The 30s

Print journalists do not make good TV. The race to take over the web is turning news into a mangle of video, graphics, podcast, social networking and blog. To be a reporter must be hell: go out for the news, come in, write a blog entry, write the big piece, post it in the web version of the paper, develop the final version for the printed paper, make a video, answer reader emails, check your facebook page, do it all over again.

In the past week with the floor falling out of the stock markets, the Great Depression became the template for analysis. We are seeped in history, in simple, immediate understandings of it: granulated radio broadcasts of Roosevelt speeches, “fear fear itself” he says, with pictures of unending soup lines, people wearing heavy overcoats that seem futile as shelter from the winter or the crisis. Audio, and pictures, suitably animated into slideshows. To think of the Great Depression is oddly reassuring, because if we beat it once we can beat it again.

For some historians their job is to rescue analogues from the past. This sameness testifies to the ironic futility of our progress. Lisa Jardine’s item in BBC News recovers the Tulip speculative bubble of the XVII century. But if we live in an age of history, storytelling and identities, maybe the job of the historian needs revising. I read Marx’s famous quote: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,” to mean that history does not repeat. It pretends to. I take my history with a spoon of difference. I look to the past to be surprised by what is not the same. So the question should be why is the current crisis not like the Great Depression?

Still I will take my overcoat out of the closet, just in case.

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