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Poking holes in the past is cowardly. Writing the future requires courage

We could certainly benefit from spending a little less time attacking figures of the past, and giving more effort to determining our roles in writing the future.

SHARE Poking holes in the past is cowardly. Writing the future requires courage

This Jan. 28, 1986, file photo shows U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office of the White House after a televised address to the nation.

Associated Press

It has become an obsession for some, and casual sport for others, to look back on history and reframe, recast and reimagine what happened and why. With audacious certainty, the experts declare the motives and character of complex individuals who lived in less advanced societies. Acknowledging and even confronting the whole of our history, warts and all, is vital. But let’s be honest, poking holes in heroes from the past and picking on heroines of bygone eras is pretty easy. It doesn’t require much moral fiber, rigorous research or even open-mindedness.

Some media and academic elites, along with progressive historians, have begun to wear their bullying of historical figures as a badge of honor. In reality, such revisionism and self-righteous judgement are just bad form and often are centered in a form of agenda-driven arrogance.  

For the tough on history, the cancel culture crowd, I have a different challenge that will require real courage — not the “hold my pen, I am going after the founding fathers” variety. Real courage demands authentic vulnerability and humility. The challenge is to write the future.

Between 1975 to 1979, Ronald Reagan recorded more than 1,000 daily radio broadcasts. He had just completed serving as governor of California and would not be sworn in as president of the United States until 1981. He had no staff and wrote the vast majority of his scripts on his own. Many of these broadcasts have been captured and shared in an audio series titled, “Reagan in his own voice.”

The series demonstrates, in and of itself, how writing disparagingly about figures of the past is easy. Many of his contemporary political opponents and media critics made Reagan out to be a leader big on charisma but small on knowledge and intellect. Yet the handwritten messages, approximately 500-600 words each, display little to no editing, and showcase Reagan’s vast knowledge of domestic policy, geopolitical strategy and the inherent goodness of the American people. Most of his pieces could be played on radio today and be just as correct and just as poignant as they were in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Recently, I have taken inspiration from reviewing addresses from the likes of Calvin Coolidge, Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy. I learned a lesson this week from relistening to one of those three-minute messages from Reagan on why writing the future is not for the faint of heart, but is worth the effort.

Reagan began by describing how easy it is for historians to look at and judge past leaders. He also noted how he and his political peers could, and would, somewhat glibly talk about how the decisions they were making would shape the world for 100 years to come. (Here in 2020, we are still a long ways away from the November election, yet we have already been lectured by people on both ends of the political spectrum about how our votes and choices this year will determine the destiny of the nation.)

The former governor of California was given a challenge in 1976 that would test his willingness to actually write the future. Reagan had been petitioned to write a letter for a time capsule, which would be opened 100 years into the future in 2076. The occasion in 2076 would include the city of Los Angeles’ bicentennial and America’s tricentennial celebration.

The suggestion from the time capsule committee was that Reagan focus his letter on some of the problems confronting the American people and the government during the 1976 election cycle.

At first Reagan figured it would be pretty easy for him to write the future as he had been talking about the challenges facing the nation on a regular basis for years. He figured he could do it in his sleep.

Reagan began writing his letter to the future as he was being driven by car down the Pacific Coast Highway in California. He said the simple drafting of a letter became a rather difficult and incredibly complex chore as he began to consider, “What do you put in a letter that’s going to be read 100 years from now in the year 2076? What do you say about our problems (today) when those who read the letter will know what we don’t know? Namely, they will know how well we did with those problems. In short, they will be living in the world we helped to shape.”

“Will they read the letter with gratitude in their hearts for what we did? Or will they be bitter because the heritage we left them was one of human misery?” — Ronald Reagan

Then in a hefty dose of reality Reagan humbly asked, “Will they read the letter with gratitude in their hearts for what we did? Or will they be bitter because the heritage we left them was one of human misery?”

Reagan wrote of the problems facing America and its citizens in 1976, including big government, excessive spending, the loss of individual liberty, the undermining of the inspired course set by the founding fathers and that two great superpowers, America and the then-Soviet Union, were pointing nuclear weapons at each other.

Reagan noted, “Those who read my letter will know whether those missiles were fired or not. Either they will be surrounded by the same beauty we now know, or they will wonder sadly what it was like when the world was still beautiful.

Ever the optimist, Reagan concluded his writing the future with the ultimate litmus test for every citizen, “If we here today meet the challenges confronting us, those who open that time capsule 100 years from now will do so in beauty, peace, prosperity, and the ultimate in personal freedom. If we don’t keep our rendezvous with destiny, the letter probably will never be read because they will live in the world we left them, a world in which no one is allowed to read, have individual liberty or freedom of choice.”

Again, it doesn’t take much courage to cast aspersions or pass judgment on those who are not around to defend themselves. I would challenge those same people attempting to rewrite history to instead write the future, knowing that those who will read your letter 100 years from now will know with certainty whether you were right or wrong. Write your letter. Print it, post it, etch it in stone and see how confident you are in what you think you know.

Writing the future while living in the present is difficult, but it is actually worthy of our individual consideration. I have started writing the future, my own version, for the good people who will be living in 2120. (I will share it in a future column when it is completed.)

I invite all to join me in writing the future. Here are some questions to get you started: In the year 2120, how will citizens look on those of us living in 2020? Will they be grateful for the decisions we made in dealing with a global pandemic? Will they see that our commitment to equality, justice and ending prejudice and discrimination was a hinge-point in history? Will they say we were a narcissistic society, unwilling to come together for the common good? Will the people of 2120 see that we preserved individual freedom, religious liberty and the First Amendment? Will our choices regarding stewardship of the environment inspire or infuriate? Will they applaud the difficult decisions we made regarding the national debt?  How will they feel we did in striving to live up to the principles the founders of America put on parchment in 1776 and 1787? Will those principles still stand as a beacon of hope to the world?

Remember, those who will read your letter will know what we currently don’t know. They will be able to criticize our arrogance and ignorance as well as condemn our unenlightened naivete. They will, in truth, live in the world we left them — a world shaped by our decisions today. 

We could certainly benefit from spending a little less time attacking and attempting to cancel figures and the founding principles of the past, and giving a little more effort to determining our individual and collective roles in writing the future. The future truly belongs to the brave. If we wish to write the future of tomorrow, we must do so by living with excellence and compassion today.