Laziness is the mother of perspective. I’ve been taking the Wall Street Journal for some months now, receiving the well-rolled and well-wrapped papers in my driveway every morning. I threw them onto the passenger seat of my truck as I began my commute, but I soon forsook the pretense and pretentiousness of carrying the paper under my arm into my office for the cachet. Too frequently, the papers return home unread and accumulate on one end of the love seat. With a paper as expensive as the Wall Street Journal, you don’t throw it into the recycling bin or use it as fireplace kindling when you’re out of twenty-dollar bills without glancing at least at the section headlines.
Some weekends, though, I make a point of, at minimum, paging through the accumulated wisdom, and these blocs of skimming have instilled in me a greater understanding of history, or at least the relative insignificance in history of chatter, speculation, and sports-like spectator-ism that makes up ninety percent of the news coming from Washington and all other government seats.
Every day, I get my share of the chatter; I get headlines and news from the Internet, and I participate in the great diablog that occurs amongst like-minded individuals with Web logs. In the 2004 elections, I followed all of the barnstorming commentary at the speed of broadband. So I participate in the cheerleading and heckling that represents in-depth participation in politics in the 21st century. But October’s Wall Street Journals cured that when I read them in November.
Every night in October of some past year, I hoped to set aside twenty minutes or a half hour each evening to read the paper, knowing full well that I would have seen the storylines play out on The Drudge Report, the blogs, CNN.com, and the local paper’s Web site before I got to the print speculation. Still, I hoped for detailed analysis I didn’t get from the quick scans of headlines when the boss wasn’t looking. But life, chores, and computer games often interrupted my plan. Sometime in late October or early November, I allocated an afternoon to catch up and remove the papers that were beginning to tip the furniture. I had a reverse chronology of the preceding month’s triumphs and follies for America and for the party. But by reading the papers in reverse order, I inadvertently received the perspective of history.
That is, I knew how the early October tribulations resolved before I read the articles outlining the strategies and the pitfalls. In the Internet real-time world, the rhetoric fires up the base and counts individual ticks on the scorecard of history, but the almanacs only carry the name of the winner. So Harriet something-or-other isn’t a Supreme Court justice and some guy with a placid smile is. Ultimately, the individual plays, the calls from the opponents’ cheap seats, and the shouts of the pretty boys and girls through their cones didn’t impact the lives of most Americans.
Sure, nine placid smiles on the Supreme Court will make America one way, as would six placid smiles and three earnest frowns or six earnest frowns and three placid smiles. However, the great events that lead to that court and that change the country occur infrequently enough that one doesn’t have to arrest all normalcy to fight the good fight, or merely the fight (the difference lies in your position on the fight, of course).
Instead, I went about my business throughout October spending my immediacy on the things that directly impacted me (my job, household maintenance, my marriage, and too little exercise). Only when I read the preceding weeks’ papers did I realize the peril to our way of life, but by that time, with the solid knowledge of the continued progress of history, I wasn’t worried. It reminded me of watching a movie I’d seen before.
I once bought a box of Newsweek magazines from 1966-67 at an estate sale; I’d spent two dollars to purchase the year-long subscription in hopes of turning it into eBay wealth. As I searched individual issues for keywords to drive up the bidding, I found similar tropes: Viet Nam, Viet Nam, Lyndon Johnson, the decline of the west, and more Viet Nam. In 1967, it was an ongoing concern, dribbed and drabbed out nightly or weekly as needed by the media of the time to support their corporate habits. By the time I was born, Viet Nam was a conflagration unimagined within those archived magazines. In the thirty-five years before I bought the magazines, the living memory of the year faded to romantic youth for that generation. Within only a matter of decades, that year and its live-or-die will fade to simple line items in history books or full treatises among which historians can dig in libraries.
The politics, too, of our age will fade like this. Remember distinctly the congressional shutdown of 1995? I remember it, although it’s fading to a mere sentence and sense of what it meant. The immediacy and its attendant vehemence for that bastard who caused it—well, I can summon them in name only. So this years’ nominees, secretaries, and Congressional leaders might someday earn themselves trivia questions, but most won’t merit that. Between the now and that then, though, life will go on, regardless of what partisan emergencies erupt and, quite probably, how history’s sweep brushes aside our grave concerns.