The most profound change in my thinking through years of pursuing a career as a historian starts with this simple truism: everything has a history. It has taken years for the implications of this to dawn on me. It means that there is very little about us and the way we experience the world that is natural. Whatever you think about the raw materials we humans are working with (and what processes or divinity produced those materials), we have put them to use in astonishingly diverse ways.
Everything about my daily life has a history. The way I act in the world and think about myself is bizarre and unusual. I think and act this way not simply because I’m human, but because I’m a particular kind of human living in the United States in the twenty-first century. Look, I can’t even refer to my place and time without using invented concepts that have a history of their own.
De-naturalizing our present doesn’t necessarily lead to a politics of the left or the right. The knowledge that we can change something if we want to might move you toward the right in an effort to preserve the fragile goods that a society has achieved. Or the same knowledge might move you toward the left in an effort to solve problems that have eluded the grasp of earlier generations. Either way, a historical perspective reminds us that many of our social problems are political more than natural.
Everything about yesterday’s school shooting was unnatural. If violence is characteristically human, shooting schoolkids with guns is not. We had to build the social structures and legal regime to make such an act intelligible and possible. If in and out groups are characteristically human, the ideology of race animating the shooter is not. We had to come up with that particularly venomous idea before he could use it to hate.
If you watched the cell phone video from inside the school yesterday and it didn’t sit well with you, please consider doing everything you can to politicize that shooting. If you want to honor the victims, politicize their deaths. They died unnatural deaths. They died because it was our collective decision—expressed through politics—that they should do so.
Those who believe the costs of preventing their deaths are too high should have the moral and intellectual integrity to say so. Those who believe it is worthwhile to prevent their deaths should grapple with some hard realities: this belief is not commonsense. It is a political program with which many people disagree.