Surrealpolitik: Thinking About Political History. In The Miller Center Report, Vol 14, No. 3, Winter 1999

Author: Philip Zelikow

Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia (1999)

Quick Summary

These are excerpts of Zelikow's introductory remarks at a 1998 Conference on Contemporary Political History, in which he addresses the role of myth or "public presumption" in the way the public interprets what is going on around them.


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"Contemporary" is defined functionally by those critical people and events that go into forming the public’s presumptions about its immediate past. This idea of "public presumption" is akin to William McNeill's notion of "public myth" but without the negative implication sometimes invoked by the word "myth." Such presumptions are beliefs (1) thought to be true (although not necessarily known to be true with certainty), and (2) shared in common within the relevant political community. The sources for such presumptions are both personal (from direct experience) and vicarious (from books, movies, and myths)...The power of these presumptions derives from their role in facilitating conversation, analysis,and understanding. (page 5)
Tags: [Myth]
First, public presumptions can be "generational." They are formed by those pivotal events that become etched in the minds of those who have lived through them. These presumptions can be mapped with relative accuracy. The current set begins in approximately 1933, although the New Deal generation is fading. The Second World War and Vietnam, however, continue to resonate powerfully. Second, particularly "searing" or "molding" events take on "transcendent" importance and, therefore, retain their power even as the experiencing generation passes from the scene. In the United States, beliefs about the formation of the nation and the Constitution remain powerful today, as do beliefs about slavery and the Civil War....Third, public presumptions often concern "dramatic stories plucked out of time," such as the Alamo, Pickett's Charge, or the Titanic. Fourth, some public presumptions gain currency because they have a particular resonance for us today, either because they invoke powerful analogies to the present...or because they offer a causal link and seem to explain "why we are the way we are today." (page 6)
Tags: [Myth]
A history's narrative power is typically linked to how readers relate to the actions of individuals in the history; if readers cannot make a connection to their own lives, then a history may fail to engage them at all. In slightly different terms, readers are drawn to histories that help answer how the choices of individuals in the past either "affect me" or "instruct me." (page 7)
Tags: [Myth]