The Difficulty of Interpreting Contemporary History
Miller: These are the headlines. They're raw data. And it's an
incomplete set of data at that. I asked our team of historians to interpret, to
shed some light on these events. At first, they resisted.
Masur: How do you write about a period through which you lived? Because
that shapes our perspective as to what is important, what isn't important, our
own experiences. And the recent past isn't just writing about the 1990s or the
1980s. Some of us have memories of the '70s, the '60s, and the '50s.
Well, that's half a century of history about which we have personal memories.
Our own identities were shaped by these memories. Well, when we go to choose
what's important, how much are we drawn to those not because of our detached
role as historians, but because we're engaged -- we're engaged personally with
the past. It raises questions about the tension between the role as historian
and the role as participant.
Miller : Oh, historians have always had agendas, they've always had
emotional and ideological agendas....
Masur: I'm not talking about it as an agenda in a negative sense. I'm
talking about it as a set of issues that becomes raised, that comes to the very
question of a tendency to identify things as being important, not as a
predictive value, but which later down the line you're not going to feel are
And why are you going to predict them or predict that they're important?
Because you lived through them, you experienced them, right? We all would have
thought that Newt Gingrich and the Republican ascendancy would have been this
momentous moment, and look how quickly it passed. At the moment, living through
it, we would have offered one interpretation. Two years later, we would have
Maier: And the other thing is that when you work from newspapers, the
period you live through, every day has an equal headline. When you're a
historian, you shuffle those in some way. You rank them. Some you forget, some
you emphasize. That's difficult to do until you study a period that has not
only a past, but a future.
Miller: A period that not only has a past, but a future. It's an
interesting idea. We can't yet see the future of the last 25 years of the
century. But we do have some perspective on the first 75 years.