Friday, November 13, 2009

Fire Up the Delorean, McFly, We've Got Work to Do

I've been reading Sean Wilentz' book, The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008, and it has been a thoroughly depressing experience.

This is not Wilentz' fault, really. He's a good writer - something rare in the historical community, sadly enough. For a discipline founded on story-telling, good writing isn't a skill much prized these days. I never understood that when I was in graduate school, and I still don't. Wilentz is also an accomplished scholar, one of the small coterie of historians accorded "minor deity" status by their peers. His books are consistently well argued, thoroughly researched, and difficult to rebut by people with alternate interpretations - not impossible, as all historical interpretations are open to rebuttal, but not easily done and certainly not done by the kind of empty rhetorical posturing that characterizes most political discourse these days. We live in AM-radio-talk-show times.

Mostly it's the subject matter.

I've been getting more interested in the political and cultural history of the twentieth-century over the last few years, mostly as a way for me to try to understand the roots of just how my country has gone so far off the rails in the last few decades. Since the mid1970s we've managed to betray our founding ideals, impoverish our present and sell out our future to a degree that I find astonishing, and I want to know where this impulse came from.

It's a long, sad story of how the radical fringes of the American right wing - people that Barry Goldwater referred to as "fanatics" - have effectively taken over the Republican Party and made their positions not only commonplace but mainstream. It's a story of a concerted effort to undermine the Constitution, enforce a rigid and religiously-based social conformity on par with that of any caliphate in the Middle East, and shift wealth out of the middle and lower classes and into the hands of the already wealthy.

And it's as American as apple pie, apparently. That's what they keep telling me.

As I read this book I found myself hoping that it would be different this time - that this time through things wouldn't break the way they did, that the results would be different, the process would be different, and that maybe the radicals wouldn't win after all. But they did, just as they did in real life.

It's hard to cheer against the past. The past never changes.

I think I'll read something lighter next.

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