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Posts Tagged ‘history’

16 OCTOBER, 2014

The History Manifesto: How to Eradicate the Epidemic of Short-Termism and Harness Our Past in Creating a Flourishing Future

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A beautiful case for why our flourishing requires that we move from pursuing value to cultivating values.

I spend a significant amount of time on ideas at the intersection of the timeless and the timely, something I find to be of growing urgency in a culture such as ours, where the tyrannical reverse-chronology of newsfeeds implies that the latest, being literally at the top, is also of the greatest importance and meaning. We often lump the thinkers of the past under the grab-bag term “history” — a term that has come to be increasingly dismissive as irrelevant amid our novelty-fetishism. And yet some of humanity’s greatest thinkers, who have been dead for decades or centuries or millennia, have explored with remarkable prescience and insight issues of intense importance today — be it Seneca on busyness two thousand years before our present cult of productivity or Susan Sontag on the dynamics of visual culture online decades before the modern social web existed or Kierkegaard on the psychology of bullying and cybertrolling in 1847 or Tolstoy and Gandhi on the truth of the human spirit. Asking the eternal questions — about happiness, about justice, about how to live a meaningful life — is an immutable part of the human experience. To presume that we and we alone, perched atop our tiny slice of history, have the most valid answers is to cheat ourselves of the rich and ennobling record of human experience upon which our civilization is founded.

That’s precisely what Brown University history professor Jo Guldi and Harvard historian David Armitage explore in The History Manifesto (public library) — a beautifully argued case for why we need to eradicate the present epidemic of short-termism, a disease that “has many practitioners but few defenders,” and shift to long-view narratives that ensure not only the survival but also the creative, intellectual, political, environmental, and spiritual flourishing of our civilization. (Although the manifesto may celebrate the value of the past, it isn’t beholden to yesteryear’s baggage — the book is also available as a free digital text under a Creative Commons license.)

Guldi and Armitage open unambiguously:

A specter is haunting our time: the specter of the short term.

We live in a moment of accelerating crisis that is characterized by the shortage of long-term thinking… Almost every aspect of human life is plotted and judged, packaged and paid for, on time-scales of a few months or years. There are few opportunities to shake those projects loose from their short-term moorings. It can hardly seem worthwhile to raise questions of the long term at all.

'The Histomap' by John Sparks (1931) from 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for details.

They cite legendary futurist Steward Brand’s founding statement for The Long Now Foundation, of which I am a proud supporter:

Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed — some mechanism or myth that encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where “the long term” is measured at least in centuries.

A proper relationship with the past, Guldi and Armitage argue, empowers the essential elasticity of time that is so central to free will and to our ability to make sound decisions, in business and in life:

Nimble people, whether activists or entrepreneurs … depend on an instinctual sense of change from past to present to future as they navigate through their day-to-day activities… Regardless of age or security of income, we are all in the business of making sense of a changing world. In all cases, understanding the nexus of past and future is crucial to acting upon what comes next.

Educational institutions, they argue, are both uniquely situated as bastions of long-term thinking and particularly vulnerable to the epidemic of short-termism. Nalanda University in India, founded as a Buddhist institution more than 1,500 years ago, may still be a hearth of learning, but it also must exist in a culture where the average lifespan of a modern corporation is a mere 75 years and the vast majority of startups don’t survive past their fifth year. That universities are increasingly subjected to the expectations of businesses, Guldi and Armitage suggest, is of enormous cultural peril:

Universities … are the carriers of traditions, the guardians of deep knowledge. They should be the centers of innovation where research takes place without regard to profit or immediate application.

[...]

The peculiar capacity of the university to foster disinterested inquiries into the long term may be as endangered as long-term thinking itself… As the medieval university mutated into the modern research university, and as private foundations become subject to public control and funding, the goals of the humanities were increasingly tested and contested. For at least the last century, wherever the humanities have been taught or studied there has been debate about their “relevance” and their “value.” Crucial to the defense of the humanities has been their mission to transmit questions about value — and to question values — over hundreds, even thousands, of years. Any search for antidotes to short-termism must begin with them.

'Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences' by Chrétien Frederic (1780) from 'The Book of Trees.' Click image for details.

