Go Live in Another Decade. I Recommend It.Breaking News
tags: digital history, popular culture, television
After the 2016 election, I was deeply shaken not just by the outcome, but by the terrifying sense that I did not understand the nation as well as I’d thought I did. To blunt the shock, I went on a bender through American history. I dove into books about the Civil War, the Progressive era and, finally, Robert Caro’s titanic biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, where I washed up on the shores of the turbulent 1960s.
I discovered something amazing: After 1960, much of history as many Americans experienced it — through popular culture on TV, on the radio and at the movies — is preserved and easily accessible online. With a few clicks around YouTube, history leaps into the present, often in ways that deepen and complicate the narrative.
For instance, Caro ably describes Johnson’s stirring first presidential address to Congress. It was five days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the new president pressed lawmakers to pass civil rights legislation in Kennedy’s honor. “Everywhere you looked, people were crying,” the journalist Hugh Sidey wrote.
Watching the speech is something else. “All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today,” Johnson begins, and the hairs on the back of your neck tingle. You feel the weight of the hushed chamber and Johnson’s labored delivery. And then, the trauma that enveloped the audience is transformed, over the 24-minute address, into cheering determination, even hope.
That was the speech that hooked me, and soon I found myself living a second life in the past. I’d spend my days as a journalist covering the raucous present; but on and off over the last few years, on nights and weekends and vacations, I’d jump into my digital DeLorean and take up residence in earlier times — making my way, slowly, through the 1960s and then the ’70s, accompanied by an unending library of historical documents and pop cultural artifacts I found online.
It is a project I commend you to try. Go live for a bit in another, far-off decade, and I promise it will give you fresh perspective on a present as nutty as ours.
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