Hindsight is infallible. Foresight is a rarer commodity. It’s hardly a novel observation, but it’s worth a periodic reminder. Sometimes, in the course of debating a political issue, someone will raise the specter of accountability to the future. “When your grandchildren will ask you,” they will say, “where were you or what did you do when so-and-so was happening, how will you answer them?” (This challenge is usually posed by those for whom grandchildren are an abstraction. Those of us fortunate enough to have actual grandchildren don’t expect public issues to be a significant component of our relationship with them.)
Of course, if our grandchildren in the future do at some point pose such questions, they will have the benefit of knowing how things turned out. Which issues were truly important, and which turned out to be tangential will be clear to them, as it isn’t to us. News may be the first draft of history, but it’s a very rough draft, subject to constant revisions in light of later events. It’s easy to pass judgment on the actions or inaction of those who lived in another era, without understanding the experiences that created their mindsets.
But the clarity of vision created by hindsight is only part of the story. Most people — at least those who think of themselves as well-informed — live in two worlds. There is the public world from which will be drawn the issues that will loom in history — the ones that might be the subject of such questions — and there is the private world of everyday experience. Occasionally, a public issue is of such obvious moment that it intrudes into our private worlds. (9/11 is an obvious example) But most of the time, when our public and private worlds collide, it is the private world that dominates our attention.
I thought of this reality one day last week when watching one of the late news/opinion programs broadcast on MS-NBC. Even without waiting for the benefits of hindsight, I would venture to predict that the week’s news stories will have staying power. The federal government has been partially shut down for longer than at any other point in American history. The hearing for confirming a new Attorney General focused on seeking adequate assurance that he will not impede the work of Robert Muller, the Special Counsel. Concern over President Trump’s apparent subservience to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, aggravated by news reports that Trump is looking to destroy the NATO alliance and that he confiscated and destroyed his interpreter’s notes — the only American record of his private meeting with Putin — led eleven Republican Senators, to break ranks on a procedural vote to prevent the Trump administration from removing sanctions on a Russian oligarch close to Putin. Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, Britain’s House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to reject the separation agreement negotiated with the European Union by the government of Prime Minister Theresa May, although it subsequently rejected a motion of no-confidence in the government. Those votes, together with the EU’s refusal to renegotiate the agreement, has thrown the British government into chaos and risks substantial damage not only to the British economy but to those of the remaining EU countries as well.
How last week’s events will be viewed by history will depend on what happens next, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which those events will not loom large. As I look back on that week, however, the headline-grabbing breaking-news events were merely the backdrop to those personal events that were the real highlights of my week. On Sunday night my daughter and I attended a wedding, of the son of old friends, and my daughter reconnected with an old teacher with whom she had once been close but had subsequently lost contact. On Tuesday evening I made a shiva visit to a woman who had grown up in my former synagogue and whom I had known since she was a teenager. In addition to whatever comfort I was able to offer her on the passing of her father, the shiva visit enabled me to see a few others from my former synagogue, people whom I had not seen in some time. On Wednesday I participated in a board of trustees meeting of my current synagogue, which I serve as president. We discussed issues of importance to the future of the synagogue, though we didn’t reach any final conclusions. The meeting was part of an ongoing process through which we will determine our future. Each of the personal events of last week was important to me, each in its own way, and I expect that I will remember each of them after the specifics of last week’s headlines have faded from my memory.
I am not arguing against engagement in the public issues of our time. The privilege of living in a democratic society brings with it the responsibility of participating, to greater or lesser degree, in the public debate. The public issues that dominate the headlines affect all of our lives, in some ways that are obvious and others that are less so. But most people live mostly private lives, and most of the time that’s the way it should be. Only on those occasions when a public issue clearly affects our private lives do we have a clear obligation to pay attention, or else be accountable to our grandchildren for our failure.
Unfortunately, there’s no surefire way to know in real time which public issues fall into that category. Only hindsight is infallible.