History and Amnesia: Why the Widening National Divide is a Battle over American History
“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”- James Baldwin
In a year when we are reminded again that events on the far side of the world can impact our lives with terrifying speed and calamitous effect, perhaps it is appropriate that the pithiest explanation of the American divide came not from an American, but from Marion Marechel, a French politician espousing the same archnationalist plague that has infected democracies across the globe. Speaking at a conference in Rome in February, Marechal contrasted her caricatured version of the postwar Western liberal consensus with the perceived strength of the New nationalist right: We believe in memory, they are amnesia.
History lives within us, whether we will it or not. And now, in 21st century America, the battle lines increasingly drawn in our streets, all too reminiscent of those in tottering democracies of ages gone by, are increasingly defined by a vast difference in historical vision. In this, the year of the pandemic, the year of racial fracture, of brutality and isolation, scientific denial and national trauma, a battle over the past has been dragged into the sunlight of the present. The battle over history isn’t just what children will learn in class, although it very much is that. More ominously, historiographical visions are increasingly clashing in the cities, where street level protestors demand a reckoning not only with the men who visit violence on their communities but with the historical realities marching ghostlike aside them; in response they are increasingly met with the armed fist of a federal response which deliberately conflates peaceful protest with its irksome cousin, riots.
Two visions of history sit in angry opposition, held dear even by those whose memories of history class are a blur of long forgotten facts and dates, an impassable gulf widening between them, each side viewing in anger the same of the other.
We believe in memory, they are amnesia.
Some historical myths are charming. Bring up the name of Abner Doubleday- hero of Gettysburg, first man to fire a Union shot at Fort Sumpter- and the immediate thought is not war, but baseball. Fifteen years after his death in 1893, Doubleday was accorded the honorific of Father of Baseball by the Mills Commission, formed in 1905 to investigate the origins of the sport. The entire basis for the Commissions’ conclusion was a letter from a seventy-one year old ne’er do well named Abner Graves, who claimed to recall Doubleday inventing the sport in Cooperstown some 66 years prior.
Graves peddled an inchoate version of easily debunked fake news, not least of which was suggested by the fact that he died in an insane asylum a few years later. But in 1905, the United States was a rising power, measuring itself warily against the titanic British Lion, and the Commission’s creator, Albert Spaudling, was an unabashed American nationalist horrified by the evidence suggesting that baseball had grown organically out of the earlier British game of Rounders. In his letter to the Commission, Graves had made clear that his “memory” was decidedly political, writing “Just in my present mood, I would rather have Uncle Sam declare war on England and clean her up rather than have one of her citizens beat us out of Base Ball.” Virtually from the moment of its creation, the Doubleday myth was fabricated, easily disproved nonsense. Yet so pervasive is the Doubleday myth that as recently as 2010, then- Commissioner Bud Selig wrote that “I really believe that Abner Doubleday is the father of baseball.”
Doubleday’s posthumous anointment as the father of baseball may seem like a silly, century-old story. But it is a reminder of two timeless truths, both at the heart of the current national fracture: first, that history is often written — in some cases wholly invented- for the then-current political needs of its authors, and second, that those who learn this history from an early age incorporate it into their own worldviews and view revisionism as a deeply personal affront.
Some myths are less charming. Let’s start with the least knotty example: Confederate memorials bore the initial brunt of protestors’ ire, for the reasonably obvious rationale that the celebration of traitors is apparently a funhouse mirror version of American exceptionalism found nowhere else is modern societies. As is now common knowledge, and just as with the Doubleday myth serving then-current political desires, the vast iconography of Confederate generals says far more about the times in which they were cast and the political intent of those who built them than the relative merits, military and cultural, of the individuals themselves memorialized. Confederate symbols are those of reborn white supremacy, a hue and cry against a changing political mixture of power and culture. Installed primarily in the Jim Crow era of the turn of the century and then later during Civil Rights America, Confederate statutes were a way to reinterpret the Civil War as a tactical loss but a strategic victory in the larger struggle against multiracial democracy, a menacing reminder that the men may be gone, but the ideal for which they died had won the day.
The President, no less than his opponents, understands at some level the racial trolling intended by Confederate statutes and like game recognizing game, has upped his own racial trolling accordingly. Not for nothing was Trump’s offhand dismissal of renaming Fort Bragg, “who are we going to name it after- Al Sharpton?” rather than any obvious military hero. Yet the Confederate battle has been lost. Even Senate Republicans have no major disagreement with renaming Army bases named after Confederates, which in themselves are a perfect rejoinder that iconography is history: If names and statutes were the teachers they’re purported to be, the famously incompetent Confederate General Braxton Bragg would never have had his name attached to a latrine, let alone an elite U.S. Army post.
