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History Doesn't Repeat Itself, But It Does Rhyme

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Is the world getting better? Are we making progress?

The conventional wisdom, reinforced by the presence of the newest phone in your pocket and a slate of victories on social issues ranging from gay marriage to marijuana legalization, would seem to be yes. The rhetoric of the outgoing president, Barack Obama, has been permeated for years with evocations of the moral arc of the universe, the right side of history, and the inevitable victory of truth and justice.


When spoken by an orator as skilled and charismatic as Obama, that makes for good rhetoric. Whether it’s good politics is less certain. In the hands of someone with a shallower understanding of the American past or a less nuanced view of society—say, the average op-ed columnist for the New York Times tossing out blazing hot takes at 500 words a pop—progress loses both its rhetorical force and anything like coherence.

What’s absolutely not in doubt is the fact that the narrative of progress is a terrible and misleading way of looking at the past. “Progress” is a complicated beast with its own history, a concept rooted in the philosophy of Hegel and the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx. Belief in progress drove both movements toward good governance and attempts to kick American Indians off their land. The fall of the Roman Empire is a slap in the face to anyone who believes that things are somehow destined to get better.


This narrative of progress is the focus of the first episode of “History Matters,” a new podcast hosted by Keith Pluymers and Patrick Wyman. We’re both recent PhDs in history from USC; Patrick worked on the fall of the Roman Empire (you might have seen his posts plugging that show here on Deadspin), and Keith focuses (present tense, because he has a real academic job) on the environmental history of the early modern Atlantic world.

We’ve been friends for years and get together regularly to drink beer and talk about the problems of the world. Since we’re historians by training and temperament, those conversations tend to include long comparisons between the present and the past. That’s the genesis of this show. We’re going to examine both the direct ancestry of our current predicaments, ranging from progress to political breakdown to settlement patterns to the economy, and how we can draw on our professional expertise to present parallel scenarios to these present-day problems.


History doesn’t repeat itself, as the saying goes, but it does rhyme. We firmly believe that thinking through both how we got to our current state of affairs and pondering some comparisons will help us more deeply understand our world. Things don’t have to be as they are, and thinking historically can remind us of that.

If that sounds interesting to you, give the first episode of History Matters a listen. We’ll be releasing a new episode later this week, tackling the topic of political breakdown and crisis, so be sure to check back for that as well.


You can also listen on iTunes and Stitcher.

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