Best paragraph I read this morning


From Lawrence Lessig’s Remix:

One great feature of modern society is the institutionalized respect we give to processes designed to destroy the past. The free market is the best example. Democracy is another. In both cases, constant flux is not the objective (we have courts to protect private property; we have constitutions to slow the will of the democracy). But in both cases, the aim is to assure that the past survives only if it can beat out the future. 


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Best paragraph I read this morning

  1. “One great feature of modern society is the institutionalized respect we give to processes designed to destroy the past.”

    Being a conservative and all, I utterly disagree that this trend can be considered ‘great’. I am only in my mid-30’s but I already find myself muttering about ‘kids these days’, ‘things aren’t like they used to be’, ‘what happened to my country’ … etc. I guess I am a born grandpa.

  2. But in both cases, the aim is to assure that the past survives only if it can beat out the future.

    I don’t know what he means by “beat out the future.” I tend to believe, particularly with digital information, that what we’re seeing is the past that survives is the one that is subordinate to or supports a pre-determined future. But maybe that’s what he means by “beat out.”

  3. I can’t tell if this post is ironic or not, but with a few changes it reminds me of why I love antiquity:

    “One great feature of ancient society was the institutionalized respect it gave to processes designed to destroy the future. Religious ritual is the best example. Oligarchy is another. In both cases, constant flux was the objective (they had courts to protect private property; they had constitutions to restrain the appetites of the elite). But in both cases, the aim was to assure that the future intruded only if it could beat out the past.”

    • I can’t tell if this post is ironic or not…

      I think it’s post-ironic.

    • Thanks for the great quotation, Jack. What is the source?

      • Ah, it sounds good, eh? I was just fiddling with Mr. Potter’s quote, but the definitive expression of ancient historiography is Thucyides Book 1, Chapter 22:

        “With reference to the [direct] speeches [used] in this history, some were delivered before the [Peloponnesian] war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.

        “And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible.

        “My conclusions have cost me some labor from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eyewitnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other.

        “The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”

        This is from what is, IMHO, the best translation, The Landmark Thucydides, which is particularly great because it has excellent maps. It’s a bit of a monster to read, of course — kind of like War and Peace minus the romance — but it’s a bit like crack for people interested in military history.

  4. Does one have to have read Lessig to ‘get’ this quote? What is this quote apropos of? Or does AP simply like tormenting consevatives?

    • Because conservatives are tormented by free markets and democracy?

      • Certainly, if they enable us to celebrate the eradication of the past.

        • The only appropriate response i can devise is Stenghals [ ?] quip: ” The future isn’t what it used to be”

          • LOL. But the past has much in store for us.

          • But the past has much in store for us.

            That’s a good one.

      • Well carry on then. But be aware that you are inadvertantly hurting the brains of innocents like me.

  5. But in both cases, the aim is to assure that the past survives only if it can beat out the future.

    Anyone want to bring that up with General Motors, Chrysler, the UAW, the CAW, …?

  6. But in both cases, the aim is to assure that the past survives only if it can beat out the future.

    Not to get all philosophical here, but the past does not even exist, except as it is recorded in the present.

    Lessig is essentially saying that democracy and the free market help ensure that our interpretations of the past do not unreasonably influence our decision making in the present.

    • The key word being “unreasonably.”

      There has never been a human society with less respect for the past, qua past, than ours. Never. So the danger is hardly that we will allow the past to throttle our future. Besides, IMHO there’s a strong case to be made that we simply invent the past we want, whether in myth, in selective amnesia, or just in textbooks. Thus the past, within a few meagre parameters, is no less a blank slate than the future; if so, the question is not whether we want to heed or be shackled to the past but whether we want a past at all, or will simply project our myths into the future. That strikes me as extraordinarily dangerous.

      • Jack, I am a history buff so I sympathize with what you’re saying. I agree that the past is to some extent a blank slate, with the caveat that facts are facts, records are records, and evidence is evidence. In other words, there are many interpretations of the past that reasonable people can agree on.

        Your point about deliberately ignoring the past in order to project myths into the future is a good one – you are a true disciple of Orwell.

        • Thanks, CR, that’s a very nice compliment.

          I’m likewise very keen on history, and quite agree about facts & records. I guess I’m projecting some of my personal frustration with the study of history: in a former life I was an academic (genus antiquarian) and I left because I found it was very rare to meet anyone interested in an objective assessment of contemporary issues in historical terms. That is, when dealing with matters of little contemporary interest, scholars are willing to step back and assess the past on its own terms; but when they study past attitudes to contemporary problems (religion, freedom, human rights, democracy, to take a few examples) they’re unable to adopt a historical point of view. What we need, IMHO, is a healthy combination of the two: relevant historical analysis that doesn’t take contemporary cant as the starting point. Unfortunately that irritates the sons of Wissenschaft as much as it does the sons of cant.

          • Jack, I can confidently say that you are the only antiquarian i have ever met, either online or in real life. You have impressive credentials, too. I checked out your website – I loved the NP essay about using ancient Greek ideas about democracy (going back to the original form) as a starting point for shaping our thinking about the current Canadian system of “representative democracy”. Well done – by using ancient history as a guide, it is possible to introduce truly original thought into modern-day political debate.

            Are you working on a new book?

          • We’re rather a rare breed these days! But I have great hopes for the future. So glad you liked the NP piece; I keep hoping there will be a parliamentary committee on the subject that I can go testify before. As described it might not appeal to MP’s, but you hit the nail on the head — it was meant to inject some history into discussions of representative democracy.

            Very flattered you checked out the website! I’m currently working on a play in verse about Louis Riel, and I hope to have a contract for a third YA historical novel soon. Would love to be able to pay the bills with fiction!

    • “… the past des not even exist…” I tried that one on RC. But they insist that as far as their concerned the part that involved my owing them some taxes does.

      • kc, I think you missed the second part of the sentence: “the past does not even exist, except as it is recorded in the present”. CRA has their records and you’d better have yours, too. ;-)

        • Oh i didn’t miss the 2nd part of your sentence, i just didn’t see why i should furnish the tax boys with more info then was absolutely necessary. Needless to say they know all about holding our pasts to account in the pesent and the future. Apparently they not subject to the petty restrictions of time.

  7. That strikes me as extraordinarily dangerous.

    What strikes me as dangerous is how the recent past is thought to be ancient these days. That’s what ‘s gotten scary in that last two decades or so.

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