In the third chapter, titled “The Proliferation of Mythology,” Guldi and Armitage point to one particularly perilous aspect of our cultural narrative — that of reductionist and misleading myths. (The great Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner memorably captured the power of myth in 1962, calling it “at once an external reality and the resonance of the internal vicissitudes of man” and a “ready-made means of externalizing human plight.”) The authors write:

The abundance of false stories in our time is one of the major reasons that we are in a crisis of short-term thinking. In an era of simplistic solutions to problems with rising sea-levels, governance, or inequality, few people can talk authoritatively about the big picture. The proliferation of reductionist stories about the past has a history, like anything else. Nightmare scenarios and fundamentalist mythologies about climate, governance, and inequality began to proliferate around the same time that historians began to retreat to shorter and shorter time scales.

As the Short Past came to dictate conversations about history, longue-durée understanding began to look, by contrast, like an antique mode of story-telling, something performed only by patriarchs or amateurs, unsuited to a modern student adept at using evidence or argument. This led to the charge that social history had abandoned all interest in politics, power, and ideology, leading its practitioners instead to “sit somewhere in the stratosphere, unrooted in reality.” Increasingly, the Short Past was defined as not only one way to look at history, but the only way to look at history.

'A New Chart of History' by Joseph Priestley (1769) from '100 Diagrams that Changed the World.' Click image for details.

Particularly since the 1970s, Guldi and Armitage argue, such short-termism has resulted in nothing short of a moral crisis, blinding us to alternative futures and producing “habits of microscopic attention that culminated in a sense of practical irrelevance” and that caused the mutual abandonment of the humanities (which are, after all, what makes us human) and the public.

As somebody particularly drawn to mid-twentieth-century thinkers like Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, and Alan Watts, I find particularly pause-giving Guldi and Armitage’s observation that during that period, historians and intellectuals played an active role in the public sphere — something that undoubtedly not only benefited public life, but also enriched these thinkers’ ideas to make them precisely as enduring as they are. Today, the notion of a “public intellectual” is, outside of a small coterie, practically paradoxical. Our idols are not scholars and people who think for a living but performers and entrepreneurs, people who do for a living, and do at a rapid pace, with productive immediacy. No wonder short-termism is the monoculture of our time.

Guldi and Armitage advocate for a new breed of historians and history-minded thinkers who are concerned with “restoring the tight-woven cloak of stories that helps to shelter a culture with a sophisticated understanding of its past” and who use the past to illuminate the future and speak truth to present power:

The new historians of the longue durée should be inspired to use history to criticize the institutions around us and to return history to its mission as a critical social science. History can provide the basis for a rejection of anachronisms founded on deference to longevity alone. Thinking with history — but only with long stretches of that history — may help us to choose which institutions to bury as dead and which we might want to keep alive.

[...]

History, with its rich, material understanding of human experience and institutions and its apprehension of multiple causality, is reentering the arena of long-term discussions of time where evolutionary biologists, archaeologists, climate scientists, and economists have long been the only protagonists. Today, we desperately need an arbiter for these mythological histories, capable of casting out prejudice, reestablishing consensus about the actual boundaries of the possible, and in so doing opening up a wider future and destiny for modern civilizations. History as a discipline can be that referee.

A visual history of Nobel Prizes and laureates. Click image for details.

In the final section, Guldi and Armitage capture precisely what is at stake and why the role of history in shaping the future is so full of promise and possibility:

Responding to the call for a public future demands some rethinking the way we look at the past… Answering the call for a public future also means writing and talking about the past and the future in public, in such a way that ideas can be easily shared.

They outline the three things essential for writing such future-forward history:

  1. A need for new narratives capable of being read, understood, and engaged by non-experts
  2. An emphasis on visualization and digital tools
  3. A fusion between the big and the small, the “micro” and the “macro,” that harnesses the best of archival work on the one hand and big-picture work about issues of common concern on the other

Seven decades after Vannevar Bush presaged the rise of “a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record,” Guldi and Armitage write:

History’s relationship with the public future lies in developing a longue-durée contextual background against which archival information, events, and sources can be interpreted… [This] requires the services of scholars trained in looking at the past, who can explain where things came from, who can examine the precise evidence of the Short Past and the broader picture of big data and the longue durée, and who are dedicated to serve the public through responsible thinking about the nexus of past, present, and future.

