Asheville Daily Planet, February 1 20212
There’s an old saying: “History is written by the winners.” Nobody knows who said the saying first; I like Winston Churchill’s version:
“For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.”
The idea behind the saying is true. The loser, and his cause, are lost in time.
There’s a great old Isaac Watts hymn (1617):
“Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away.
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the break of day.”
That ever-rolling stream, the relentless passage of time, is the stuff of history. When we trace our family histories, we find generations of people who flew forgotten, as the hymn says. Lives lived, and they’re barely a blip.
But we’re not living in blip times now.
I have an unprecedented feeling these days that I’m on an island in that stream. History is rushing by me. My dominant feeling is uncertainty, even apprehension. Events that pass me give encouragement and then pessimism. I’m encouraged that the Capitol Coup on January 6 failed, and I’m pessimistic because the Capitol Coup happened at all.
I’m apprehensive on my island because I don’t know what’s upstream. I don’t know, can’t know, what the ever-rolling stream will bring us next. Or the next next after that.
The United States is split in two, fiercely split — and I don’t know which side will win.
I watched President Biden’s no-frills inaugural address and was moved by it. I sang “Amazing Grace” with Garth Brooks at the end. Biden painted a hopeful scene of unity.
But the speech also included this: “I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know that the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new.”
No, the split is not new. Look back over our history. People who settled this country, to begin with, were dissatisfied with life where they came from. They were nonconformists. Men joined Washington’s army because they wanted to be independent.
But when that war was over, something really amazing happened. The leaders of the independence movement came together on something untried in their time. They consciously reached back to ancient Greece and Rome for government by the people, that is, democracy.
But masses of Americans felt excluded. Power had shifted to a federal government designed by intellectuals in the cities. Rebellion on the frontier against a whiskey tax came just two years into George Washington’s presidency.
These self-reliant Americans loved their new country. No doubt about that. But the sissy-britches new government, with its blah-blah jargons seemed like a game for rich men off yonder somewhere.
These two sentiments, love of country and distrust of distant government, never went away. Ross Perot’s campaign against “pointy-headed bureaucrats” got him 19 percent of the presidential vote in 1992.
Donald Trump won with a promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington. It was a call to the very old leave-me-alone spirit. It’s called “individual freedom” a lot nowadays, which I see defined as “freedom from government oppression and regulation.” And Trump supporters loved how, in office, he diminished the agencies of government and centered power in himself. They seem to have approved when he ridiculed experts. Refusing to wear face masks was a statement of “freedom.”
As I stand on my island and look upstream, I’m in doubt. Which America will finally prevail? Which will ultimately write America’s history?
Donald Trump has certainly lost — but mostly because he was an incompetent leader. The history of Trump that’s being written right now is temporary. Which America will ultimately prevail — the stout, problem-solving model envisioned by our Founding Fathers, the complicated one that guided us for 240 years, or a loosy-goosy model that Trump personified?
I think the answer will come soon, from the Republican Party. Will they return to representative democracy, where national direction is set by debate and elections…or something else?
I hope for an outcome in which American history will be a continuous line from the Founding Fathers to my grandchildren and beyond.