Got news? Make it quick.
Busy people are getting the highlights, but missing historical context.
Did you hear what happened with the candidates? Was it spontaneous or part of a carefully orchestrated plan? How is it going to affect the race? Is the timing significant? Will the momentum shift?Skip to next paragraph
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As I listen to myriad panels of television and radio pundits commenting on the twists and turns of the presidential campaign, racing to split every speech and position paper into smaller and smaller bits for intense scrutiny, I begin to wonder if they're talking about politics or participating in a high-velocity debate on subatomic physics.
This trend can be summed up in eight words: "Tell me what's new and make it quick."
It's been gathering momentum for decades. The modern world is relentlessly busy. Speed is synonymous with efficiency, and being efficient means not getting bogged down by long periods of study or introspection. Busy people only have time for headlines, highlights, and talking points.
But by focusing so much collective attention on "right now" and "the latest details," we become distracted and eventually disconnected from the past. Here's an important update: History is more than just old news.
Surfing across the media tidal wave of analysis, spin, and speculation creates the illusion of becoming informed. What I see is a system of mass communication sinking into a quagmire of assertions and opinions that are often out of context, inaccurate, or just plain wrong.
One example that still resonates with me happened after the 2007 State of the Union address. A TV correspondent interviewed a US senator about the occupation of Iraq, and the senator made a comparison to postwar Germany that included this statement: "We had a soldier on every corner." That's untrue, literally and figuratively, and it went unchallenged. I was annoyed, but not surprised.
The period from 1945-50 was a cavalcade of social and political change all over the world. After the war ended, US forces occupying Germany and Japan were left alarmingly thin by the rapid pace of demobilization. Americans wanted their loved ones back home right away.
No political leaders in 1946 could get away with saying, "Hold on, we should keep a few million troops overseas to handle potential new threats." The public would have been outraged.
How do I know this? My sources are "The Best Years," by Joseph C. Goulden and "Truman," by David McCullough, two books that should be required reading for all candidates and commentators. Both are hefty volumes. CliffsNotes aren't available. Sometimes the path to knowledge and insight has no shortcuts. You have to make the time to walk the distance and take the weight.
Here's my challenge for anyone who wants to debate where America should be heading in the future: First, do you have a clear understanding of where we've been during the past six decades? And, equally important, can you point out anything this country should have done differently along the way that would have brought us to a better spot than where we are right now?
Campaign issues such as our political and economic relations with China, Europe, and the Middle East didn't spontaneously emerge from a void. They've been getting revised and realigned for more than 60 years. The story is complicated and can't be told with a few sound bites.
We do ourselves a disservice when we debate these enormous issues without serious context.
Jeffrey Shaffer is a writer living in Portland, Ore.