‘Tis the end of the semester, and, in class, my story comes to an end. Only, it doesn’t really have an end. Actually, I didn’t even try to give it one. I just left off with the lectures in progress. I know it’s probably unsettling for my interested students to suddenly come to the end of the tracks. They’ve been following my tale for four months and they want resolution. Do the good guys win out? Are we better off? What’s the outcome? I’m not giving them answers. Instead, the story abruptly stopped (and earlier than they wanted).
There is, of course, a method to the madness. The truth is, with history, stories don’t really end. We write them so they do, but that’s our artificial narrative impulse kicking in. The world does not work that way. Instead, interwoven strings extend through time, often contributing to multiple overlapping stories. I resisted giving my students the resolution that they’ve been conditioned for. I wanted them to experience this history the way you do life: things don’t neatly conclude so much as they ebb and flow as you move along. I could no more end the story than I could begin it. When we picked up — at 1877 — it was already underway, and it continues on from where we left off. We only joined the history in progress for a short time. Our starting points and closing ones are arbitrary and externally imposed.
My theme for the class this semester was the rise of law and order. Of course, prior to 1877, all was not chaos. There was order already — only a different kind of order than we understand now. My purpose was just to move them from the way things were at point A to point B, building some kind of narrative thread along the way. I started in the midst of it all because it began before recorded time. It is a story without end as well. It will extend for ages more, and what order looks like in fifty or one hundred years will be vastly different than it appears today. So, in a way, I was being true to the story by not tying it up in a well-crafted ending. The reality itself resists this.
Hopefully, in the end, my now-former students’ interests will have been piqued, and they will continue to inquire after the story. They’ll read more books, watch more documentaries, and analyze events they experience themselves to extend the tale further on their own. That is my hope anyway — naive and eager as it is. But, if this is the case, then I have given them another gift: they will become the storytellers themselves and create ongoing narratives of their own. It would be most interesting to see, down the road, how their histories diverge and how they developed from mine.
Lately, the comparisons of Obama and the current economic conditions to FDR and the Great Depression abound. I am loathe to use history as an exact blueprint for responding to contemporary issues generally, for many reasons, but historians (and wannabes) love to do this. I really think personal politics gets in the way, but that is largely the case in any situation. Anyway, the comparisons themselves offer fascinating considerations.
President-elect Obama has recently announced a plan to expand the federal workforce to repair and construct infrastructure improvements and promote new energy sources. To accomplish this, the federal government would hire many new employees to build and maintain roads, bridges, and schools and research renewable energy alternatives. It’s the New Deal all over again! The TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) built dams and waterways after its founding in 1933. This was the means for new energy sources and infrastructure improvements for areas in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. The TVA brought soil conservation and flood control to a region desperately in need of development that largely lacked the capital to make large-scale investments. This agency also brought electricity to thousands living in rural areas that private utilities did not serve and could not or would not pay to integrate into existing electrical systems. The experiment in public utility service gave government officials insight into the actual costs of producing and distributing electricity while providing infrastructure investments that benefited the consuming public and the private utility companies. Presumably, the TVA would be the model for Obama’s energy program. Wind and solar options suggest that the benefiting region this time out will be the largely rural and poor southwest. As for Obama’s construction program, it’s model is the WPA (Works Progress Administration). Founded in 1935, this agency put millions of unemployed workers out making physical improvements to streets, highways, bridges, public buildings, and the like. This was a hugely popular program with voters because it put people to work (rather than on the dole) and — contrary to grumbling otherwise — Americans like to work. The end result was improved roads and highways that benefited many.
Interestingly, when historians judge the New Deal, they usually don’t consider it a raging success. This is because it failed to end unemployment completely and did not put an end to the economic difficulties of the Great Depression (not that this is a realistic standard to guage by). Historians chalk the end of the crisis up to the massive public and private consumerism brought on by WW2 and rising wages. Thus, judging by this analysis, you would not be inclined to suggest TVA- and WPA-type programs as solutions to the problems of today. These would not, if history is a lesson, promise ultimate relief. Of course, you wouldn’t want to start a war to end our economic problems either — oh, wait, we are “at war” — I mean a big, official war.
The problem with the standard historical analysis is that it discredits what the New Deal contributed in the long run to the quality of life of many Americans and the benefits to those that it did put to work. Had the TVA projects not been undertaken, who knows when the funds would’ve been available to make such large-scale public works investments. Because of it, though, thousands had access to electricity and improved environmental conditions (due to flood control). Those benefits should not be lightly discounted. They changed the way thousands or millions of people lived — literally. Likewise, public works projects may not have had lasting impact in some places — but in others, like Oklahoma, we still benefit from highway and building construction from that era. Indeed we could benefit from New Deal 2 repairing and expanding on the first New Deal projects here.
This is the tricky part of judging the record of past events in order to apply them to contemporary times. You have to ask: is a project desirable if it improves quality of life for many but cannot eradicate unemployment? What if it ushers in a new age of technology but can’t eliminate volatility in the stock market? It is naive to expect that government intervention can solve all economic problems absolutely. Further, just because the positive benefits of a program are limited doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth trying or can’t bring some much-needed aid. Having said that, just because we’ve had a Civilian Conservation Corps that produced some benefit in the past doesn’t mean we have to be wedded to that solution in the future. FDR’s don’t have to be our go-to options. I caution against loving precedent too much and throwing the baby out with the bathwater. History is not a crystal ball that is omniscient and wise — mostly because it is interpreted by humans that are fallible and partisan. History can be a beneficial tool but I cringe at recent op-eds that swear by conformity to the established model. the first cut is the deepest, but it may not mark your best option.