Where were you when the Primary results were announced in New Hampshire and the candidates started delivering concession or victory speeches? I was watching an old television behind the bar of a Romanian-themed restaurant in Queens, checking Twitter, texting friends, and resisting the urge to post something provocative on Facebook, while consuming others tweets and FB posts with great interest—especially those observations concerning Sanders’ views on history.
Many people find it boring, pedantic, or pretentious and intellectual when Bernie Sanders brings up the past. They’re annoyed, and they have a point: nobody wants to be held accountable for bad memories, the choices that rattle the skull at night. Nobody wants to revisit the foreclosures and uncertainty of 2008, the bailouts of 2009. Nobody wants to say “Iraq, 2003, that’s where ISIS happened, that’s where the Arab Spring started,” even if saying so means we can assign blame, and begin coming up with solutions, instead of simply denying the problem and continuing to live in it as our present. Vietnam? Nobody wants to think about a proxy war with the Soviet Union—Red Russia doesn’t exist any more. Nobody wants to believe that a choice made back then could have consequences in the present, could cost us money or blood or energy—and especially not a politician.
This makes Bernie Sanders really strange. Politicians aren’t about holding people accountable, especially not people who describe themselves as allies. Politicians survive by creating a social structure that’s just a shade stronger than it is broad, in order to accommodate the largest number of people possible. Sanders? Not so much. This guy, this mensch attempts to look backwards in time, to determine cause-and-effect, and rationally produce workable social and economic solutions to the problems of our age based on an evaluation of the ages before. His candidacy is that of the historian, the mathematician, the modernist. Sanders is the most pragmatic and difficult candidate in the race today—far less idealistic or post-modern than Clinton, to say nothing of every Republican candidate.
So why do certain well-educated, liberal, professionally and personally elite progressives and Democrats dislike it when Sanders talks about history? Not because his facts are wrong—if they were, he’d be a liar, and I certainly wouldn’t support him. Not because history is useless—it’s very useful for understanding how and why things happen, or brilliant people over the centuries wouldn’t study it, and we likely would be no better off than our ancestors of 3,000 years ago. There’s a cost to bringing up the past. When you bring the past into the present, it can “occupy” or in some cases even overshadow the present. Anyone who has reunited with an ex- in hopes of “starting over” knows how this goes—those things that were supposed to have lived in the past rarely do. At best, politicians and institutions often see the past as monolithic and unchanging—history as a minefield of cautionary tales. Hence, the Democratic National Committee’s experience with the Democratic Party in the 1960s and 70s, which convinced them to institute the anti-democratic, un-American and elitist super-delegate rules we have in place today.
No politician willingly accepts responsibility for a public failure unless as a very last resort, and few even bother to make unilateral choices for fear of having to stand up in public and explain why their plans did not bear fruit.
We never use historical methodology save when it suits us (which is on weddings and at funerals). I don’t know anyone who walks into a job interview and says “It was my massive, public failures that got me to this moment, where I am standing here asking you for a job.” I suppose it’s naïve to expect that our political leadership would act differently.
People and institutions who are afraid of examining their own past (and are afraid of owning actions) are afraid of a candidate like Bernie Sanders who insists on examining the past as a precondition for looking into the future. That’s most human beings, and that’s fine. I’m not comfortable with my past, either, in Afghanistan I saw people do horrible things to one another, saw a landscape riddled with the past, from British forts in which we overnighted to Soviet fighting positions. Living in history is, essentially, living in conflict. Existing in a space where one must always negotiate with others, with yourself, and accommodate the omnipresent knowledge of your behavior, in context—not just your best, but your worst as well. History is knowing that it’s really, really easy to fail—and fail big. And the more we seek to deny it, the more urgently it presses at our awareness.
I’ve been reading Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Grossman was a Ukrainian Jewish journalist whose unfortunate life included almost every way to get fucked over by the totalitarian regimes of that time. As a young man, he watched as his home town was nearly destroyed during Holodomor by Stalin’s collectivization policy, then followed news of his town being finished off by the Nazis, then was himself nearly executed as part of a Stalinist pogrom. Throughout, he maintained his journalistic integrity, and bore witness to the horrors of the age, producing a work about WWII analogous to Tolstoy’s War and Peace in scope, if Chekhovian in tone. Throughout, the characters of Life and Fate step back from serious and meaningful relationships—friendships, loves—because they are prevented by the Soviet regime from acknowledging their recent lived past, of which everyone is hyperaware, more or less constantly. Love—of people, of truth, of scientific fact—brings people to transgress this order, over and over again, to rebel against the establishment, and risk incarceration in Soviet gulags, murder, exile to Siberia, or posts to the front.
Nowhere is this more obvious than midway through the novel, when, outside Stalingrad, on the eve of the decisive battle with the Germans, a tank colonel becomes fed up with a Soviet commissar. Encouraged by the commissar to view horrible purges to the military and Soviet society that occurred in 1937 and abandon the love of his life, the Colonel finally explodes and acknowledges the true history of the Soviet Union they both know to be true: ‘To hell with all that!’ he said, surprised at the resonance and force in his own voice. ‘What do I care whether Shaposhnikov was or wasn’t an enemy of the people? I’ve never even set eyes on the man. As for this Krymov—Trotsky himself said that one of his articles was pure marble. What do I care? If it’s marble, then it’s marble. Even if Trotsky, Rykov, Bukharin and Pushkin were all head over heels in love with him, what’s that to me? I’ve never so much as looked at these marble articles of his. And what’s it got to do with Yevgenia Nikolaevna? Did she work in the Comintern until 1937? Anyeone can do your kind of work, dear comrades, but just try doing some real fighting! Some real work! Let me tell you—I’ve had enough of all this! It makes me sick!’…
…He could hardly believe it: for the first time in his life he had spoken his mind, without fear, to an important Party official. He looked at Getmanov with a sense of joy, choking back any stirrings of fear or remorse.
Contemporary US society is not (contrary to some reactionaries’ claims) governed by a totalitarian regime—American citizens are freer and more equal today, individually and collectively (relative to each other, maybe not so much the rest of the globe), than at any other time in history. Things have been much worse, and while they’re not perfect, they haven’t been much better, on a social level. The Grossman passage is intended to illustrate how the more we repress or ignore history, paradoxically, the more it exists in our present, and affects our lives. Whether or not we choose to acknowledge it.
The way to ensure a positive future isn’t simply to turn our backs on events that happened earlier in our history and “move forward.” When an elder speaks of history and reminds us of what came before, even though our society which has raised technical futurism to an art form would instruct otherwise, it behooves us to pause and listen. Pause, and take a moment to acknowledge that in many ways, we’ve been walking in circles. Sanders is the first political candidate who’s offered us this pause, with his backwards-looking, repetitive creed. We should consider that with care—at least give history a chance, recognize its potential to make a different present and better future—before tuning out, turning our backs on him in favor of more, bigger, smarter, newer, and continuing on with our our ponderous circular strut.