Conversations – 1

An author asks, “What is history?” and goes on to answer as follows:

“History is a nation’s (or a people’s) conversation about its past. Therefore, this book is an invitation to think about and discuss the development of our society through time. Surely you will accept this invitation, for who wouldn’t like to know more about their ancestors? How did our great-grandparents live? What were the great problems of their time? What did they do to solve them? What were their values and attitudes? What did their dreams, aspirations and plans consist of? What were their major thoughts when they made an important decision? To find answers to questions like these it will help us to understand where we come from and who we are. Moreover, it will motivate us to reflect on the consequences of our own decisions on the lives of our descendants.”

The above begins a kind of preface, titled “Secrets of the Trade.” The author is a historian. The book is a history of the author’s own country. It isn’t ours, but its history intersects with the history of the United States. The questions are universal and relevant to the purposes of this blog. They stimulate other questions U.S. residents and citizens might ask, including about the legacy we leave to our descendants.

Among them: How do certain conversations about the present and the past get started? What are the roles of academia and the communications media (including books, magazines, newspapers, the content of TV and radio shows) and organized religion? What determines the elements of those conversations? What will our descendants including our great-grandchildren think about our generations and what ours did to solve our (perceived) great problems? What are our great problems? What are our values and attitudes? How are they shaped? What are our dreams, aspirations and plans?

This elemental approach may help break down some barriers to access to factual whos, whys, hows, whats, whens and wheres, which barriers allow people — or a people, or a nation — to avoid realities that are, in a globalized world, apparent to other peoples and nations. Que bono? is a Latin phrase meaning “Who benefits?” Does it benefit us in the United States to be systematically shielded from all kinds of facts and realities because the shielders say, in effect, “You don’t want to know”? 

These are good questions for today, Presidents Day in the United States, for the rest of Presidents Week, and for all time. Let’s start some new conversations.

— Mark Channing Miller

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