Illustration from the graphic biography of Karl Marx. Click image for details.

But rather than nihilistic criticism of contemporary culture, the book is above all a clarion call for taking action, for our era is uniquely positioned to cultivate a sound and nourishing relationship with the past:

An era defined by a crisis of short-termism may be a particularly good time to start rethinking attitudes towards the past. Many histories have been written with the express purpose of offering a window into the future, and some — especially long-term histories of capitalism and the environment — are very clear about what they offer.

This, Guldi and Armitage argue, would require the dedication of people “unafraid of generating and circulating digestible narratives” — for, lest we forget, the disseminators of ideas are the unsung heroes of innovation and progress — who would respond to “a public need to make sense of our common past.” These people, they point out, need not be professional historians — we ought to, as legendary humanist John Franklin Jameson put it in 1912, think of history “not as the property of a small guild of professional colleagues, but as the rightful heritage of millions.”

The History Manifesto is excellent and urgently necessary in its totality. Complement it with Judith Butler’s fantastic commencement address on the value of the humanities.

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06 OCTOBER, 2014

Karl Marx’s Life and Legacy, in a Comic

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From the opium of the masses to the downfall of capitalism, by way of love and revolution.

The history of our species is rife with ideologies — political, religious, social, philosophical — that have been either wholly hijacked from their creators or gradually warped, with only fragments of the original vision intact, doomed to being continually misunderstood by posterity.

On the heels of the excellent graphic biography of Freud, British indie press Nobrow is back with Marx (public library) by Swiss writer, economist, historian, and psychoanalyst Corinne Maier and French illustrator Anne Simon — an illuminating chronicle of the life and legacy of a man at once reviled as “the Devil” for denouncing capitalism and celebrated for his ideals of eradicating inequality, injustice, and exploitation from the world. More than the sum total of his political legacy, Marx’s story is also one of great personal turmoil and tragedy, inner conflict, and moral tussle — subtleties that the comic genre, with its gift for stripping complexities to their simplest truths without losing dimension, reveals with great sensitivity and insight.

The story begins with Marx’s childhood as the third of nine kids in a traditional Jewish family and traces his exasperation with classical education and his choice to study philosophy instead, how he fell in love with the woman who would become his partner for life, the evolution of his influential treatise The Communist Manifesto, how he ended up dying a stateless person, “both adored and hated,” and what his ideas have to do with the 2008 economic collapse.

One of the final pages, reflecting on communism’s rise to power in Russia, Eastern Europe and China in the twentieth century, captures the dimensionality of Marx’s legacy in elegantly simple form. “Some very good things came out of it, but some very bad ones, too,” writes Maier as Marx’s ghost is depicted walking off, muttering to himself, “My ideal of freedom was betrayed.”

Complement Marx with other fantastic graphic biographies — Salvador Dalí, Richard Feynman, Andy Warhol, Charles Darwin, Hunter S. Thompson, and Steve Jobs — then revisit Nobrow’s wonderful graphic novel about the brain.

Images courtesy of Nobrow Press

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01 OCTOBER, 2014

A History of New York in 101 Objects: A Thoughtful Visual Encyclopedia of Collective Memory

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How artifacts abstract the city’s tragedies and triumphs and tell the story of its aliveness.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E.B. White wrote in his spectacular 1949 love letter to New York. “The city is like poetry.” And compress it does — the city’s five boroughs are home to some 8.4 million people, more than the entire population of my native Bulgaria. To capture New York’s dimensional poetics seems like a Herculean task, yet many have attempted it — from Walt Whitman with his raunchy verses to Berenice Abbott with her era-defining photographs to the New Yorker with its high-brow feline history. But to capture it in just a few dozen objects seems near impossible, since of all that New York compresses in its small space, objects are practically innumerable and cacophonous. And yet that is precisely what New York Times urban affairs correspondent Sam Roberts accomplishes in A History of New York in 101 Objects (public library) — partly a living museum, partly a catalog of events, partly a luminous sidewise gleam at the essence of what makes a great city.

