About a year ago I did a piece on a group of National Socialists adopting a highway. (You can read it here.) I came across a news item about the National Socialists when researching a piece on a ritualistic slaying that I wanted to write about. The slaying was probably the more headline grabbing of the two, but what fascinated me about the National Socialist story was that there were plenty of articles on it focusing on the outrage, but not a single one that looked at its historical context.
When I first started my current job I was reading Noam Chomsky's At War With Asia. A friend had spotted me reading the book and asked me what it was. When I told him, he asked, "Why are you reading a book on Vietnam." When I explained it provided a fascinating insight into our military action in Iraq he didn't get it.
Context is everything. No situation exists in a vacuum. What is happening today is tied into what happened decades ago, and people seem to forget that. It's easy to forget, actually. If you only get your news from one source, or only from sources you agree with, you aren't getting the entire picture. And since many of our journalists don't even have a clear concept of historical context there is no way they can present them to their audience.
The National Socialist story was fascinating if only because what the group was doing was right in line with National Socialism's core beliefs. The Colorado group that had adopted the highway did it more as a stunt, but it had historical context. I didn't read any articles stating that, however, so I decided to write it. I was going to use the incident as a springboard for an examination of how environmentalism became a leftist issue with its rightist background clearly ignored, while at the same time being something the Right fought against. I never published that version. After doing my second rewrite I knew I was writing something that few reading the article would be interested in. The Associated Content pieces I did had to have a wide audience, and what I was thinking was just too specialized and demanded that the reading audience would have to have at least some understanding of the history of environmentalism. I could not trust the readership to have that.
Context and history is important to understanding the events that shape us. What I've come to understand those rare times I seriously discuss current events and politics to with people is that when someone doesn't have an idea of context and history, it takes far too long to explain it, and even then it's a crapshoot whether or not they'll get it. Instead, it's easier to nod politely and give a bit of a smile. Anything else is an exercise in self-torture.