Sunday, January 16, 2011

mini reflection on history

Historians who don't exactly fall under the prejudicial category of "Court Historian" are still affected by the fundamental allurement and most common temptation of historians: activity––a bias toward that which is seen.

The historian in many respects is a reporter who missed the initial deadline. The reporter is reporting the news; the historian is reporting old news, much of which is hearsay.

History, like all news, is about what happened. Seldom is it about the most important thing: what did not happen. History is most especially not about what was prevented from happening by the active refusal of those holding power to exceed the lawful limitations and constraints placed upon the powers of their office. (This refusal, not activism, is what takes real character and courage.)

In contrast, activists holding power tend to conflate their persons with their office and seek to expand it by any and all means. In fact, in their egoism and impulsiveness, they tend to personalize everything--such is the nature of the tyrant.

Historians, attracted to activism as they are, tend to favor the rabble rouser and the revolutionary--even when the revolutionary is the one who has already seized power.

Thus, the active president (the one who makes big changes and bold moves) is given much attention. (This can be easily seen by reading the list of greatest and worst presidents according to historians. The greatest are almost always activists; the worst those who held the status quo.)

The activists, as we have said, are almost always power hungry, Jacobin revolutionaries, almost always tearing down some hedge in the Constitution that protects our liberty, property or the stability we all depend upon in order to plan and act ourselves. It seems the activist politician is only in favor of activity on his behalf––the rest of us are consigned the role of passive recipients of the affects of activist activity.

Historians are like most of us; superficial and shallow--even if they aren't down right prejudice, and they tend to go well beyond reportage into editorializing.

Their superficiality and shallowness tend to blind them from seeing the truly remarkable, honorable and rare: the man with self-control, the man of principle, who can hold power with a spirit of reason and humility, the man who is honored but can still bow to the higher wisdom of an order established by the collective wisdom of those wiser and more courageous than himself.

One doesn't have to begin and end with Lincoln to demonstrate this and much more. Teddy Roosevelt was another man burdened with the same insecurities and weaknesses as Lincoln--a egoistic man constantly in search of power, the distraction of activity and a deep need for attention.

TR's son said of him, "Father always wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral."––a sympathetic assessment of this mini-tyrant. Pope Leo XIII was critical of what he called "Americanism"––constant activity and doing without thought or reflection upon the ends. (Leo was pope during Roosevelt's tenure as Chief and, no doubt, TR got the pope's attention.) But Mark Twain put it best--since he was inclined to see into the reality behind the flurry of Roosevelt's ceaseless activity. Meeting TR twice Twain remarked that Roosevelt was, "clearly insane."

The rest, as they say, is history.

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