Letter to the Future
Hello. I’m writing to you from the cusp of the millennium in the United States of America (I hope you don’t have to look that up). A group of elected officials in our capital city is trying to decide what to do to our commander in chief for his indiscretions of first engaging in an extramarital affair, and then lying about it. I’m writing this letter because I fear for what you will think of America (and, by inference, what you will think of me) when you read about this time in your history books (I wish you people of the future could write back. I’d like to know whether you are battling the same demons that stalk us today; whether you have discovered new demons; or whether you have come upon some wisdom unknown to the time in which I am living).
The trouble with history is that it tends to remember little more than events. It tends to be a poor reporter of national moods, diversity of opinions, special interest squabbling, and the fears of politicians. It thereby tends to convince the reader of history that things were much simpler in the old days; not complicated like they are now.
Well, I have news for you – things are rather complicated here in the late 20th century. Your history probably tells you that this time and place is ruled by a democracy, but I must tell you that the wishes of the mass of our citizenry are not typically reflected in the words and deeds of our elected officials. Why this should be the case is really quite puzzling – after all, we elected them; yet they say and do foolish things every day; they are widely recognized as foolish and deceitful people; yet we continue to elect them. I cannot explain this. I hope you people of the future have made wonderful breakthroughs in understanding this.
But back to the matter at hand. I want desperately for you people of the future to know that many of us living in this olden time are mortified in consideration of the legacy we appear to be creating. On the one hand, we are leaving the legacy of electing (twice) a man who brought shame upon himself and his countrymen, and then trying to run him out of office for turning out to have far too much in common with the electorate. On the other hand, especially, we are leaving the legacy of having this matter become little more than a tool for exploitation and political gain. I hope that in your future time, you have found the wisdom to place the judgment of such matters into 2 places: the hearts of the perpetrators, and the minds of the people whom they serve, while keeping the power of judgment out of the hands of calculating, frightened politicians.
Those of you who are reading this letter in 1999 may need a little perspective on my concerns. Consider, by way of example, Alexander the Great. Most of what we “know” about him are stories culled from anecdote and legend. The tale of the Gordian Knot is thrilling in its simple, symbolic power. The truth, one suspects, was perhaps both more complicated and more mundane. The knot, if it ever existed at all, may never have been seen, much less severed, by Alexander. Yet the facts of history that occurred after this supposed moment make one long for this portentous moment to have occurred in fact. The result is that we tend to view Alexander as a rather one-dimensional conqueror. A huge figure in history, certainly. But the myriad personal considerations, agonizing debates, and logistical realities remain largely buried in the ashes of time. What survives are broad strokes of the historian’s pen, supported and embellished by legend and conjecture. A little more to the point, consider Rasputin, legendary villain of late imperial Russia. Even in his own lifetime, in his own country, the fantastic tales told among the peasantry regarding Rasputin’s personal habits and practices strain credulity past any reasonable consideration. That he was a filthy, bedraggled mystic seems a safe enough assumption. That he wielded substantial influence in the Romanov household seems equally certain. Beyond that, one’s level of certainty quickly crumbles, until we settle comfortably into a type of “knowledge” that might best be termed “historical fact.”
All of which brings us to the matter of President Bill Clinton. When you read your histories of this era, you may well conclude that the common citizens of this era were simple folk who lived in a very small world. Perhaps your “historical fact” will be that the late 20th century in the United States was a time of stifling Puritanism; conversely, you may think that this was a time of unbridled voyeurism. You may, in fact, be right on both counts. In any case, let me offer you this insight, from one who actually lived in this time: Yes, there is a strain of Puritanism in this land today. Yes, there is rampant voyeurism. There are also millions of people whose defining characteristics are boredom, cynicism, and self-indulgence. And there are also quite a few of us who are smart enough to know that when a den of thieves turns on one of its own, we would do well to scrutinize its motivations, particularly when their rhetoric adopts a tone of self-righteous indignation. But even if you do view us as simple folk, you may take some consolation in the knowledge that many of our elected officials would agree with you.
That’s all I have to report for now. Perhaps I will have sent another letter to the future at a later date (although you would obviously know more than I about whether that actually happened). My remaining hope is that you will somehow find a way to answer my letter. If so, I would hope to learn that your rulers have adopted both higher standards of personal conduct, and a more honest sense of their own fitness to sit in judgment.