Notes Towards a Future History of Right Now

Phil Ford

Fair warning: this isn’t about music, it’s about politics, so those of you who don’t want to hear another damn academic for Obama should come back later. Thank you.

Last week I was talking about the election to a colleague in the hallway outside the music history and music theory offices, and I remarked that I’m probably going to be a lot more productive once the election is over. Another colleague, whose door was ajar, heard what I said and came out to join us. He knew what I meant, and we got to talking about the brain-sucking omnipresence of the 2008 presidential campaign in our lives. Normally when my wife and I are both home from work we pour a drink and talk about our days — what our kids are up to, how the day’s teaching went, who we ran into, etc. Nowadays that lasts for like 30 seconds before we start breaking down the day’s polls. We reload 538 obsessively, follow inside-baseball political blogs (the Atlantic and Politico rosters especially), and watch MSNBC, Colbert, and Stewart after the kids go to bed. (And I HATE cable news. This does not stop me.) We talk and think about little else but the presidential race, and our moods go up and down with the little crises of each day. I’ve been in the United States for 21 years now, and I’ve never been this obsessed with an election, not ever. And what my hallway conversation with my colleagues showed me is that the same thing is happening to everyone else. We’re all going to be more productive after November 4. It’s funny, I write this musicological blog and don’t talk much about the background stuff in my life very much — I try to stay mostly on topic and write about music or academia. But In truth there’s no real line between them, and trying to keep them apart has felt so strained and artificial I’ve just been avoiding blog-writing altogether. Intellectual history — the causes and quarrels hashed out in public — is always shadowed by hidden private experience. Ideas take on the color of their emotional environment. And right now there is an emotional environment — private, mostly unspoken, yet collective, a movement stirring within history — the sum total of all those writers out there, like me, hunched over the computer and staring at it like a crystal ball, hoping perhaps that if they just keep clicking the future will somehow come into view.

Looking back over the last few years, you can see the ways that the Bush Administration has gamed and marginalized its opponents. But this belongs to the realm of public life, and some future history of this era will have to come to terms with the private dimension as well, the tiny invisible lines between the public and private realms, just as cold war historians have tried to do for life in the 1950s. And it seems to me that what has really characterized private life in this era has been a numbing of the historical faculty, a feeling that someone is making history, but it’s not us, and indeed that history has nothing much to do with us. Although the time has gone by for me as quickly as time in a busy life ever goes, until very recently I had the feeling that time (historical time, anyway) had somehow stopped, that things had been this way forever and would go on the same way forever. Bad men were doing bad things in the name of authority and nothing anyone said or did about it seemed to make any difference. Political culture had congealed into a frozen eternity, it seemed, and so the routine was to start the day by reading the newspaper in mounting impotent rage, and then go to work, and then come home, listening to the news on the car radio (again with impotent rage), and start making dinner. Political awareness was no less acute than at any other time, but it had been contained somehow, walled off from the rest of life: it was not that you didn’t know what was going on, it was only that it didn’t matter. It would be wrong, a historical caricature, to say that this has been a time of ideological weakness or timidity, an era of conformity, etc., as historians so often do with the cold war. (I think it’s wrong when people tell that story about the cold war, too.) But as I’ve argued before, the signal achievement (if that’s the right word) of the Bush era, or the leader cult we might call Bushism, has not been the crushing of dissent, but the debasing of public language to the extent that dissent just doesn’t matter much. The last eight years of criticism of Bushism has been like the turning of a stripped screw — motion without force.

One of the things I’ve been writing about recently is how the revolutionary left in the 1960s felt the nearness of history, almost as if history were a living thing, a great beast they could feel moving beneath them. That historical faculty, that sixth sense by which we can feel the movements of history, has been long disused, gone cold and stiff, atrophied and pinched, forgot we had it. But it’s warming up, unclenching, we’re feeling it again. I apologize for all the “we” stuff. As Wayne Koestenbaum says, “I say ‘we’ wishfully, hypothetically.” But it’s a hypothesis with a certain number of data points now. I can feel it when I talk to people here, even when we’re not talking about politics. You can see it in the huge crowds that Obama draws, in the news stories about long patient lines for early voting across the country. No-one knows what’s going to happen on Nov. 4, but something is going to happen. Things were static for a long time and now they’re starting to move very quickly indeed. Who knows where it’s all going? It could be disaster just as easily as triumph. (Things didn’t work out so great in the 1960s, after all.) But one way or the other, we are now all (to continue my metaphor) on the back of this beast, very big now running very fast indeed, and we know it: we can feel it.

A side note: since I started typing this post, the ATF announced that it has foiled an assassination plot against Obama and Ted Stevens has been found guilty of corruption. It reminds me of a joke Dennis Leary once made about how much TV guys his age watch: they turned on the TV in 1963 and saw Oswald get shot, so they never wanted to turn it off again.

Obama figured all this stuff out, y’know, which is why he’ll probably win. (Though let’s not get complacent.) “Yes we can” turned out to be a pretty appropriate political slogan.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Notes Towards a Future History of Right Now

  1. One of the things I’ve been writing about recently is how the revolutionary left in the 1960s felt the nearness of history, almost as if history were a living thing, a great beast they could feel moving beneath them. That historical faculty, that sixth sense by which we can feel the movements of history, has been long disused, gone cold and stiff, atrophied and pinched, forgot we had it.
    Contrast that with (now-repentant) neoconservative author Francis Fukuyama, who titled one of his books The End of History. People accuse postmodernism of being ahistorical (and not always without cause, of course), but what passes for conservatism these days is worse: they don’t understand history, they fetishize some mythic past.
    On the bright side, the state where you live – my beloved home state, even as that love has been tough love most of the time – might accidentally go for the Democrat this year. Here’s hoping.
    WF
    (who can’t wait for this to be over too, so he can get back to research and composing seriously. I’ve worn out the “refresh” button on various news and commentary websites.)

  2. mark says:

    You think they were thinking about the Lee Dorsey song when they came up with the slogan, or is it just a happy coincidence?

  3. Peter Alexander says:

    I’m with you Phil. I’ll be glad to get my life back (and relieved, I hope!) when this thing is over. I too rush from 528 to Pollster to Daily Kos to talking Points Memo . . . hoping for some kind of clarity. I felt from the beginning that this was the most critical election of my lifetime, and I’ve given what time I could to help influence the outcome. Even making a few phone calls and spending few hours poll watching gives a sense of being part of history, which will be made Nov. 4 regardless of the outcome.

  4. Peter Alexander says:

    Coincidentally, this appeared today in the Boulder, Colo. Daily Camera:
    Do you check your favorite election blogs several times a day and fall asleep to cable news? Do you wake up at night and think about poll numbers and electoral votes? The Daily Camera is looking for both Democrats and Republicans to interview about their election-related behaviors.

  5. Hmm…for some reason, the first paragraph of my comment wasn’t italicized. I certainly did not write it – it was Phil – and I do not wish for it to appear as if I did. (It’s far better than what I usually write, for starters.)
    Mea maxima culpa.
    WF

  6. Phil Ford says:

    “Do you check your favorite election blogs several times a day and fall asleep to cable news? Do you wake up at night and think about poll numbers and electoral votes?”
    Yes and yes.
    Hey Wes, yeah, I’ve made the same mistake: Typepad doesn’t let you do html tags in comments, which is annoying and stupid.

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