May 4, 2010

The history we forget

It's somewhat startling to see the extent to which Jefferson and Adams didn't agree.

It's not just that they disagreed, or that they became rivals and heads of opposing parties. It's not just that one of them was deeply committed to democracy, even embracing as honest the fickleness of the mob and the anarchic potential of the voice of the people, while the other distrusted the people and was always on the side of law and the rule of law, even accepting as right the need for power, the need for centralized power and suppressing force, with its potential for abuse or even tyranny. What's startling, and even unsettling, more than any of that, is how they didn't agree on what the Constitution or the Revolution meant.

It was, for them, disputable. It was ambiguous. They were fighting, in part, over the very interpretation of what now seems so clear.

John Adams, the HBO miniseries, is a brilliant piece of work. Paul Giamatti does a great job -- I especially enjoy the way he worries his wig as a prop, and the way he acts with his face. The director, Tom Hooper, manages to neither unduly reduce nor overextend the story. He manages, kind of amazingly, to get past the costumes and the style of speaking and seize a real vitality, avoiding the costumed artificiality and camp that the Revolution can become.

Hooper, interestingly, is British, and said somewhere he was surprised to find that this founding myth of America wasn't depicted and depicted and over depicted, but is almost ignored by art. We've forgotten more of it than we remember. When compared to the Civil War and WWII, the American Revolution, in art and popular telling, almost isn't a story but just a phrase, a fixed and unmovable idea.

It's a mere trope: the framers, the founding, the fathers.

In our political discourse, the right promotes a concept of strict construction, the idea of adhering to the intent which is held to be clear, to be obvious, and the left, with the idea the constitution is a living document, open to reinterpretation and reinterpretation, accepts, somewhat, that there was one original understanding, though it's open to change. But what Hooper does, in his interpretation of David McCullough's work, showing this debate and disagreement between "the north and south poles of the Revolution," is show the central ambiguity of America's original document. There wasn't this one idea, either fixed or open to reinterpretation, and the law, much like today's criticized legislation, was passed first, and understood only later.

Even the "spirit" of 1776 was an open question, with Jefferson saying the French Revolution, even with the violence and terror that Adams abhorred, was of the same essence, another eruption of insuppressible liberty.

What worries me, though, is not the ambiguity or even the fact that this certainty and clarity has been read backwards into history, but that it's startling. I worry there's a structure of amnesia in our history, so we spring fully formed and innocent onto the world stage with the Second World War. I worry about the ways we're constituted by our forgetfulness, the ways we are how we are because of how and what we've forgotten.

What we forget is as important as what we remember, but so much harder to pay attention to.