We seek out historians to reveal the present, not the past. We want to find a doctor who’s seen our symptoms before… on the general suspicion, from Ecclesiastes, that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Or as Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus said, because history is “the nightmare from which we are trying to awaken.” Also: because so much of the daily news — of mad military overstretch abroad and commercial and cultural decadence at home — feels like the late-imperial lurch that our own Founding Fathers warned us about and that contemporary historians say is here. (Historian Niall Ferguson — only recently an empire enthusiast — has “The Descent of The West,” in the subtitle of his new doomsday book, The War of the World.)
We will have at the grand historial scheme of things (“Where the hell are we?” and “How did we get here?”) with Simon Schama, historian of the Dutch and British Empires and the most thrilling English-language talker since Churchill; and with Sean Wilentz, a preeminent historian of American 18th and 19th Century democracy who, in Philip Roth’s glowing estimate, “redeems the time he writes about without sentimentality or cynicism and with a deep understanding of every last detail of the American political tradition.”
We want them to play the counter-factual (what if?) game (as Roth did in The Plot Against America, the novel in which the isolationist hero Charles Lindbergh unseated Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, to keep the US out of the war in Europe.) What if Al Gore had been elected in 2000? What if Abraham Lincoln had been president when Al Qaeda struck America? What if Tony Blair had leapt out of the Bush lap before the invasion of Iraq? What if the Bush administration had by now dragged us oil addicts into a tough detox program and led an agonizing recalibration of our role in the world? What if Osama bin Laden had been captured by a concerted police effort in 2002 and been tried and convicted at the Hague in 2003?
Please fire up the conversation with yet more pointed, or more philosophical, what ifs…
And above all, on the day after this fifth birthday of 9/11, help us locate this uneasy moment, this “long war,” as the Pentagon calls it, in a longer story. We live life forward, as Kierkegaard said, but what if it can only be understood backward?