Before I was in junior high school, I read the book that set me on the path to the far distant reaches of the leftest left where I currently reside (a kink in my neck from having to look right to see literally everybody else). It was George Orwell's Animal Farm, which I snuck out of my dad's bookcases because he wouldn't let me read it (always a mistake). Orwell was actually a Socialist himself, and Animal Farm is his warning to naive Progressives about how easily idealistic systems can be corrupted when you assume the best of everyone.

One of the many memorable characters in Animal Farm is the old donkey, Benjamin. Whenever anything happened that the other animals were getting excited about, he had a stock response. It didn't matter whether everyone was happy or upset, whether what was going on seemed good or bad. Benjamin would simply say, "Donkeys live a long time. None of you has ever seen a dead donkey."

By which he meant, of course, that after you've lived long enough, and seen the same cycles come around and around and around often enough, you don't get excited, or downcast, the way you once did. You've learned that the essence of life is change and no matter how you feel in the moment, the current situation won't last. Neither will what replaces it.

But without this sense of perspective, this sense of history, the same cycles keep repeating, and sometimes it seems impossible to break out of them and actually move forward. We do, though--it's been noted that history is a spiral, circling around but not to exactly the same place. But are we always moving forward? It depends.

Americans are very bad at history. No, I mean really bad at it. How much do you remember about what happened even at the beginning of 2020? Do you remember that huge parts of Australia were actually on fire? Our collective memory is short and our view of the past vague and largely inaccurate--even our own personal pasts. Unlike other cultures, our national character has never valued the past as much as the future.

This is a problem at times like now, because a long view of the past is helpful in two ways.

First, it makes us less prone to, and gullible about, hyperbole. With a clear memory and active knowledge of times past, we're much less likely to have patience with pronouncements that current events are the best, worst, biggest, greatest, most terrible, etc etc ad grandiosum of all time since the Big Bang. There would be far less of that going on right now if we had a better sense of humor and proportion about exaggeration. (And both the left and the right are equally guilty of it--especially in emails begging for donations.) We all need to go back and re-read the first paragraph of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.

Second, it can be comforting as well as informative to be aware of the similarities and differences between our time and times in the past--because we, or our forebears, lived through those past times and here we all are. So, for example, we can look at how very similar the feelings liberals and conservatives have about each other today are to the feelings Southern slave owners and Northern abolitionists had about each other in the decades before the Civil War--and realize that we're actually not nearly that extreme, at least yet.

In 1856, outspoken abolitionist Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts Senator, was almost beaten to death in the Senate chamber by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks. Brooks attacked Sumner without warning with a cane as Sumner sat at his desk, beating him until the cane broke in half. It took Sumner years to fully recover. Brooks faced no consequences for his actions. He resigned and went home, proudly justifying the beating, and was a hero to Southerners, who reelected him a few months later. Sumner, meanwhile, was considered a martyr in the North, even though his fiery speeches made some Northerners uncomfortable.

This wasn't the first time that disagreements on the floor of Congress led to violence. But we can't imagine that happening now, can we? Our legislators are much more effective at passive-aggressive methods of blocking each other. They don't need to exert nearly so much effort.

I don't believe we're anywhere close to a civil war. We're nowhere near the level of violence in the streets that we saw in the 1960s and early 1970s. We're shocked by things now that didn't bother anyone two generations ago. We've changed, as Americans, more than we know. That's probably a reason for the discomfort that so many on the right feel.

This is not to say that we don't have some serious problems to solve, and one of them is the refusal of the right and the left--looking at BOTH OF YOU--to understand each other. I say "refusal" because it's a conscious, dogged stubbornness. Everyone is too addicted to the savor of moral superiority on the tongue. It's become our national dish. We binge on it every day.

But watch out. It's poisonous.

Inanna Arthen