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Ask a historian

Ask a historian. Over the past year or so, this phrase has become my standard answer to questions raised about our so-called “unprecedented times.” 

Can you believe this or that bit of audacity by our president? 

What would happen if we went to war in the Middle East? 

Why does America seem so divided?

When these and other questions arise in conversation with friends and family, I often recommend (perhaps to their annoyance) that they ask a historian about what happened the last time something similar came up. It turns out, the unprecedented often has precedent—we either just don’t know or forgot about it. 

This is because at heart America is a country of striving optimism, a place where it seems that anyone can trade in their current life for a better one. We love stories of fresh starts and newfound success. As such, we have little time for the lessons of the past, and history often takes a back seat in our relentless drive toward progress (even here in Wisconsin, where our state motto is the emphatic Forward).

Sometimes, however, we keep our eyes on the horizon because it can be painful to look back over our collective shoulder. Take for example the controversy surrounding the 1619 Project by the New York Times. Launched on the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved people arriving on these shores, the ongoing print and digital project brings together essays, poems, fiction, and photography to explore the history and legacy of slavery in America. This very public history project is as ambitious as it is important for our understanding of the American experience, no matter what our heritage. 

A series like the 1619 Project that looks to the past isn’t trying to re-write American history or place readers on the side of right or wrong, winners or losers, racist or not (as some critics have claimed). Rather, it is about stepping away from these lazy binary assignations so that we can begin to accept the complexity and contradictions that led to the establishment of our republic, and the lingering influence our history of slavery has on contemporary American life. 

So when questions arise about the next unprecedented moment that appears on your TV, Facebook feed, or local newspaper, postpone for a moment your judgment and find a book that, or person who, can help you discover an analogous situation from our past.

In short: Ask a historian.

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Jason A. Smith is the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of the organization's quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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