Friday, May 23, 2008

History Lessons

A few days ago, I discovered a cache of articles -- in retrievable digital formats -- that I wrote between 1993 and 1999. Most of them are opinion pieces or reports on contemporaneous issues and news, but some of them are surprisingly fresh.

It occurred to me, while reading them, that creating an archive of my older writings was one of the principal goals of this blog when it began:

I have two primary purposes in publishing this blog: (1) to comment on current affairs and cultural events, including theatre, music, movies, and books and (2) to archive some of my old writings on what-were-then-current affairs and cultural events (you know the rest).
In a way, 1993 does not seem to be that far in the past. But, while watching an "American Experience" documentary about the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt recently, it occurred to me that fifteen years was approximately the distance between the start of the Great Depression and the end of the Second World War. It's also approximately the same period of time between the beginning of the Clinton administration and today.

In 1930, our grandparents had no idea how long the economic dislocations of the Depression might last. In 1941, nobody knew how long the world would be at war, and Hitler's juggernaut looked unstoppable.

In 1993, the Internet was something known to only a few technically-sophisticated individuals, mostly in the government and in the military. Cell phones were just starting to make their appearance among average folks, but they were still quite expensive. Most people still had answering machines, not voice mail.

In 1993, Bill Clinton reluctantly accepted a congressional mandate to keep gay citizens out of the military, known by the shorthand of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." In 2008 -- actually, just two days ago -- a federal court ruled that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is an unjustifiable policy.

In 1993, the Soviet Union had disbanded and the world was at peace. We had reached the End of History. Not long after that, President Clinton declared that the "era of big government is over." Unfortunately, George W. Bush -- then a Texas businessman with no experience in elective office -- didn't get that memo.

What I'm trying to illustrate with these examples is that in 15 years a lot of history can occur.

Consequently, over the next days, weeks, and months, I am going to reach back into that digital archive of old articles and reprint them here. What I hope to accomplish by doing so is to shed some light on current issues by revisiting similar -- or sometimes the same -- issues as I commented on them in the early and mid-1990s.

To add to the mix, I have also uncovered photographs that I took during that time. (For instance, I have found hundreds -- I'm not exaggerating -- hundreds of photos I took at the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and many more similar photos from that year's Libertarian Party convention in Washington.) Some of them have already been scanned and are ready to post, as appropriate, alongside related articles. Some of them still remain to be digitized but I hope to convert them over time.

While, in a sense, republishing old articles may seem like a lazy blogger's habit, I plan to annotate the old pieces by pointing to current events. (In other words, I have no plans to indiscriminately post articles from the 1990s in the absence of a substantive news hook from today.) And I won't stop creating original pieces, whether reviews of new plays (Kander & Ebb's The Visit premieres this month at Signature Theatre) or reports from the field (e.g., next week's state Republican convention in Richmond). And, as a special treat, I may be able to post some video from the 1990s that will surprise and delight you.

Thomas Helde, who taught European Diplomatic History at Georgetown University for many years, once told our class (in 1977) that he ended the two-semester course at 1950 because "anything more recent than 25 years ago is current affairs." I'm taking liberties with his dictum by suggesting that items from 10 to 15 years ago have historic value; perhaps we can call it "contemporary history" and still meet some reputable standard.

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