A not-so-guilty pastime of mine involves a daily perusal of this date in history. The catalog appears on numerous websites and in many newspapers, including this one.
Pondering those past events helps one understand better the forces that shaped us as humans, as Americans, and as the many other categories into which we sort ourselves.
Some days you ponder more than others. Last Thursday was such a day.
The roster for Dec. 1 contained curiosities. Like the House of Representatives breaking an Electoral College stalemate in 1824 by choosing John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson, whose refusal to let go of his bitterness over what he saw as a stolen election resounded nearly 200 years later in another close election and another loser bitter over another supposedly stolen election. And the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes in print in 1887 in “A Study in Scarlet,” an antidote for any bitterness. And the debut of the world’s first moving assembly line in Henry Ford’s Model T factory in Highland Park, Michigan in 1913.
Other Dec. 1’s provided more grit for contemplation.
Like Emperor Hirohito of Japan declaring war on the United States in 1941. And Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. And a massive airlift of Cubans from their island nation beginning in 1965. And a vote in 1991 in which Ukrainians overwhelmingly chose independence from the Soviet Union.
I tried to immerse myself in those days, and found myself wondering whether each one’s significance was grasped in real time, whether it could have been grasped in real time.
Did Hirohito, or any Japanese or American citizen, understand what he was about to unleash and the devastation his country ultimately would suffer?
Did Parks, though well-versed in civil rights activities in Montgomery, anticipate how her act of just saying no would become a building block of the civil rights movement, even beyond the yearlong Black boycott of buses that followed?
Did anyone realize the extent to which the more than a quarter million people who flew out of Communist Cuba over the next nine years would help change South Florida culturally, politically and demographically?
Did the Ukrainians foresee that their thrilling embrace of freedom would lead to the heinous invasion of their homeland with which they are grappling today?
If you ponder such questions, you realize that these events, some truly epochal, can’t be fully understood in isolation. And you begin to see them less as turning points on their own and more as points on a continuum. They emerge from forces that shape them, then influence and shape the changes to come.
This requires we retain some humility in looking at the events of our own day. We can’t be so certain we understand their true significance, that we know which ones will reverberate and how. Some filled with noise and bluster will wither away. Other subtler moments might endure. History has a long arc. Our daily observations do not.
What will endure and resonate from the Dec. 1 that just passed?
Will the stirring protests in Iran and China presage fundamental changes in those nations or be blips on an authoritarian screen?
Will President Biden’s stated willingness to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin be a preamble or a gesture with no payoff?
Will the bombs sent to embassies and offices in Spain be seen as the dawn of some anarchic campaign of destruction or mere one-offs from a disgruntled individual?
Will the decision by an Arizona county to finally certify last month’s election come to be seen as the last gasp of election denialism or will that fever continue to spike?
Or is the most momentous event of this Dec. 1 not even on our radar?
COLUMNIST MICHAEL DOBIE’S opinions are his own.