"The liberal society analyst is destined in two ways to be a less pleasing scholar than the Progressive: he finds national weaknesses and he can offer no absolute assurance on the basis of the past that they will be remedied. He tends to criticize and then shrug his shoulders, which is no way to become popular, especially in an age like our own. But even if there were not an integrity to criticism which ought to be kept inviolate at any cost, this mood is not without constructive virtue. It reminds us of a significant fact: that instead of recapturing our past, we have got to transcend it. As for a child who is leaving adolescence, there is no going home again for America."
-Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955), 32.
I wondered how this quote could be read for our own times, when it seems like everyone's a hopeless cynical critic of our national state of affairs (perhaps I must rethink my understanding of the 1950s). It is useful to remember that American history should be used not as an aspiration, that there is no "return to normalcy," that the solutions of the past are not always the best fit for the present. What a strange and critical task for historians and citizens alike, to love the past but not idealize it; to learn the lesson of Lot's wife and look forward at the crucial moments. Simpler times, they never were. Should we think less of what needs reforming and think more of what can be formed? Can inventiveness replace restoration? Can we transcend our past?