Last night JW and I went to hear Simon Schama speak about his new book, The American Future: A History, at the QEH hall. He’s a great speaker – self-knowing about how much he enjoys his own voice, but wonderfully eloquent, subtle and funny. And, given we are three weeks away from the American elections, and given we are all holding our breath nervously, praying and praying that Obama holds his lead, it was a fantastic discussion – even the people asking questions were unusually disciplined and to the point.
His main point last night was that this year, for the first time in a very long time, America might just let ‘big politics’ beat ‘little politics’ – or, as he put it later and more descriptively, ‘lofty aspirations of great statesmanship’ versus ‘moose dressers’ (the term his wife uses to describe Sarah Palin). Why? Because people now feel angry that there’s not been anyone at home in Washington; because they are scared. He talked about this as an exciting moment as he subscribes to a view that broadly speaking, American politics is anti-intellectual. Some wonderful Schama-isms: about Sarah Palin representing ‘the politics of inarticulate instinct’, about Bill Clinton hiding is brain behind his ‘donut-eating affability’.
Listening to Schama also reminded me why I chose to study history. As the title of his book suggests, he believes that looking back to the past enables us to construct some alternative futures for ourselves. I think this is powerful stuff, and challenges the depressing fatalism that features too often in the commentariat about our future. As Schama said at some point: “there is more America out there than the Bush administration would have us believe”.