04 March 2011

dispatches from comps, part 1.

Since I'm busybusybusy studying for my comprehensive exams, I thought I'd share with you some choice snippets along the way.

"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?

1 comment:

Dave Feucht said...

I've thought about it a lot, that there never were simpler times, so much, just that the issues pressing on mankind have changed over the centuries (sometimes over a few years).

I do struggle a lot with cynicism in regard to our current political situation in America, and I struggle with the fact that I struggle with cynicism :) I go back and forth a lot, and I think the place I've finally come to, is that I feel very cynical about the political system in America, and how it currently operates, but not necessarily about the American people in general (though I think a lot of work has been done to tame them and spin them around in circles). I feel like, if significant change is going to come at this point, it's going to have to be from the ground up.

It's true that we can gain insight from past experience, and how things were done before - but that insight and experience has to be applied to the current situation - one which has never happened before. That requires creativity (and why, I think, it's sad that creativity is so undervalued here, and that creativity outside of artistic pursuits might as well not exist).

We have to take the values we believe in, and think of interesting ways they can be implanted in the current situation.

Which honestly could be kind of fun, if it weren't so frustrating :)