I'm sitting here in the front window of a coffee shop in Newberg this morning (wave if you pass), contemplating the ways in which our lives--and history--are changed by both the decisions we make and the events that overtake us without much agency on our part. My personal journey to a coffee shop in Newberg has been one marked by the difficult decisions that come in the life of any academic about balancing family, profession, values and the many other variables that can be devilishly hard to bring into alignment. These are the decisions made with agency, even though the seemingly irreconcilable conflicts they bring can feel like they are acting upon a person rather than coming as a result of actions taken.
Newberg's a good place for contemplating events without agency, however, because it is, as boosters endlessly trumpet, Where Herbert Hoover Lived For A While As A Kid! See the Hoover-Minthorn House! View the Hoover Academic Center on George Fox University's campus -- Pacific Academy in the good ol' days when Hoover himself was a secondary school student there. And if there was ever a public figure who's been put through the wringer as a result of actions initially outside his control, it would be everyone's favorite Quaker ex-president (bearing in mind that his competition has been, well, Richard Nixon).
We have endlessly debated the extent to which the actions taken by the Hoover Administration impacted (or not, as the case may be), the course of the Great Depression. Following the crash of the American stock market in October 1929, Hoover was famously slow to recognize the full impact of the nation's growing economic gloom, and statements about firm financial footings and imminent recovery will haunt him on into eternity. We can trace the origins of the Depression far back beyond October 1929 to the farm crisis that plagued much of the nation throughout the 1920s. However, whatever Hoover's culpability, or lack thereof, for events following the nation's 1929 wake-up call, it is safe to say that he did not single-handedly cause a decade-long financial calamity with roots extending far before his election to the presidency in 1928.
As scholars including Alison Greene (who gave a nice talk at the Organization of Annual Historians annual meeting in Washington, D.C. on April 8) have illustrated, many Americans at the time were convinced the dreadful financial calamity and drought conditions of the late 1920s and early 1930s were evidence that the end of the world was nigh. Our current confluence of economic crisis and natural disasters has me pondering the extent to which the patterns of the 1930s might repeat themselves.
The economic problems we face presently can be traced, as with the 1930s, to poor decisions coming from many different sources. The environmental problems of the 1930s can be traced, as well, to the combination of human error -- drastic over-exploitation of fragile Prairie topsoil -- and the inevitable, cyclical nature of annual rainfall patterns in the Midwest. Now, we face a host of natural events with disastrous consequences amplified by human actions. The effects of the tragic earthquake in Haiti, and of others in places like Tibet, have been amplified by poor construction practices brought on by poverty, corruption and all the many and varied problems that result when people try to exercise dominion over others. (Conversely, the Chilean earthquake, while also tragic, came to a far more prepared part of the world -- with far less loss of life as a result.) The effects of the Icelandic volcano that just won't stop erupting already, for crying out loud, are amplified by our creation of a global society with what we are discovering is overwhelming reliance on one form of technology. (Not to say global society is a bad thing; just that we are discovering a new and perplexing complication.)
Just as Hoover was not the cause of the Great Depression, Barack Obama has certainly not been the cause of our current woes. Scholars are increasingly discovering that despite unfortunate public relations skills and significant missteps, Hoover was not the pathetic excuse of an Oval Office seat-warmer that national opinion characterized him as being by 1932. I would also point out that the world did not, in fact, end in the early 1930s. Obama has some very difficult decisions to make between now and 2012. Once again, we are living in a world where the president is dealing with fall-out from events over which he did not have agency. His track record in dealing with these problems thus far has not been perfect (if anyone finds a perfect national leader, please do let me know... it would be a real coup for the shelves at Borders). It might, however, be worth taking a step back and contemplating the complexity of the world in which we live. If our current situation is no one person's fault, the solution will probably not be orchestrated by one person's brilliance. Unless we want years of disaster, we might want to start coming up with some joint efforts.