Open book empty desk 4

How Do We Assess Our Past?

capitol image guns
               Frieze in the U.S. Capitol 

How do we acknowledge the past without making unearned judgments about the moral failures of our ancestors?

At the recent meeting of the American Historical Association in Philadelphia, members predictably debated how academics should evaluate historical figures who acted within the framework of their generation’s social norms. We know that Thomas Jefferson and many of America’s founders owned slaves. At the time of the founding of the country cultural leaders were content to exclude women, African Americans and others to wealth and access to real power.  We can’t ignore such serious offenses.  Yet, sometimes lives need to be assessed with an eye on coping with complex binaries that exist within the same person.

reagan hearing

It is now a social science given that key institutions—the church, education, government and most of the working world—carried built-in biases against citizens who were clearly entitled to equal protections and opportunities.  Any number of politicians would like to challenge what now vilified as ‘critical race theory.’ But there is no question that earlier narratives and practices across the culture perpetuated embedded racial and gender biases. Think of Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan or James Webb. Each carried prejudices that explain serious leadership deficits. Reagan, for example, was slow to act on the AIDS crisis that tore through the gay community. I’ll add another: growing up in Colorado, I don’t remember any schooling that covered the displacement or massacre of the indigenous people who originally inhabited the region. It’s possible my earlier distracted person missed something, but the sad story of the Sand Creek Massacre was definitely not a preferred narrative.

To our credit, most of us feel a degree of cognitive dissonance on discovering that beloved institutions or figures were carriers of poisonous prejudices. When we apply our newer sensibilities to what we see in history’s rear-view mirror, we can’t help but cringe at mainstream attitudes that were once accepted, mostly without dissent.

The challenge of “presentism”

How do we acknowledge the details of the past without making unearned judgments about the moral failures of our ancestors? To do so is sometimes labeled as “presentism,” an urge to render assessments of individuals, bypassing the necessary work of accurately placing their lives within the context of their own world.

At the conference James Sweet, a black studies historian at the University of Wisconsin, noted that “repairing historical wrongs” is important, but the job of a historian is to offer context, giving “as full a render of the past as our sources allow.”  But his view was doubted by many, who believe it is wrong to separate description from necessary judgment—especially in an era when many leaders on the right would like to prohibit classroom discussions of racial or sexual discrimination.

Like most others, I’m incensed by this kind of misguided legislating. But if we believe we are now ahead of the curve in moving toward moral justice, we should probably think again. As George Scialabba recently noted recently in Commonweal, “it is pretty certain that the average educated human of the twenty-third century will look back at the average educated human of the twenty-first century and ask incredulously about a considerable number of our most cherished moral and political axioms, “How could they have believed that?” His complaint is centered on everyday social inequalities that we rarely notice: for example, the fact that an American CEO can make 300 times what their employees take home. We only notice it when someone reminds us to look. The point is that moral certainty that allows definitive judgments about short-sighted ancestors is perpetually reflexive. There is no finite geography of moral certitude we can claim as our own. There is always another higher peak beyond the one we thought we just topped.

black bar

Revised square logo 2

red bar graphic

The Deliberation Deficit

Second Thoughts Banner

Congress is the best example of the price we can pay when the rewards of public performance are greater than those of private negotiation. The recent  struggle to choose a speaker makes that all too apparent. 

The familiar cliché is true: Congress is a broken institution, with public approval ratings to match.  While this branch of the federal establishment was not designed to work with the efficiency of a parliament, where a head of government is chosen from the party that wins a plurality of seats, congressional dysfunction now leaves so much on the table that needs to be addressed: everything from immigration reform to timely considerations of the budget and the federal deficit. We knew this institution was in deep trouble recently when in 2013 a sizable number of members were ready to risk a government default and the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency.  It’s now a cautionary tale retold again with the fresh realization of the goal of house members intent on hobbling the federal government.

Members note that they no longer the case that they socialize after work or even share a meal while in session. 

What’s wrong?  What best practices for communicating in organizations are routinely ignored?  Briefly, some of the overwhelming problems on Capitol Hill have their origins in two ineffective communication patterns.

The first is that the body is obviously and hopelessly organized into factions—notably parties, special interest caucuses, and their media—making it likely that members will only work in groups rather than as a whole.  Since most of the process of legislating is done away from the floors of the House and Senate, it falls to party leaders, whips and members to work out in private and within their own caucuses what legislation they will accept. Differences of opinion have fewer chances to be moderated in environments that would encourage conciliation.  The founders feared this hyper partisanship for good reason.  Their hope to discourage the formation of “factions” and parties now seems wildly naïve.

This problem is compounded by a long tradition of individual offices set up as separate fiefdoms and spread over four buildings on the east side of the capitol. One wonders how different legislative life would be if the 100 members of the Senate worked in the conditions known to most of white-collar America–at least those still in offices: in the same ‘cubicle farm’ spread over one or two floors. This arrangement would encourage more discussion across party lines and more functional coalition-building.

A second problem is the changing character of those seeking high public office. In the age of the internet and 24-hour news, there seems to be more interest in the expressive possibilities of serving in public office than actually doing the work of governing.  The goal to become the face of a faction is all too common.  The resulting political theater becomes its own reward.

2000px Vertical United States Flag.svg

In the lore of Congress there has always been an expectation that the “show horses” would sometimes win out over the “work horses.”  A retired Lyndon Johnson once complained to a CBS producer about the “pretty boys” created by the growth of television.  The former Senate Majority leader’s point was that visual media gave rise to a new breed of members more interested in the theater of politics than finding ways to bridge differences.  Even journalists are picking up the thread of rhetorical analysis that a lot of what we say is “performative:” to be studies on its own terms, but not as an instrument to achieve some other objective.

Congress is simply the best example of the price we can pay when the rewards of public performance are greater than those of private negotiation.  So the institution offers some cautionary reminders to the rest of us working in complex bureaucracies. First, we can’t afford to isolate ourselves from others  who we expect to sign on to our initiatives.  In addition, since its a solid axiom that we more easily find comity in small groups, trying to forge leadership in large bodies needs to be seen as the problem it frequently is: the organizational equivalent of trying to get even a few dozen college professors to form a single straight line.

two color line

cropped Revised square logo

flag ukraine