Why is history important? What difference does it make whether we understand how the “Now” was made? And even with historical knowledge, isn’t history too complex to really provide us with definitive explanations anyhow? There’s more than enough raw material in history to draw from it whatever lessons one wishes, right?
But what if there existed no history? What if some higher power just set up all the pieces of the board– a few moments ago!– and then flicked a switch and set things in motion from that instant onward? How would that change the way we live? It would certainly be a little more difficult to blame our parents or other groups of people for the way we are. Probably, a big parts of our lives, the job or routine parts, would be little affected by an absence of a preceding historical narrative.
Let us pretend that the higher power setting things in motion a few moments ago, unlike most other deities, is a forthright entity, and he tells us straight-out how he has built everything and wound it up and set it all in motion. Straight away, then, we can see that a world with no history would save a lot of energy in all the intellectual pursuits which look to the past for answers… pursuits such as: metaphysical philosophy, archaeology, history, et cetera.
Secondly, think of all the resentments which would be washed away without a history. Resentments for things done to us personally, for things done to people we personally know, and — perhaps, bizarrely, the most powerful resentment of them all– for things done a long time ago to people whom we don’t even know but with whom we identify. Most every “people” hold some historical grudge against some other “people.”
Oh, of course, we would set to work right away filling that grudge-vacuum… hurting each other, betraying one another… but for awhile at least, one mass of people would have no historical cause to assume a hatred for another mass of people.
A world without history would, psychologically speaking, be the freest world imaginable.
For human beings, our understanding of history– our knowledge and interpretation of past events– is, along with our mechanical history, vitally important to our current state.
In their book, The Untold History Of The United States, Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone stress the importance in our lives of our perception of history… not so much what actually happened, but what we think happened. The authors operate under the assumption that most Americans have a profound ignorance and misunderstanding of our nation’s history. They imply that this misreading of our own history makes Americans naive, hypocritical, overly prideful, and complaisant towards the activities of our government. They also imply that our ignorance of real history is part of the reason why we are so easily led by the nose by government propaganda or the claims of interest groups, and also why we are so prone to see the world in black and white.
“The understanding of history shapes behavior in the here and now,” Koznick and Stone write. “Historical understanding defines people’s very sense of what is thinkable and achievable.”
Koznick’s and Stone’s writings upon history led me to a vision of something I call the “Garden Of Now.” In the Garden Of Now, we will have planted some combination of seeds… some seeds of love and some seeds of sorrow. We will have fertilized inconsistently– here with forgiveness, there with resentment. We will have pruned this patch with wisdom, this patch with folly. We will have nurtured and well-tended a robust row of unhurtful traditions on this side, but on the other, allowed weeds of hatred to choke a whole pasture of sprouting hopes. And we will have sometimes had to watch as our most cherished dreams fell as dried and lifeless buds from withered branches, as we futilely watered our Garden Of Now with our blood and tears.
And with what seeds have we Americans planted our garden?
Did we plant acorns of fear? Is that why our garden is robbed of sunlight by the towering oaks of militarism?
Did we let fall wayward seeds of intolerance and cruelty? Is that why the vines run up our children’s necks and choke away their laughter?
Did we use as pruning knives razors of revenge and hatchets of hatred? Is that why our fruits spurt such blood?
America’s Garden Of Now is large and on a hillside set, and far and wide its seeds are scattered. Koznick and Stone tell us that American military outposts have sprouted– not by the dozen, not by the score– but by the hundreds all over the world, with some form of American military presence in two out of three of the world’s countries. According to the authors estimate, over 40% of the substantial taxes which Americans pay goes toward supporting the country’s worldwide military presence.
China has zero overseas bases.
Does that make China weak and vulnerable? Are its interests unprotected? Is China more likely than the U.S. to be militarily attacked by foreign powers?
In America’s Garden Of Now, certain plants crowd-out the others with their vast root-system, and hog much of the vital sunlight with their greedily extending limbs. Yet these same overgrown plants produce relatively little fruit. The richest one percent of Americans possess more wealth than the bottom 90% put together. And the chieftains of the largest corporations earn over three hundred times the pay offered the American worker toiling away at the median level of income– that’s not the bottom level of income, mind you, that’s the median income.
In the early 1980s, the pay of these chieftains stood at the relatively low level of 42 times the median income.
Koznick and Stone inform us that, during the three decades while CEO pay was skyrocketing, the income of the average American worker remained stagnate. This fact is camouflaged by the steady devaluation of the dollar during the same period, causing paychecks to LOOK bigger today than thirty years ago, although the reality is that real wages have not improved for well over a generation.
Perhaps the American Garden Of Now is due for a plowing-under; in the long run, it can sometimes be the best thing for a garden.