The philosopher Georg Hegel said that mankind’s happiest days are written on the blank pages of history. We are not living those days. Our days this year have been crowding history’s pages with accounts of coronavirus deaths and protest arrests, of once-sturdy institutions in upheaval, of an economy in free fall, of stubborn prejudices leading to death in the streets, of generations-old patterns trampled in the nation’s counting houses — and in our own houses.
It is only June, and so far the crises of the age — along with the diminution of the country’s international profile, the coarsening of the civic debate, the looming bitter election — comprise a page the country has not yet turned. But it’s clear that the year 2020 is a turning point — in public health, in public debate, in public affairs.
“This will be a year that lives eternally in the history books,’’ Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley said in an interview. “The country has a clear election decision, we have to decide whether we will be a global leader or revert to bedrock nationalism, and all the while a pandemic rages and the cities burn. Not since 1968 have things been so decision-fraught. We are going to have to decide what kind of people we are going to be. One way or the other, this year will be remembered as a turning point.”
History is full of turning points, moments when the patterns of human affairs are upended, when great disruptions course through the culture, when tranquility is shattered, assumptions are blown apart, whole ways of thinking and behaving are transformed.
Some turning points are subtle and gradual — such as the spread of electricity. Some are more abrupt — the digital revolution, for example, which in a half-generation’s time altered the way we communicate, organize knowledge, and relate to other people. Some come in vast military mobilizations or on airborne bombers’ wings — like the beginnings of both of the world wars of the last century.
And some come in yearlong convulsions, which is why there is special meaning in the four digits 1666, which stand as symbols of the Great Fire of London and the last burst of the bubonic plague. That is why the mere digits 1776 (the Declaration of Independence), 1789 (the French Revolution), and 1933 (the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt and the ascension of Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany) have special meaning.
“These become shorthands for great events,’’ said the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “They refer to forces that change our daily lives, sometimes setting in motion systemic reforms that benefit us. We know how the Depression and World War II turned out, but the people living at the time didn’t, just as we don’t know how these current crises will change our lives, beyond knowing that they will.’’
The four digits 2020, which now mean both clarity of vision and social upheaval, are bound to take their place in this procession of prodigious change.
“We may be authors of our lives, but these sweeping, epic moments draw us into the larger, grander story, forcing us to consider our place in that story,’’ said John Savagian, a historian at Milwaukee’s Alverno College. “These are the moments when we see protest signs warning that ‘the whole world is watching’ or ‘history will be your judge.’ Many people recognize suddenly that they are actually making history.”
As University of New Hampshire historian Ellen Fitzpatrick put it: “Pivotal years leave those who live through them feeling their country isn’t quite the same place as it was the year before — and perhaps will never be again.”
That happened in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln’s election thrust the country into Civil War and its final reckoning with slavery. The war rent the country in two, but it also changed manufacturing patterns in the North, agricultural patterns in the South, and diplomatic patterns reaching across the Atlantic to Britain and France. At home, in both the Union and Confederacy, great and swift metamorphoses were set in motion. The intellectual historian Louis Menand’s description of Oliver Wendell Holmes during this period — “It made him lose his belief in beliefs” — can be applied to both North and South, and perhaps to our own time.
Focusing too much on the individual years of big turning points can oversimplify history, to be sure. “There is probably a series of tipping points between 1933 and 1939 that went crescendo,” said Elisabeth Vallet, director of the Center for Geopolitical Studies at the University of Quebec in Montreal, in a reference to the cascade of crises in Europe that culminated in the beginning of World War II. Nonetheless, she adds: “In 2020, those tipping points are pretty much condensed, and while we’re still in it we can guess that we have indeed entered a paradigm shift.”
Americans certainly had that feeling in 1968, the year that prompts the most frequent comparisons with 2020. Assassinations, the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, urban riots, and a bitterly contested close election between Richard Nixon and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey rendered the entire country a psychological wreck.
But the comparison is flawed. Nixon may have run as a candidate of “law and order” — a phrase Trump has appropriated — but he was a Republican running to replace a Democratic administration, not an incumbent running for re-election. Thomas Sugrue, a New York University historian, is wary of the link between 1968 and 2020, though he argues that “persistent racial inequality is still the tinder lighting the fires” and that “urban discontent is a response to the legitimization of key institutions, especially government.”
The year 1968 at least ended with a sonorous coda, the lunar-orbital flight of Apollo 8, with astronauts Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman the first humans to see the far side of the Moon. They sent back the iconic “Earthscape” photograph of their beleaguered and yet stunningly beautiful planet and recited the opening 10 verses of the Book of Genesis on Christmas Eve to a captivated audience, with Borman concluding, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas — and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
How this year ends for all of us on the good Earth — whether Trump wins a second term, whether there is a second wind to the virus, whether a vaccine becomes available, whether the cities regain their calm or explode into ever more violent spasms — will determine how this year is remembered. Indeed, there is no more intriguing question than the profile of 2020 in hindsight.
David Shribman, former Washington bureau chief for the Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.