History vs Now

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At a low but consistent frequency, I see a remark on Twitter or Facebook like: “So, where were all yahoos objecting to the Polio vaccine??!!11!!?? That is a disease we wiped out with a vaccine, that could not have happened if antivax existed then!”

This would be a reasonable lament were it true. I recently read, in Chernov’s Washington: A Life, that George Washington was anti-vax, before he changed his mind based on evidence made clear to him, and then became pro-vax. That was in relation to smallpox, and the “vaccine” was actually “variolation,” which is to modern vaccines what a camel is to a modern RV. Same idea, different technology.

Polio still exists, it is just very uncommon in the United States. Some of this is because of continuing anti-vax misinformation. For example, in Pakistan, there is a false anti-vax belief that the vaccine contains ingredients that are haram, and could cause male impotence. During the era of the American polio epidemics, and in connection to Franklin Roosevelt’s war on polio, there was a vibrant and damaging anti-vax movement. Historian David Oshinsky notes that the post World War II era was a high point for respect for, and awe of, science in the US. But even in this golden age of fear and love for things science could fix or provide, polio anti-vax did fine. (see: Polio: An American Story.)

This is not the place to talk about vaccines or the enemies of science who prefer infection-caused morbidity and mortality for their fellow citizens, though I am rather fed up with the Trumpsucker Contaminants and their ways. I want to talk about something else: The contrasting role of history vs. now in our perception of things.

I’ve always been a student of, a fan of, history, and all of my professional work has involved the study of history in some way or another. But, I am not a historian, and the streams of history I have studied, and the methods I’ve used, would not get me through the final exam of a college history class. But over the last few years, I’ve been reading the better biographies and histories, focusing mainly on American history (though I’m currently reading a mainly European classic). I am doing this to preserve sanity and be better at certain conversations. There is a danger that a close look at antebellum politics in the US will make the recent rise of Tump Fascism seem less severe or important, but that would be a miscalculation. When we look back at the Congress in the 1830s through the beginning of the Civil War, we see actual literal violence in the Capitol building carried out by the elected representatives themselves, and that may seem worse than a crowd of Trump organized insurrectionists breaking into the same exact building, some of them intent on murdering the Vice President of the United States and/or the Speaker of the House. But both are bad things, and they are utterly different kinds of things, and thus hard to compare.

I think about history not as a way of being less upset about now. It is simply a way of understanding now (as well as then). Historian Jon Meacham had a similar idea, and he put his approach to understanding the present out as a podcast, called “Hope Through History.” I’m not a big fan of the musical scoring, but otherwise, the podcast is a must-listen. Meacham addresses a wide range of historical events or periods, and with the use of a lot of excellent commentary from other historians, and a mix of primary sources, describes and explains major past events in a way that one thinking of present events can relate to. He covers the war on polio, including the anti-vax, Selma, the Gettysburg address, the shift from nationalism to engagement in the middle of World War II, the Great Depression, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and so on. You can, if you want, do exactly as I’ve done over the last five years, but instead of reading book after book after book after book, you can listen to a nice podcast while folding the laundry or driving to work. Either way, your concern for our future will not diminish, but your hair will be less on fire about it.

But that is also not what I’m really talking about here. Since this is a blog post, you know there is at least a 50-50 chance that it exists because I had a random thought and I’m working it out with you. Thanks for that opportunity, by the way. And here is the random thought. Really, a random memory. I remember, some ten years ago or so, needing to look something up in an atlas. I was at work, so I went to the office and asked the office manager if we had an atlas. She pointed to the bookshelf, and sure enough there was an atlas up on the top shelf gathering dust.

I pulled it down, and yes, there was a lot of dust. I don’t remember the exact atlas, but it was something like a Rand McNally or Hammond (as distinct from a Colliers). It dated to World War II. From within the war. So the people who made it, and originally ordered it and put it on an earlier version of the shelf I had just taken it from, were in the middle of the war, and some of their friends, relatives, and co-workers were in North Africa, Europe, or the Pacific (or somewhere else) fighting in this war. The atlas had, as do most, one or a few orientation maps inside the covers and on the first pages, so one could find the more detailed maps within. And, one of these orientation maps indicated which parts of the world were under occupation by one of the three major forces: Nazis, Japan Imperial, or Allies.

It was static. It was not an historical map. It was not a map about the war. It was a map in the war. It is where you would look up and say, “Oh wait, I can’t use that service to send a manuscript to that particular city, because it is in German-occupied Europe. I’ll have to use a different service.” Then you go on with your business as though … well, as though half the world was under the occupation of fascists. Because it was. As a static phenomenon, not a historical process viewed in the halogen light of later time, as history.

In other words, the map did not show the dynamic, and eventually ending, process of a great war, like this map does:

See all those lines and things happening? See that history, that happened, and is now diagrammed out for you? That is how we, now, think of then. But if you were then, how would you see that vintage 1943 now? More like this:

See the difference? In the first map, you see how things happened over time. The Germans spread out across Europe and the Allies pushed them back into Germany, plus or minus. In the second map, you can find out if you are supposed to do the whole “Heil Hitler” thing if you visit a particular city. Ireland is a little confusing. What’s that one circle there in Italy?

This is not the map I saw a decade ago. I actually had the chance to acquire that atlas. I was commenting on it and the office manager said, “you can have that if you want, it’s old.” It didn’t seem right to take it, though.

Here’s another one where the color coding makes more sense:

If I track down the original, I’ll add it here.

I think most people made a mistake, over the last few years, of characterizing Trump as a potential dictator. He was in fact a dictator the entire time he was in office. Many dictators started out being in a position of executive power of one kind or another, but within a system where the person in that role was not explicitly hooked up to the rest of the system as a dictator. The institutions of democracy, or in some cases, royalty, persisted and held power for a period of time. Eventually, the person seen later, by history, as a dictator would abrogate or take over each of those institutions, but the person was a dictator the whole time that was going on. Trump was the dictator of the Unites States and its territories from the moment he was inaugurated, right through his last days in the White House (some would sat to this very day). The institutions that persisted kept him from being an effective dictator, but had he been in the White House longer, or if he is put back there by McConnell and Manchin, there will be a redrawing of the atlas.

Our grandchildren can look at this map with wonder and possibly amusement:

Or this one, a last gasp for democracy on its decline, made just before a coalition of oligarchs and tyrants takes care of the remaining democracies:

In the early 1990s, in an essay and a book called “The End of History,” Francis Fukuyama told us that humanity has reached the end of the historical road, having achieved a normalcy based on Western liberal democracy, and that this has emerged, or was emerging, as the final form of society. Many agreed. It was apparent.

Fukuyama needed a better atlas.

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2 thoughts on “History vs Now

  1. The Circle within Italy is the Repubblica di San Marino, which was neutral.
    Now it’s no part of the EU, but part of the Eurozone. Like Andorra, Monaco, and Vatican City (last absolute Monarchy of Europe, albeit not hereditary).

  2. It struck me that Turkey can be considered peninsular, with the Bosphorus and the Black Sea inlets of the Mediterranean. Geography is often a matter of perspective.

    Reading reviews and excerpts of Grisham’s book on Trump, it certainly seems like he believed himself to be a dictator. And he announced that he would be in his Republican Convention Acceptance Speech. “Only I can fix it.”

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