On the legal side, I suppose, the ritual invocation of precedent (a key component of our English-originated common law system) is designed to assure that judges move the law only incrementally so that social change will be kept within tolerable bounds (for both political and psychological reasons).
Sportscasters, on the other hand, reciting statistics such as “Crawdad State has won seven of the last eleven meetings with the University of Clamato” are just using the past as filler. It’s not like the performance of any player from ten years ago or more has any effect on today’s contest. These commentators (from many branches of journalism) conflate a label with a thing. The Crawdad Pincers may still wear all red uniforms, but there is no thing there; just a tradition, a label, a memory—each a social construct.
Still, such constructs can be powerful; as alumni who receive pleas for donations can attest. Traditions do make us feel warm-and-cozy. They reinforce a sense of belonging and identity. They are hardly confined to athletics. We Americans used to say (until the 1970s) that we had “never lost a war.” Pride in victory, pride in continuity, pride in ‘us-ness.’ Alas, past results are no guarantee of future performance.
Historians have studied how we construct traditions; which may or may not have anything to do with the past. Leaders of national states or those that aspire to have done so to great effect over the past 150 or so years. Scottish tartans and Bastille Day were both invented in the late 19C. Confederate war memorials were not constructed until the 20C.
Why is it that we so value the (apparent) venerability of what we do and what we believe? I suspect it has something to do with the values expressed with regard to the common law: continuity and community. More, we seem to be hungry for self-validation by reference to the past. Finally, its usually easier to avoid being blamed if I can cite hoary precedent.
All of these are incentives to construct (at both the personal and societal levels) a useful past and put at risk our ability to construct an accurate one. If, as William Cronan has said, “history is the stories we choose to tell about the past;” then we need to be circumspect about accuracy (not so much falsification as artful selection). A reading of history rooted in continuity, community, self-validation, and security is conducive to comfort.
Perhaps our veneration of the past is a left-over from when tribal elders were consulted before group action. Chains of memory were the only way to access wider experience. In the era of modern historical practice (the last 200+ years), this may no longer make sense. We have, perhaps, too much history; too rich a vein of human experience is accessible to mine, and so we have examples, and counter-examples, and counter-counter…etc. This is one of the great and fun things about delving into history, but it doesn’t make it easier to extract lessons for the present.
Nor if such histories are then used as the basis for future action. The ability to cite precedent for one’s actions is likely to be solipsistic and therefore problematic. There are likely many examples of this in terms of personal behavior, but I will touch on two at a more macro level: boundaries and race.
Countries rise and fall, but like the Crawdad Pincers they are not things. Does the fact that England once ruled India mean that if it were to regain global hegemony, it should claim: “this used to be British territory, so we have a right to it now”? That seems to be the offered rationale of much of China’s bullying the other countries bordering the South China Sea, war between Iran and Iraq, or Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, or Russia and Ukraine. A simpler response to the China’s (et al.) claim is: “so what?” Why does past status (especially centuries-old) create entitlement to the future? At what point does it not matter anymore? In Anglo-American law, we have concepts such as adverse possession (which times-out old claims to land) and statutes of limitation (which puts all manner of old wrongs to bed on the ground that we have all moved on and it would be too much trouble to figure out the exact events of the past, much less their relative equities and those of all who came since).
Indeed, to apply a variant of the Chinese claim, everything in the world should belong to Kenya (or Tanzania or wherever the first humans lived), since they (or their descendants) were “there first.”
Another variant of the problem arises with claims to racial and ethnic identity. We are all Africans. For some of us, our ancestors left earlier or later and stayed (for some generations) in South Asia, East Asia, Beringia, North America, before making their way to South America (similarly for other migration patterns). Why is it that the three hundred (or thousand) years of lineage in Poland or Ghana or Vietnam should be definitive?
Much of the answer has to do with the traditions and cultural/community identification noted earlier. But these are modern choices—constructs made (in many cases) in the last two hundred years—and all this is to leave out the issues of genetic mixing which will (when fully understood) make a hash of everyone’s claims of cultural purity/identity. Its great to celebrate cultural traditions (Ok, maybe a little less schmaltz in the gravy and don’t get me started on Riverdance), as long as we don’t take them too seriously.
This is not to say we shouldn’t do old history, but merely that we need to be mindful of its uses, abuses, and the limits of what it can tell us.