“When the passions of the past blend with the prejudices of the present, human reality is reduced to a picture in black and white.” — Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft
In the moments before starting a class I was about to teach in bioethics, one of those moments in which some students stare into space while others read over the assignment, a large woman burst into the classroom with a shout, her face wreathed in smiles, arms over her head, body swaying in a herky-jerky dance: “Gaddafi is dead!”, she sang out. “Gaddafi is dead!” Some in the classroom registered mild surprise, others merely nodded, one or two gasped; the majority simply smiled at the delight of this woman who continued to chatter amiably about the event.
The next morning I glimpsed the front page of the New York Times and saw a blurred photograph of Gaddafi, head bloodied, a rictus of terror on his face, surrounded by men with guns, under a blazing sun that cast everything into patterns of light and dark. The photo was taken from a video shot in the moment—no doubt with a cell phone—a video that the Times assured us was even now circling the globe. A hated dictator comes to his end, dragged out from a drainage ditch, spreadeagled across the hood of a car amidst a mob, and eventually shot in the head at point-blank range. That’s one version of the story, anyway.
The moment of liberation has finally come, a moment which Gaddafi, for all his paranoid bluster and atavistic arrogance, must have imagined in his night-sweats while on the run. ‘Lo, how the mighty have fallen,’ came to mind, as did memories of Sadam Hussein, wild-eyed and disheveled, dragged like a maggot from his hole on his way to a quick finish at the end of a rope. These moments are preserved for us, first in pixels, then in memory. But as Susan Sontag reminds us in her On Photography, “The ethical content of photographs is fragile.” In time, these photos will fade, not just physically, but from our immediate consciousness also. “A photograph of 1900 that was affecting then because of its subject would, today, be more likely to move us because it is a photograph taken in 1900.”
How do we distinguish the moments in which the hinge of history slides ponderously open? That which the media chooses today as the key to the future becomes in that future a footnote to a larger event from the past. With time and patience the historian discovers a pattern among the bones. But I am fascinated by the need in us to create a meaning now, to build a house upon the sand for the purpose of selling the real estate before the tide turns and it is swept away. Thus, every spike in the EKG of world affairs draws out the pundits whose wisdom-for-hire keeps us amused and distracted.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t put current events in a context nor should we refrain from trying to understand what’s going on. I think it’s something else entirely, this uneasiness I have about a beta version of historical meaning. I came across a quote recently which looks at this puzzle from the other end.
“It often happens that those who live at a later time are unable to grasp the point at which the great undertakings or actions of this world had their origin. And I, constantly seeking the reason for this phenomenon, could find no other answer than this, namely that all things (including those that at last come to triumph mightily) are at their beginnings so small and faint in outline that one cannot easily convince oneself that from them will grow matters of great moment (Matteo Ricci).”
We feel the need to know what will happen, so much so that we will create a probable history so that our commitments of time and money and political capital will find the greatest return on investment. We’re not very good at predicting the future. Who foresaw the Arab spring? We’re much more sure about our ‘winter of discontent,’ as gas prices surge and ebb, as health care in this country leaves millions in the cold, and as the political campaigning runs its brutal, if predictable, course.
Journalists of the old school, used to finding the facts and delivering them with as little authorial inflection as possible, are now asked to render judgment on what they report. This is a waste of time and talent, but not of money. In this branding era a news staff comes to be known for its daring—not the courage of reporters entering a war zone or taking on the rich and powerful—but of those who turn headlines into questions that have no answer. “Which Dictator is Going Down Next?” “Is Cain Dead in the Water?” “Can Rick Perry Overcome His Debate Blunders?” and “Will the Murdoch Clan Survive?”
Marc Bloch, an eminent French historian, joined the Resistance against the Nazi occupation of France when he was nearly 60. He was later captured by the Nazis, tortured, and finally executed near Lyons with twenty-six other patriots on June 16, 1944. In 1941, having been forced out of his academic post because of his Jewish ancestry, he began a book, The Historian’s Craft, which was never finished because of his untimely death. In it he reports on an incident, “the airplane of Nuremberg,” in which rumors of a provocation by the French against the Germans were not only untrue but went undisputed because it was useful to believe them. “Of all the types of deception,” he says, “not the least frequent is that which we impose upon ourselves, and the word ‘sincerity’ has so broad a meaning that it cannot be used without admitting a great many shadings.”
I like what Steve Jobs said in his now-famous Stanford Commencement address of 2005: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards.” Some think journalism is the first draft of history, but in a 24/7 news-cycle today’s news is tomorrow’s history—and that’s simply not enough time to connect the dots.