Living for History

I had a conversation with a visiting researcher today, who noted the early 19th century newspaper on my desk and said that he thought it was really worth reading contemporaneous newspapers because you got a lot better feeling for what it might have been like to live through events, before they became “history.”

In retrospect, it is very difficult to understand how Americans could have been so complacent when their government decided to do something as clearly unjust as imprisoning Americans of a particular heritage. It can be difficult to know how we will look back on the last few years. I have a feeling we will have a hard time explaining things like the Patriot Act. At least I hope we will, and that it will be relegated sometime soon to the dustbin of history.

I wonder how we will remember the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales, especially by those who ought to have known better and could have stopped it. I suspect, that will depend a lot on what Gonzales does in his office. If he blunders badly, history will judge those who supported his nomination harshly. I suspect, however, that this will remain a footnote in a very sad chapter in American History textbooks about how fragile the collective American psyche really is, and how easily we are driven to abandon the idea of justice, liberty, and the rule of law.

We often are dismissive of those in public office, especially presidents, who make decisions in order to affect “their legacy.” Sometimes, though, it would clearly be better for us if politicians would play to the history books rather than prey on our petty (and not so petty) fears.

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