“You Can’t Change History”? Really? What About Airing It Out A Little Bit?

Hat tip to Charles P. Pierce for his comment the other day that while he doesn’t want to sanitize history, he would like to fumigate it.  Our Sanitizer-in-Chief, in spite of himself, may help us fumigate our history and reconsider our memories.  He said today it is “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.  You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.  Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson–who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?  So foolish!  The beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”

The President is not a trained professional historian and should not be judged as such.  He has, however, insisted that he comprehends very well and he is right in this case.  He displayed considerable familiarity with the talking points of 21st-century white nationalism and neo-Confederate ideology.  For example, he repeated their assertion of the moral equivalence of Washington with Lee and Stonewall Jackson at least in part to deflect attention from his indefensible comments Tuesday excusing the neo-Nazi torchbearing marchers.  Trump (perhaps guided by a poll-reading Bannon) attacked those who propose removing monuments to Confederate war heroes.  “Where does it stop?” asks Trump.  I would say that “it” doesn’t stop, if “it” is the struggle over how to remember, venerate, honor, or dishonor leading figures from our past.  Washington, Jefferson, and several other Founders were born into slaveowning societies; some of them eventually freed some of their slaves, while others did not.  Other Founders were not slaveholders, but for the sake of ratifying a national Constitution accommodated the slaveholding societies of the Southern states (not forgetting Northern profiteering off the slave trade, as well as slaveholding in the North itself; Connecticut did not abolish slavery until 1848).  Perhaps all the Founders were hypocrites in La Rochefoucauld’s sense of vice paying tribute to virtue.  We do not, however, have monuments to national traitors such as Benedict Arnold.  Trump equated nation-builders with would-be nation-destroyers.  Maybe Trump’s “where does it stop?” Is an aggressive way of letting his “forgotten men” and “deplorables” know that the respectable elites can’t handle the whole sordid truth, and that if he (Trump) is going down he will take all his complacent enemies with him.

When monuments to Confederate generals were put up, usually by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, decades after the Civil War the intent may well have been, in part, to celebrate Southern “heritage” and history.  But many if not most such memorials, as well as many of the reunions decades after the Civil War between Grey and Blue, were done with the intent of solidifying white supremacy and the same-as-it-ever-was subjugation of black Americans, thereby erasing the abomination of Reconstruction.  Historian Eric Foner described the post-Civil War collision between two ways of remembering that war: the “reconciliationist” memory that “emphasized what the two sides shared in common, particularly the valor of individual soldiers, and suppressed thoughts of the war’s causes and the unfinished legacy of emancipation,” versus the “emancipationist” vision of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with its “new birth of freedom.”  Within a dozen years after the Civil War, “reconciliation” between North and South meant the end of Reconstruction and the end of restraints on white supremacist terrorism in the South.  Slavery was no longer legal, but the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal citizenship for all had become a dead letter and the Fifteenth Amendment guarantee of the voting rights was ignored in the former Confederate States.  The emancipationist vision waited almost a hundred years for a Second Reconstruction.  Ken Burns’s Civil War TV series, which has become the canonical story for many millions of us in the early 21st century, does not suppress either of these ways of remembering.  (For example, at risk of oversimplifying their views, the final “Was It Not Real” segment includes Barbara Fields as well as Shelby Foote.)  But there was, I feel, a reconciliationist gauziness in the way the reunions of aged Civil War veterans brought the curtain down on the show.  For white Americans north and south in the days of Donald Trump’s–and Hillary Clinton’s–youth, the reconciliationist version of remembering the Civil War dominated.  Some rememberings were gauzier than others and some were indifferent toward black Americans while others were actively hostile.  And in last fall’s presidential campaign, Trump was unfortunately not the only candidate to buy into a version of Reconstruction in which black Southern political participation after the War was marred by “barbarous” freedmen and the end of Northern efforts to impose on white Southerners was thus a blessing  (See Ta-Neheisi Coates’s article in The Atlantic, January 26, 2016 on Hillary Clinton and the Dunning School).

So when Donald Trump says “you can’t change history,” he is right in a narrow sense, but he is perhaps clever enough to know or feel that that is not really what is at stake.  It’s not just a matter of what the traces in archives will disclose to conscientious researchers.  It’s a question of what we the people want and need to remember and memorialize and venerate.  And of whose memories and feelings get to count, and whether we have the gumption to undergo the process of “truth and reconciliation,” as the post-apartheid commission in South Africa put it.  I wonder if President Trump could acknowledge that what he is really saying could be “I am not happy that my childhood prejudices and presumptions are being challenged.  Never mind that I am 71 years old, I demand to hold on to what I learned was true in 1953 or 1954.”  And what Trump, and many of us who get the benefit of the doubt while others don’t, really want to hold onto is the comfort and privilege of willful blindness to the claims of people who have suffered subjugation.

Trump senses the power of monuments and memorials, which are liable to activate our nostalgia and freeze out any critical reassessment of our past.  British historian John Lukacs wrote that the “remembered past is a much larger category than the recorded past.”  We are about to experience a total eclipse next week all across the United States, from Oregon to South Carolina.  I hope that we are also in for an experience (that lasts longer than two minutes) of reckoning with the light and shadow of memory and forgetting that does not end in forced amnesia, but with a thorough airing out of our history and culture,  We need to consider changing and enlarging the scope of some of our memories.

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