This summer issue of Comment contains several pieces with an historical slant. Some of our readers will delight in this; others will snort along with car maker Henry Ford, who in 1916 famously remarked that “history is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”
Contrary to Ford’s silly short-sightedness, we are in large part creatures of history, and creatures unable to live without historical awareness. The economist John Maynard Keynes gave us an observation as famous as Ford’s remark, but more true:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.
In his book Uitzien Naar de Zin (The Anticipation of Meaning, Leiden: Groen en Zoon, 1996), the Dutch historian Roel Kuiper writes:
Historical awareness means: knowing that there are fractures in history, that there is continuity and discontinuity. The experience of continuity and discontinuity awakens and tantalizes our historical awareness. The big events in history lead to these experiences. After a decisive historical change people ask themselves how it can be that things happened or changed in the way they did. [. . .] Historical awareness connects us to traditions, preceding generations, earlier ideas and inspiring figures. This connectedness with history is discovered by the maturing person and subsequently consciously accepted. [. . .] Historical awareness stands in relationship to the concrete practice of history as the voice does to the song. The song only sounds if there is a voice to sing it. It is the voice with its capacities that interprets the song and brings it to expression.
So think of our history-writers in this issue of Comment as troubadours, singing us songs of the Victorian age, thereby connecting us with “traditions, preceding generations, earlier ideas and inspiring figures” without which we cannot make sense of our own times.
To understand economic life in Canada, we have to understand the political life that sets certain of its parameters in law and habit—and without a historical understanding of the Canadian founding, our insights into Canadian political life are shallow and fleeting.
To understand the relation between economic life and the technology that undergirds it, or between economic life and local communities, we do well to attend to the thought of early generations as they struggled with the Industrial Revolution.
These are among the “songs” that are given voice in these pages.