Though I decided not to forego exercise and dinner to brave the lines and crowds outside the Kohl Center in the cold (one look at the lines for the parking ramps sent me straight to the bus stop home), I did appreciate this little shoutout to the Wisconsin Idea and some good old Progressive spirit from Obama’s speech in Madison tonight:
And where better to affirm our ideals than here in Wisconsin, where a century ago the progressive movement was born. It was rooted in the principle that the voices of the people can speak louder than special interests; that citizens can be connected to their government and to one another; and that all of us share a common destiny, an American Dream.
I think I was especially glad to come across this gesture at the uses of history because of the way Obama has mobilized past/future rhetoric in his campaign. The historian in me cringes just a little bit every time he makes his past/future contrast, not because I disagree with the point he’s trying to make, but because I feel that it imputes a, well, badness to the past and a goodness to the future that fails to recognize the messy and contingent nature of each. It tends to ignore or brush aside, for instance, historical moments at which positive changes were made, in which good policies were implemented; or junctures at which there were many possible paths, not just one inevitable road bringing us to where we are today. I recognize his language for what it most surely is — an inspiring, forward-looking call to action — but I still bristle ever so slightly at the past/future bit.
We have this tendency to think that our present moment is more enlightened than moments in the past; that our knowledge is cumulative; that we are continuously becoming better and better. In popular discourse we have a tendency to discredit past historical actors for this reason, but any close examination of those people and those times complicates the picture, makes classifications like “backward” and “modern” appear more like the cultural constructions they are. Knowledge is lost just as it is made, and it is largely hubris that allows us to ignore this most of the time (when we aren’t, say, writing seminar papers for history classes and the like). At risk of getting all Sound & Sense here, it’s all about the complex connotations and meanings with which these concepts are literally laden — and political campaigns are, of course, about seizing on these cultural touchstones, putting them to work, using them as the potent, immediate, and effective shorthands that they can be. We can all recognize what a thrilling experience it is to listen to someone speak who, like Obama, has a perfect command of this symbolic language. In such capable hands, it is stirring and moving.
And so perhaps this is just a very silly post in the end — but it is something that has stood out to me in the language of this election, and I’ve been thinking about it of late. We are very likely at one of those historical turning points of which I spoke right now — at least, we have the potential to be. Which is all just to say that, while I am very hopeful about the future, I also think there are always new things to be learned from the past — especially about ourselves. History, too, is ever growing.