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The "New West" Key Events Maps Transcript Webography

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[picture of the discussion group]

Miller: As we talked, I could see my colleagues struggling with their own passionately-held perspectives. Each of us has to come to terms with the past, both as historians and as the memory-haunted creatures we are.

Maier: Don, like you, I came to history through newspapers. But I have to say, as a historian -- although I write sometimes on contemporary issues that have a historical dimension -- I don't find what is called contemporary history very interesting. It doesn't have the complexity of an earlier period. But, more than that, I've always thought of history has having a humanistic dimension; it was to understand what it is to be somebody else, and it isn't at all challenging to know what it is to be somebody I am, or where I've known other people. It's less of a challenge.

Scharff: You know, Pauline, I want to stand up for the contemporary historians among us here for a minute, because I don't feel like, when I write about the United States at this point, I'm writing about who I am. I feel like I'm writing about the kind of diverse array of people that Waldo is talking about here, and trying to take account of those experiences. And the kind of rapid change that we have, it seems to me, bespeaks a complexity that's every bit as compelling and every bit as difficult to get your head around as the kind of complexity that comes into play when you're trying to make a country out of 13 colonies.

Masur: Part of the process, right, is to recover these stories. But it's not enough just to tell them. Because if all we do is tell them, we're not historians; we're antiquarians. And we're just chronicling events without putting them into any order or lending any interpretation to them.

The most interesting kind of history is the history that does get at the pain and value of human experience. And it explains not just what happened, but what people do with what happens, what it means.

Miller: I think history can be just as good as great fiction in that regard, in illuminating character, in illuminating the tragedy of the human condition, and what it's like just to be alive on this Earth.

Masur: There's an aphorism that I think says a lot about what we do. And the aphorism is that the only thing that's certain is the future, because the past is constantly changing.

TV and History

[picture of John Leonard]

Leonard: Once our history was what white men did in the daylight. Now it's what happens to other people while we watch.

We are at times just curious: an Oscar, or a Super Bowl. We are at times compelled: a Watergate or Berlin Wall. We may hope at exalted moments like a moonshot, and on dreadful occasions like an assassination, to experience community as a nation.

But mostly, we just sit there, hungry, angry, lonely, or tired; needing novelty or distraction, gossip or laughs; remedial seriousness, or vulgar celebrity; a place to celebrate, and a place to mourn; a circus, and a wishing well.

This is a mixed curse. On the one hand, as never before, we are privileged with the best seat in the house for coronations and impeachments, civil rights and civil riots, earthquakes, OJ, and Vietnam. As if looking down from a zeppelin, our vantage is superior to the fixed positions of official participants and court historians, with multiple views of the action, in intimate focus or broad scan, and an IV feed of raw data and expert chit-chat on demand, by royal whim.

On the other hand, TV has stolen our memory, yours and mine. It's gone to another bank. I was a student at Berkeley in the early '60s, but the images in my head are Mario Savio's and Ronald Reagan's, not my own. I reported from Chicago on the Democratic Convention of 1968, but the cassette in my hand is Abbie Hoffman's. I marched in favor of integration and against war. But the tapes in my head are Eyes on the Prize.

On the third hand -- and there's always a third hand -- we are agnostics about reality itself. We've been docudramatized and dutched, as if every narrative, however problematic, had been dumbed down to love gone wrong.

And while TV sells us cars by promising adventure, and sells us beer by promising friendship, it also robs us of chronology. With channels for weather, food, history, nostalgia, cartoons, and porn, we see everything that ever was, all at the same time, and increasingly remote.

How come, while television has told us over and over again to be nicer to women, children, minorities, immigrants, poor people, sick people, old people, odd people, and strangers, the nation got so mean?

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