Today is the first day of a new year and a new decade (culturally speaking, even if not horologically accurate). I wish to thank you for all the blessings I have and will continue to enjoy in 2020. I also offer this prayer for the world, and my fellow humans, as one who studies history and has made much of his life’s work the appreciation and understanding of the human past. I think I did some good work in 2019, and will continue it this coming year. But I also think I can’t do my job alone, and I’d like to appeal to your divine guidance for some help for our profession, and for the world.
God, please help people understand what history is and why it matters.
History is the lifeblood of the civilization we’ve built on this planet. Who we are as people and what we’ve accomplished in our eons of existence lives, for better or worse, in our history. Too few people understand how important it is. Politicians don’t, because they continually rank education and arts programs at the bottom of the list of funding priorities–while spending far more on weapons that will never be used, or on fossil fuel subsidies that are destroying our planet. Corporations and business leaders don’t, because they think business and economics exists in a bubble for which the only relevant reference to the past is what they made last quarter. History, when it is thought of as relevant, is more often consumed as an entertainment product than examined as a source of wisdom and guidance. I wish I knew what more I could do to change this perception. I’m doing my best, but there’s only so much I can do. I could really use your help with this.
God, please help people resist the poison of pseudohistory and false narratives about the past.
Too many of my fellow humans prefer false narratives about the past to real ones. I can prove this. In August 2017 I did a series of articles on this blog about the historical analysis of the legend of “buried treasure” on a small island in maritime Canada, which also happens to be the subject of a fake documentary on a terrible cable station called the History Channel. This week alone I received many messages, most of them angry and insulting, protesting my conclusions that there isn’t treasure buried there and never was. The case of Oak Island is a low-stakes one and not very important in and of itself, but people’s preference for false narratives can and do have terrible real-world consequences–such as when those pseudohistories deny that genocides occurred or distort the origins of events like the Crusades or the U.S. Civil War. Pseudohistory is intellectual and moral poison. It may seem harmless to believe that aliens built the pyramids or that JFK was killed as a result of a shadowy conspiracy for which there is no evidence, but the vehemence and vitriol with which people respond when a real historian questions these pseudohistorical beliefs shows that these beliefs are part of the deep identity of many people. God, I’ve always thought that an understanding of what really happened in the past is a moral value higher than believing a false narrative, because I believe truth is a vital element of morality. Please, God, help dispel the poisonous beliefs of pseudohistory in the minds of people. They will lead only to darkness.
God, please help people realize that the advance of authoritarianism can happen–and it is happening.
The darkest periods of our history have come when authoritarianism and dictatorship has run rampant throughout our world. Whether it was the purges of Stalin in the 1930s or the senseless massacres of Jews and other people by Nazi Germany a few years later, the forces of authoritarianism, whatever their source, have eclipsed and tarnished the human spirit. As a historian there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s starting to happen again. The government of the United States, supposedly founded on the idea that people are created equal, is detaining innocent children in concentration camps on the U.S.-Mexico border. The vote by the UK to leave the European Union represents a shattering of the post-World War II political and economic order, which can only lead to a resumption of the fractious and violent politics that soaked Europe’s history in blood for many centuries. There are historians out there, like Timothy Snyder, or fellow blogger Padre Steve, who have been sounding the alarm about this for years, based on their careful study of similar situations in the past. It seems like no one is listening. If they aren’t, we need help in making people listen. We can’t go down this road again. Those of us who study history are uniquely positioned to know where it leads. There is such urgency about this.
God, please help people understand the importance of climate change to our history.
In August 2019 I put out a book, The Warmest Tide: How Climate Change is Changing History, which was intended as a quick and easy guide to some of the historical issues involving climate change and how we can use lessons from the past to see how it might affect our future. Climate change is the world’s biggest and most urgent problem, without any doubt. Although some great strides were made in 2019 regarding public awareness of this issue–and thank you, God, for giving us Greta Thunberg–so much more needs to be done. Fossil fuels need to be kept in the ground, and the companies that profit from them need to divest and be liquidated. A massive and sudden crash investment program in renewable energy scale-up needs to happen all around the world, right away. As I make this prayer to you, God, you know full well that Australia is literally burning, and that we, humans, have done it. Please, do all you can do to help us understand the urgency of climate change and to act appropriately. History shows us that if we don’t, we’re headed for some very serious consequences–war perhaps, or revolution, or some other form of upheaval.
I admit that I don’t have a lot of high hopes that the world will be on a significantly better course at the end of 2020 than it is at the beginning. It’s hard not to feel pessimistic these days, and to identify with other periods of darkness and pessimism in our past. But God, if there’s anything you can do–even if only to give me renewed strength to carry on my work–now is the time.