than human. Without memory, there can be no ward against unreality. Without memory, whatever the screens around him say is truth and always has been.

Apart from reports of violence against migrants and the U.S. prison population in Guantanamo and at home, I am not exposed to physical brutality, but I am exposed every day to the creeping loss of history.

I recently ghost wrote a book on the future of the workplace for an executive. In discussions of economics or of the future, it is commonplace to talk about history. Economics is a science without a laboratory. The only way to test out theories about how the economy might work in the future is to look at how it has worked in the past. The most important work of economics in the last decade, Tomas Piketty’s Capital, was notable for its analysis of wealth inequality in the past. Because of new methods, Piketty could be more precise than Marx.

Futurism, whether in science fiction, sociology, or journalism, is deeply concerned with the past for the same reasons. You cannot know what is truly new until you know what is old. Many current ideas seem like confounding novelties until you find their antecedents and you realize they aren’t new at all. Once you take the sheen of novelty off a new policy or object, it is much easier to see it for what it really is.

The executive I was writing for was frequently annoyed by my persistent mention of history and chalked it up to my being an underpaid history major (I didn’t major in history, nor am I underpaid). The idea that looking at what was old was necessary to doing business was inadmissible to him.

Americans never want to hear about history. We only want to hear what is new or, more accurately, we want to believe that what we hear about is new and therefore automatically good. Progress is unimportant. The only important thing is forward motion, which is the same as progress anyway. Who cares whether Apple’s new iPhone is better than the last one? It need only be newer. This prejudice extends to government. New ways are always are better because they represent change.

Less than a year after the current administration came into power, it became common to use “Obama era” to describe any legislation passed during the eight years of his presidency. When Ajit Pai wanted to repeal Net Neutrality he called it an “Obama era” policy, which made it sound as dusty and irrelevant as legislation passed by Truman or Roosevelt. “Obama era” has taken root in both the liberal and conservative press. No matter your affiliation , the desire to abandon the past is embedded in the very language we use.

Never mind that the founding generation of America based our entire system of government on classical antiquity, a world they knew well through the study of ancient languages. Never mind that Steve Jobs’s first innovation was to apply the ancient art of typography to the screens of computers.

In a recent essay, Professor Carla Arnell laments but also measures the loss of historically-minded faculty at the college where she teaches. Only five percent of full-time faculty have expertise in anything prior to the 19th Century.

My job is to write copy and devise communications strategies for global businesses. One of my advantages is my knowledge of rhetoric, which was more or less figured out in its entirety a few centuries before the birth of Christ. Another asset in my job is my ability to read and understand old books. In college, I was forever changed by having to struggle through Paradise Lost by John Milton, a very long poem about the history of the universe which was written about half a century after the death of Queen Elizabeth I (she of the adjective “Elizabethan”). This doesn’t mean that I write for social media or websites like somebody from hundreds of years ago. But it does mean that I can see the current field of ideas and styles and quickly sort it into what’s useful and what is not. This is great for my own intellectual self-defense (if you think current American political bullshitters are skilled, you haven’t read political pamphlets from a few hundred years ago) and also the rhetorical defense of my clients, many of whom have important, nuanced things to say but lack the best words to say them with.

All of this would be lost to me if I hadn’t been compelled to learn about the past by my college curricula. All the historical requirements in English at Yale, incidentally, have been dropped since I graduated, which is a tremendous loss.

Studying the past doesn’t mean we have to live there. It means we get a shot at know where we’re living today.



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