Nicholas Lemann: An Ahistorical Memory

Lemann says that we tend to be excessively pessimistic.
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TRANSCRIPT

Nicholas Lemann: No. Definitely not. No. I mean I would ask those who say that, “When was it broke and when was it fixed exactly?” No. That’s another one of those kind of . . . The world is just . . . We touched on this several times in this interview already. The world is full of these kind of ahistorical and excessively pessimistic constructs of how things are now. Everything used to be great up to some point like maybe 20 years ago, and since then everything is horrible. You know I’d really, to respond to that intelligently, need to know what you mean by “broken”. Well think of it this way. In . . . Political participation in the United States among registered voters was by huge margin the highest it’s ever been in the 19th century. So was politics broken then? Women couldn’t vote. Politics was the most corrupt it’s ever been. Patronage graph bribery were rampant. There were no campaign finance reform laws or anything like that. There was no clean government laws. But political participation was extremely high. Basically anybody who could vote, voted. So was it broken then and it’s fixed now? Or was it fixed then and broken now? But I don’t think . . . No. I do not think American politics is broken at all.  We’re ahistorical, and for some reason these sort of chattering classes who discuss public affairs are drawn to these sort of Cassandra-like arguments about everything is horrible today and it used to be good. I mean just a tiny example. If you ask anybody in the world . . . Not anybody in the world . . . anybody in the U.S. upper middle class, they will sign on instantly the statement that it used to be really easy to get into college. Now it’s really hard to get into college, and there’s something deeply wrong with that. And that’s just simply not true, but it feels so true. People just can’t believe it’s not true, even though they can’t produce any data to support it.  It’s human nature. You know the past seems safe. We lived through it. It seemed like we wouldn’t at the time, but we did. So it’s safe, and we remember the good things, and we blot out the bad things. And the contingent nature of history is very apparent to people in the present, and it’s very hard for people to make the leap backward and see that at every moment things were contingent.

 

Recorded on: 11/30/07