Selected with a lens for the “paradigmatic but quirky,” Roberts’s objects are a far cry from the clichés of tourism or the tired symbols of iconography. Instead, they serve as living records of the city’s triumphs, tragedies, and remarkable resilience in cycling through the two, ranging from the artichoke with its secret history of mafia crime, to the AIDS button, which elevated an anguished community from the ashes of the city’s deadliest epidemic, to the school doorknob, emblematic of New York’s commitment to public education, to the air conditioner, which made windowless workspaces possible for the first time. Tucked between the entries are delightful curiosities, such as the pear tree that became the final living connection to New York’s Dutch heritage, and as well as poignant glimpses of our shared humanity, such as the maelstrom of heartbreak and hope that swept the city after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation.

Roberts explains the selection criteria for the project, which was inspired by the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects:

The objects themselves had to have played some transformative role in New York City’s history or they had to be emblematic of some historic transformation. They also had to be enduring, which meant they could not be disproportionately tailored to recent memory or contemporary nostalgia. Fifty, or even twenty-five years from now, would they seem as vital or archetypal as they do right now?

Objects, of course, are more than mere things — they are, especially in the context of this book, shorthand for events, stand-ins for people, vehicles for the sort of collective storytelling of which history is woven. Rob Walker captured this elegantly in his Significant Objects, where he wrote: “It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.” Such is the emotional energy that emanates from Roberts selections.

When I first moved to New York, I quickly developed a soft spot for the city’s countless and rather distinctive cylindrical water tanks (object #31) that stood as unsung sidekicks to the recognizable landmarks of its iconic skyline. There are a whopping fifteen thousand of them, Roberts explains, but most were built by two large family-owned companies — a wonderfully poetic reflection of New York’s peculiar play of scales and its fusion of private and public, or what E.B. White memorably termed the city’s blend of “the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.”

Roberts writes of Gotham’s cityscape fixtures:

The cylindrical tanks, which typically measure about twelve feet high and twelve feet across and are topped by a conical enclosure, hold ten thousand gallons on average and cost about thirty thousand dollars. Tap water is siphoned off the top, while murkier bottom water, mixed with sediment, is reserved for firefighting. As in a toilet tank, a ballcock regulates the level. The tanks can be dismantled and replaced in as little as twenty-four hours and take about three hours to fill.

They are also a feat of natural engineering and ingenuity — typically made of wood, which is cheaper yet more resilient in changing temperatures than steel, they are held together not by paint or adhesives but by sheer physics: when the wood gets wet, it expands and thus seals itself, while galvanized steel hoops keep the tank from bursting. With proper maintenance, each tank lasts around three decades.

As a wholehearted lover of public libraries and regular supporter of the New York Public Library in particular, I was also enchanted by Roberts’s account of how Gotham’s library (object #29) began. Guarded by its two iconic lions, Patience and Fortitude, the main building on 42nd street was the largest marble structure in the United States at the time it was built. The library is now the second-largest in America, after the Library of Congress, and the third-largest in the world. We owe it to a successful lawyer, investor, abolitionist, and political reformer named Samuel J. Tilden, whose will included the bequest to build a free public library.

Tilden’s broader intention, historian Michael Miscione tells Roberts, was “to solidify the city’s commitment to literacy, culture and a public-private partnership that enabled New York City to create so many world-class cultural institutions.” Even though New York had a number of libraries by the latter portion of the nineteenth century, they were privately funded and charged admission. Tilden’s unprecedented gift of $2.4 million — close to $100 million in today’s money — put the majority of his fortune toward the idealistic quest to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.”

Private philanthropy of such scale for the public good was practically unheard of at the time, but New York would go on to become the unheralded philanthropy capital of the world.

Another prescient token of New York’s values and priorities is the early dictionary (object #7), which Roberts aptly calls “a Colonial Rosetta Stone” — an essential tool for cross-pollinating the cultures and communities in American’s early melting pot. He writes:

Language difficulties divided the population (about half of it Dutch at the time) and got in the way of the British laissez-faire approach to governing. Innovations like the jury system were particularly problematic. The problem was solved by an English–Low Dutch dictionary published by a New Jersey schoolmaster. Except for a brief Dutch restoration nine years later, the English would rule for over a century. Their language would, more or less, prevail. Among the enduring linguistic traditions of the Dutch is that we still call little chunks of dough “cookies,” instead of the British “biscuits”. Other words such as “coleslaw,” “waffle,” “doughnut,” “stoop,” and “Yankee” endured.

