Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Living in the Past-Eileen and I got up to Charlottesville and Monticello yesterday. The tour of the house proper was interesting but unnerving; a spirit of loneliness seemed to be on the place, possibly stemming from Jefferson's long widdowerhood. The tour of the slave section of the place had about the right mix of cold facts and moral indignation with a minimum of PCness. For all the theory of the equality of man, Jefferson never did give up being a slave-holder. He was an idealist on paper; those ideas helped form the greatest country in the world (sorry, my international friends, but I've got to say that). However, he was human and couldn't easily escape the slave-based economy that big farms of the era were built around. Everyone's human; we just expect out leaders to be less so; we don't want to know that they had an eye for the ladies or were ruthless businessmen However, I'm not sure how much worse being a slave circa 1800 was versus being a hired hand of the same era; slaves had no freedom of mobility and a poor standard of living, but the average working stiff of that era wasn't a heck of a lot better off or better traveled. An interesting thing that came up were the incentive schemes that encouraged hard work that would fit right in to today’s management; the slaves were paid bonuses if they worked hard, either in cash or in time off to do cash-making endeavors. One of the realistically sad parts was mentioning the resale value of slave, especially the zero value of a post-menopausal slave woman. She couldn't have and more kids and her current work capability would be offset by having to take care of her in old age; such a person was a negative Net Present Value project and had no resale value. That's a sobering thought when we consider that many modern people will look at the elderly in the same light, justifying euthanasia on some of the cold financial calculations that would give a grandma a negative NPV. I can't quite put a finger on this feeling, but I think that history is weighting down this area. There seems to be a heavy feeling in the air, and it isn't the constant rain we've been having. People seem to be a bit edgier here, a bit more worried. I haven't been in the older east coast states since I was a kid, and I feel that part of the stagnation that the older part of the country has is that they are too focused on the past, while areas with less historic roots, such as the Great Lakes and Florida that I'm more familiar with, have more of a future-centered vision. It's not that we're talking about the residue of racism or confederate flags or the preservation of momuments; it's the historic nature of the area that might be holding things back. The more the past is a focal point of people's lives, the less time is spent on innovation and economic creativity. In towns like Richmond or Charlottesville, history is a growth industry as opposed to telecom, computers or pharmaceuticals; that doesn't help grow the economy in the long run, for it only diverts tourism money from non-historic vacationing. A good knowledge of history is important; I'm a son of two history majors and have a solid background in the area. Such knowledge is important, for knowing where we've been helps us where we should go next. However, an obsession with history can leave us with our eyes glued to the rearview mirror, reliving slights and defeats and victories that may have little to do with what is happening next. If we spend too much time focused on what happened in the 1950s or 1860s or 1770s, we might not have enough energy to focus on what the 2010s should look like. There's one smart young man at church who's both a history buff and a computer geek and wants to be a history professor down the line. He loves history, but I wonder if that's the most productive use of his talents. We need good historians to give perspective to the past and to debunk revisionist history, but we need smart people in other areas as well.

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