Historians have been in the position of providing context as well as offering comfort — some sense that we have endured these kinds of crises in the past and come out the other side. Most historians were quick to point out that, in fact, the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6 were not unprecedented in world history (though, perhaps unsurprisingly, we could not agree on the relevant precedents). Throughout COVID-19, historians of medicine have reminded us that we are not experiencing the first, or even the deadliest, pandemic. Labor historians have explained that although this recession is unique in many respects, what working people are experiencing is the product of a series of decisions over generations. I take great personal comfort in knowing that “we are not alone across time” (to quote Bryan Doerries, founder of Theater of War). We turn to history during periods of grief because history holds us in a community of people who survived.
Despite that sense of continuity, it is not history’s primary job to provide comfort in times of crisis or solace in times of anxiety. Historians offer context and nuance in times when those things are in short supply, often asking us to check our assumptions and refine our critiques. Sometimes, that context can be comforting, but more often, it is uncomfortable because contextualization belies the comforts of precedent.
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