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Auld Lang Syne

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on 2008.. Read his previous OUPblogs here.

Observers of politics, myself included, tend to be preoccupied with the present and the future, and rather less concerned with the past. We neglect the past perhaps because we think that the past is settled, and hindsight is boring.

The past is anything but settled. Or more precisely, history – our accounts and interpretations of what happened in the past – is not settled. History is as much about the past as it determined by the future. Ask President Bush – he is counting on the charitable hand of the future to rehabilitate his place in history. He of all people would not like the past and history to be the same thing.

History is an interrogation and a reinterrogation of the past. When we sing our Auld Lang Synes in two days, we should remember this. We shouldn’t pay lip service to “Old Long Since” as merely the prelude to the main event, as if we’re already on top of events that have transpired and fully cognizant of their meaning. Our Auld Lang Syne should be more than a perfunctorily nostalgic song ushering in the new year.

After all, 2008 was a year in which previously inconceivable events occurred. Who could have imagined that Lehman Brothers would go bankrupt and the category “investment bank” would cease to exist? We need to take stock of what happened. The history of investment banking and of the federal government’s regulatory stance (or lack thereof) toward them will now have to be written. Here are some other surprises along the way this year: the relative success of the “surge” in Iraq and the phenomenon called Barack Obama. We should not be stampeding towards 2009 if we still haven’t come to terms with what happened in 2008. The calendrical invention of a “New Year” should not blind us to the seamless arc of history.

The future will have its way with us; we need not rush towards it. So when we sing Auld Lang Syne come Wednesday, perhaps we should linger a little on the words.

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