There is also the famous 25-foot-tall Civic Fame statue (object #42) by Adolph A. Weinman perched atop Manhattan’s municipal building — a structure of scandalous backstory:

Audrey Munson, the model after whom she was sculpted, once appeared naked in a porn film (she of the face that launched a thousand quips, she listed herself in a city directory first as an actress, then as an artist) and later was declared insane.

[...]

In her eighth decade and suffering from exposure, the statue was removed, restored, and regilded with hand-burnished 23.5-karat gold leaf, and hoisted back into position by helicopter in 1991. That was only four years before Audrey Munson died in an upstate asylum, just short of her 105th birthday.

A number of the objects aren’t static mementos from the past but dynamic projections of the future. The famous Bloomberg computer terminal (object #96) was invented by a laid-off investment banker who would go on to become the city’s most beloved Mayor — one whose merits, I should add, all the more appreciated in hindsight by those of us who made New York a home under Mayor Bloomberg’s reign and somewhat naively took for granted that his idealistic and magnanimous rule was a function of mayorship rather than a function of his exceptional personhood.

Roberts considers the broader implications of having a self-made, entrepreneurial man at the helm of the city:

That little beige box soon made him the richest and most powerful man in New York. By affirming his faith in scientific solutions, it also helped deliver the city into the twenty-first century, through devices ranging from the expansion of the CompStat tactical crime-fighting program to the 311 telephone complaint and service system, and encouraged the evolution of Silicon Alley.

Since the nineteenth century, doomsayers have predicted that one scientific breakthrough after another — from the Atlantic cable to the telephone, from television to jet travel — would topple New York as the nation’s financial and cultural capital. Instead, a resilient city that thrives on reinventing itself transformed a potential threat into an opportunity. Milliseconds are vital to global trading, but nothing beats face-to-face contact to foster innovation. A wired city provided both.

Aptly calling Mayor Bloomberg “a modern Medici,” Roberts captures his philosophy:

The perfect is the enemy of the good. In other words, just do it. “Our product,” he said, “would be the first in the investment business where normal people without specialized training could sit down, hit a key, and get an answer to financial questions, some of which they didn’t even know they should ask.” In the decades since, he said, two constants endured: “the need for information; and the users of data, with their bravery, jealousy, adventurousness and fear of the new.”

But the book’s most poignant object is its final one, #101 — the Madonna that remained unscathed through the devastating sweep of Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded and the second costliest in history, with a total tally of $68 billion and 40 lives in New York city alone. By far the most ravaged by the storm was the beach community of New York’s Rockaway Peninsula, home to the families of many of the city’s police officers, firemen, and other civil servants. Roberts writes of the Madonna’s significance as a vitalizing symbol of hope amid such unfathomable heartbreak:

Fittingly, the most visible survivor of the fire was a three-foot-high masonry Madonna, “a triumph of faith in the midst of the ashes,” as Monsignor Michael J. Curran explained it. The Madonna had belonged to Charlie Shannon, who had bought the bungalow at 2 Gotham Walk on the corner of Oceanside Avenue in 1929 for his wife and seven children. Only one of the seven had children of his own, and in 2006 his granddaughter Regina Bodnar inherited a version of the house that her aunt and uncle rebuilt. Her aunt Mary placed the Madonna just outside, Bodnar recalled, “and each morning Breezy neighbors stopped to say a prayer by the statue, and the young children and grandchildren of our neighbors waved and said, ‘Hi Mary!’ as they raced by.”

The statue was neither consumed by the fire nor toppled by the storm surge (it was not cemented in place but stood precariously on its own in the sea grass). Does Bodnar believe in miracles? She’s not sure, but said that somehow her neighbors and rescue workers “were miraculously protected from serious injury and loss of life.” Monsignor Curran, the pastor of St. Thomas More Church, took custody of the Madonna after the storm subsided. “It will be a symbol of the suffering but also of our rise from the ashes,” he said. “It will be a symbol of what we’ve been through, but also of our resurrection.”

A History of New York in 101 Objects is a rich and thoughtfully curated encyclopedia of milestones and values. Complement it with Julia Rothman’s illustrated love letter to the five boroughs, then zoom out with 100 diagrams that changed the world.

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