Tuesday, March 3, 2009

History Roars Back, What Are We Going To Do About It?

Writing in the Washington Post today ("History Roars Back," March 3) , Richard Cohen makes the claim that there are certain moments in history when big events affect us all and do so for many years to come. He isn't talking 9/11 here. He's talking Great Depression. He's talking Naziism. Cohen says that the economic collapse we are living through now "is not just an economic crisis. It's a historical mugging...This will hit the young particularly hard."

World news, Cohen says, hasn't mattered much to young people--meaning, I think 20- and 30-somethings--because what passed for news seemed irrelevant to them. "It did not matter to them what was happening in Washington or London or even Baghdad."

Cohen may be right that the news hasn't mattered much to young people, but it may not really have been a function of youth. More a function of the ways in which the mass society of the '50s and '60s became atomized, breaking into sub-cultures of millions or, even, tens of millions, each with their own specific definition of what is news and the separate and distinct cable outlets, internet sources, news channels and niche publications serving them that news.

But what Cohen is clearly saying is that we are being hit by a phenomenon, economic chaos and depression, that is nearly the same everywhere. The news is that the news is global once more.

The Vietnam War, Cohen claims, was news of the same type. Probably not, but it nevertheless got the attention of young people, who might have otherwise continued their drift out of engagement with the world as it was portrayed at the time by ABC, NBC, CBS and a few major daily papers.

"Rage was the result [of the Vietnam War and its suffocating draft]. The campuses exploded.

"The rage that is coming back will change the politics of our time. Barack Obama will either figure out how to channel it, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did, or he will be flattened by it, as Lyndon Johnson was."

In less than 700 words, Cohen makes the case that now is a pretty desperate time. People this time, perhaps by the billions, are going to be victims. For some individuals, the experience will be personally calamitous. Unaware that history was returning, we in the United States have been living the "American delusion" of endless and relentlessly expanding prosperity.
In the 1930s, "history had come roaring out of Germany and flattened everything," Cohen writes. He concludes with this:

"The beast is loose again."

But history is not the end of everything. Cohen's compact and grimly eloquent piece excludes actual people from any role other than victim or passive observer. He notes that FDR successfully channeled the rage that history provoked and Barack Obama may be able to do something similar. Perhaps without intending to, Cohen leaves the rest of us with little to do but await history's arrival in our neighborhood.

But the real question for the rest of us is this: If history is coming, what are we going to do about it?

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