Right now, at this moment, you and I are part of what will soon be history to the people yet unborn. More than that, we are actively shaping their present.
My grandfather has been trying to teach me for years about the reality of the past. He usually refers to the American Civil War, in which my ancestors (real people he can name!) fought for the Confederacy. Past events and people are not just facts and characters in books; they are as real as everything going on around us in 2015. Just think about how our technological innovations make an enormous difference for future generations. Think of all the good – and harm – that has resulted from Orville and Wilbur Wright’s invention of the airplane, or Al Gore’s invention of the internet.
The observation that the past affects our reality, and the present affects the future might seem obvious. The trouble is, we live in a culture of “presentism.”
How often have you been admonished to “live in the moment” or to “be present” because the “now” is all that really matters (#YOLO, anyone)? Maybe one or two issues force grudging consideration of future generations: global climate change – President Obama said in this year’s SOTU that “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change” – and the national debt. But in almost every other area of policy and culture, we worship the “naked now.”
Ted McAllister argues that what he calls “The Tocqueville Problem,” or the “denial of history” endemic to democracy, stems from the abstract premise of “equality” inherent to democracy’s foundation. If people are equal, they must be essentially the same, regardless of geography, culture, history. As he points out in his essay, “The Tocqueville Problem and the Nature of American Conservatism,” this view fosters a destructive individualism and ignorance of the determinative reality of the past:
Democratic individualism hides the historical nature of one’s reality, presenting instead a narrow temporal horizon that shuts one off from institutional memory or meaningful connections to a longer story to which one might belong...Democratic individualism, in Tocqueville’s analysis, leads to forgetting and therefore to a denial or rejection of heritage. To act as though one’s civilization is natural or given leads one to live obsessively in the present and to undermine the very civilization that he enjoys.
Presentism clouds the truth that our present reality emerged from a particular past, and is the result of historical processes and human actions. That past was contingent, not determined – it did not have to be as it was. The same goes for the future. So “we the living” have an enormous responsibility.
Globalization has brought incredible economic interdependence. But human life is even more interdependent than we commonly realize. In addition to being geographically and economically interdependent, we are temporally interdependent. Edmund Burke famously made this point in Reflections on the Revolution in France regarding the nature of civil society:
Society is...a contract…but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade…to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties…it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
Our presentism hinders us from fully appreciating the partnership in which we are engaged, what my grandfather once called “the human enterprise.” It helps explain why Americans are “de-linking,” increasingly “disconnected” from the historic institutions of family, church, and neighborhood - institutions that may seem antiquated, but are in fact future-oriented, binding successive generations together.
The present is not all we have. We don't live in a vacuum. We have a past, and a duty to posterity. How can we fulfill that duty unless we acknowledge it?