My brother and I usually talk on the phone on Sunday mornings, usually while I’m on my weekend hike. (That wasn’t the case today, however, because of the heat.) I hadn’t called him first because I was watching the DVD version of Ken Burns’s multi-part documentary The Civil War (1990), specifically the episode relating to Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chickamauga. Dan was curious to know why I was watching it. I replied that, frequently, during the hottest part of the summer, I would read a lot about the Civil War and watch DVDs on the subject. For instance, last month I watched Ted Turner’s production of Gettysburg (1993) with Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, and Jeff Daniels.
“Boy, you really like living in the past, don’t you?” was Dan’s response.
“Absolutely,” I replied. “There’s little to like about what’s happening right now. After all, we’re getting ready to go to war again in the Middle East.”
Strictly speaking, I don’t live in the past. Although my tastes in music might be mostly 18th and 19th century, I am very partial to Jazz, the Blues, and folk music. I am more aware of what’s happening than people who rely on television news. Perhaps I do read the papers, getting the Los Angeles Times home-delivered seven days a week; but I get most of my news updates from the Internet, from the websites of CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC. Occasionally, I also check out Al Jazeera.
I am quite aware that many people who live in the past do so out of fear of the present. I have no particular fear of the present. If I like the history and literature of the past, it is partly to understand the present. Take a look at the illustration above, for instance: We are still fighting the American Civil War a hundred and fifty years later. The Confederate States of America have found a way to bollix up the Senate by requiring that all measures pass with at least a 60-40 vote in order to avoid a filibuster. Do we have majority rule in the Senate? Not really. We’re sill hung up on States’ Rights, and talk of Secession is still in the air. We may no longer have literal slavery; but racism is rife and the villains have shifted from the rich plantation owners to the rich CEOs, the so-called One Percent.
No, if I spend time in the past, it is with an eye to the present. I urge all of you to read Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, Philippe de Commynes, Gibbon, Parkman, Prescott—and, yes, the Civil War historians—for a unique perspective on the present.