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Must Our Past Determine Our Future?

Can we imagine better decisions and greater hope? We revisited 1922 to find out.

Key points

  • The present depends on the past—or, at least, on understanding it.
  • Trauma must be engaged, despite the temptation to eschew its hold.
  • This latest trauma, which was hidden for centuries but is suddenly visible to all who would see, is environmental violence.

The unforgettable medical horror of the past two years has been shared universally, yet also unequally, in terms of access to logic, truth, suffering, prevention, and treatment. It leaves us, if it indeed leaves at all, with a dilemma: the clear necessity to remember trauma versus the understandable desire to forget it.

For our present psychology weighs on its past, its past on its present—and its future on both. A new, better moment can only be forged from a reckoning with our past. So, as we’ve just entered 2022, let’s look back a century.

100 Years Ago

The year 1922 sees some prominent births, among them Luis Echeverría, Paul Scofield, Patrick Macnee, Judy Garland, Helen Gurley Brown, Yitzhak Rabin, Julius Nyerere, Charles Mingus, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Cyd Charisse, Lucian Freud, Ava Gardner, Doris Day, Jack Kerouac, Enrico Berlinguer, Pierre Cardin, George McGovern, and Telly Savalas. That same year, Michael Collins is assassinated. Georges Sorel and Marcel Proust also die.

The second volume of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West appears. It predicts a gradual collapse of Western Civilization, starting in 2000 and quickly followed by rampant Bonapartism. A notable evening and weekend browsing idyll—a.k.a. Reader’s Digest—comes into being, as do the more "difficult" Ulysses by James Joyce and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The first of these developments celebrates the suburban retreatant; the latter makes 1922 the high-water mark of English-language literary modernism. And that same year, Ernest Hemingway meets Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, and Jean Cocteau publishes his manifesto on the relationship between cultural workers and the public.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus appears in English, some months after its German publication, and with it the dawn of ordinary-language philosophy, leading into what became a dreary Anglo-American century of logical positivism. If only young Lutz knew what he had wrought. Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion and Norman Angell’s skeptical The Press and the Organisation of Society forge new ways of thinking about the media and democracy. Karl Korsch provides a Hegelian vision of Marxism and Philosophy.

The American Medico-Psychological Association, which has produced the American Journal of Insanity for 30 years, undergoes a welcome makeover: the renamed American Psychiatric Association begins publishing the renamed American Journal of Psychiatry. Kurt Koffka’s elemental synthesis of Gestalt psychology appears, as do Karen Horney’s first feminist critiques of Freudianism.

Meanwhile, the first Presidential radio broadcast is heard—and environmental media are en route, with pioneering use of microscopic, time-lapse, and slow-motion photography in the documentary series "Secrets of Nature," which continues for a decade more. Its first year brings films about deep-sea life, cuckoos, owls, and ants.

The year 1922 also marks a sense of recovery from the "Kansas" or "Spanish" influenza, which has claimed more lives than the soldiers killed in the two World Wars. A hundred million perished. Life expectancy in the United States drops by 12 years.

A sense of doom is replaced for many by one of hope. The twin horrors of disease and war are supposedly fixed by a new era of medical prowess and self-determination, even of decolonization, as independence movements in Kenya, Egypt, and India, inter alia, gather pace and support. The Ottoman Empire ends. There is further turmoil as the Soviet Union and the first Fascist government, in Italy, emerge. Belgium and France respond to Weimar Germany’s default on reparations for 1914 to 1918 by taking over its manufacturing center.

US cities are flush with flappers, the jazz age—and brutal race, class, and gender exploitation. Marcus Garvey is arrested by the Feds as he and W.E.B. Du Bois struggle over radical versus reformist tactics and strategies. Draft antilynching legislation stalls.

A century ago finds us amidst the violence and environmental despoliation of US and UK industrialization, wrapped in a rhetoric of development. There have not yet been the catastrophic Soviet and Chinese industrial revolutions, molded by similar violence and environmental despoliation, this time encased in a rhetoric not only of development but also of equality, however problematic.


All these transformations proved to be as grotesque as they were sudden. And today?

We find ourselves in another crucial moment. This latest trauma, which was hidden for centuries but is suddenly visible to all who would see, is environmental violence.

The Earth is being transformed by the cumulative environmental crimes of those earlier, massive regimes in a way that is as horrifying as it is unprecedented. And its denial is part of that horror.

Remember Ronald Reagan’s first act after being re-elected President in 1984: ordering the removal of solar panels from the White House, which predecessor Jimmy Carter had installed?

For decades thereafter, rejection of climate science was a nostrum for at least half our politics, buttressed by the fantasy that God created the Earth 6,000 years ago and will not permit evolution or extinction; hence, the perils of climate change are ludicrously overstated.

But we are witnessing a significant shift in attitudes today. Even those who formerly denied science in the name of ideology, be it Christian, Congressional, or both, have reconsidered their position. Across the political wing of the white Evangelical ruling and working classes, recognition is rife that climate change is real, propelled by people—and risky. This is a wholesale change in attitude.

Yet despite that transformation, the clarion call of development continues apace, alongside or ahead of environmental science and our associated duty of care. It does so on a largely bipartisan basis.

Consider the seemingly innocent cellphone, which readers may be using to read this column—and used to reading about here, as well.

January 2022 represents a dramatic date in the history of telephony, with AT&T, Verizon, and their kind suddenly the creatures of Amazon Web Services and others. For the cloud is ripe for displacing 5G as our principal form of electronic communication, even as the latter explodes across the country—this very month—in defiance of regulatory and airline concerns about its health and safety effects.

For just as the 1922 radio set appearing in the White House was a merry occasion, the technological fetishism of American life continues and gathers pace today.

And just as it is fondly imagined that each evolutionary development of COVID-19 will render it less harmful, so advocates of a "measured" approach to climate mitigation posit outlandish "acceptable" levels of temperature change, as if there were no differences between what that would mean in one part of the world and another.

Is there hope of a different future, of the kind incarnated and hoped for in the 1920s by a Joyce, a Stein, and a Garvey, and embodied today by the environmental movement?

Perhaps the crisis—the trauma—of a cosmically uncertain future, generated by the immediacy of COVID-19 and the slight delay before the enveloping horror of climate collapse, can engender a new politics, a new public policy, a new awareness of trauma in the face of environmental criminality that may allow us to transcend past and present follies. Or what’s a heaven for?