Where things get harder is what comes next, again presaged by the President’s taunt that if Lee and Davis go, then Washington and Jefferson must be soon follow. It’s hard to take seriously Trump’s attachment to history when he expressed honest surprise both that Lincoln was a Republican and that Frederick Douglas was actually dead. Yet what he lacks in knowledge he makes up in insistence on conformity to a bronze-hued vision of what he perceives history should be. In this, he mimics the new nationalism in countries around the world. A movement that primarily looks back to assuage the current anxiety of its adherents needs its romanticized heroes in outsized color, and conversely rejects any messiness in a narrative often far more complex than black and white visions of valor. Poland, another nation famously in the grip of nationalists, briefly criminalized blaming Poles for the Holocaust; Hungary, fallen to Fidez’s grip, has taken pains to emphasize Hungary’s role as a victim of the Nazis, now reborn as an outpost of Christian civilization. The goal is always the same: to construct a sanitized version of a heroic past, filled with victors of a current favored class for their descendants to aspire.
America, an unabashed victor of the twentieth century, needs no such World War II revisionism. Our historical illness is not war, but postwar: more specifically, the racial settlement following the Civil War. The battle for history today revolves entirely around America’s racial past, and more specifically, what the past says about today’s rival politics.
We believe in memory, they are amnesia.
The President’s view of history, and that of his acolytes, is a long view of American exceptionalism, built by whites for themselves but graciously conceded to minorities in ample and equal quantities. Today, the racial questions have been concluded, the past is no longer prologue, and any struggles for justice today simply seek to drag down America the Great to the level of inferior- some might say “shithole” — nations unfit to wear the mantle of creator of democracy, with liberty, and justice for all. Adherents of Trumpism reflexively dismiss historical revisionism. Suffering from vertigo imposed by international capitalism’s ravaging of middle class incomes, their familial structures under the strain of downward mobility, white Americans hold ever closer to the few anchors believed to ground themselves in sunnier visions of the past. In romanticized stories of American greatness they see all that is left of their supposed inheritance. To undermine even that is to kick out the wobbly legs upon which any remaining primacy depends. The complication of the prideful history they have learned is just one more insult to be borne, and worse, would give credence to the demands of the hated left for political changes today. White Americans don’t fight against a fuller view of history because they don’t understand its current ramifications today, but rather because they do. Worse, “fight” increasingly means outside of the democratic framework: over 50% of Republican voters in a recent poll agreed with the statement “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”
The exceptionalism myth is an attractive one for a modern political movement because it dovetails nicely with a heroes and villains mythology in which the virgin birth of Constitutionalism as geometric perfection, built by giants for posterity, is the North Star of unmoving truth. A reactionary movement can simply point to the difference between our current environment and the past, call the past the standard of ideal, and punish any derivation from slavish adherence to its claimed virtues. Such a movement naturally hems to the authoritarian as its demands a high priesthood of historical interpreters to state the True Virtue and claim that those who disagree are not acting in good faith but instead attempting to pull out bricks upon which an entire structure is built, in hopes of collapsing it to ashes. Reactionaries must view their opponents as revolutionaries, and punish them accordingly.
The problems with this view are manifest, but most tersely summed up by Mark Twain’s observation that “The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” America’s racial settlement explodes upon the street today because reality has collided with Trumpism’s historical exceptionalism. What the President does not want to confront, what he cannot, for current political reasons bring himself to acknowledge, is that much of the history we have been taught of the post-Civil War period has itself been, like Doubleday, concocted to assure its creators of their domestic dominance. America flirted briefly with biracial democracy after the Civil War, before Southern Redemptionism crushed it to pieces, and the white establishment, north and south, reconciled over the ashes of the freedpeople’s hopes. If biracial democracy worked, the entire basis of the white supremacy which replaced it was wrong, and so an entire discipline took to the ink-stained battlefields to attack multiracial democracy’s foundations as corroded from the start. Writing in 1901, after Jim Crow had sunset any hopes of true biracial equality, historian William Dunning said of Reconstruction,
“the negroes who rose to prominence and leadership were very frequently of a type which acquired and practiced the tricks and knavery rather than the useful arts of politics, and the vicious courses of these negroes strongly confirmed the prejudices of the whites……this was that the ultimate root of the trouble in the South had been, not the institution of slavery, but the coexistence in one society of two races so distinct in characteristics as to render coalescence impossible.”
Dunning gave his name to the eponymous “Dunning School,” which taught a bastardized version of Reconstruction, dominated by an overweening powerful federal tyranny strangling white Southerners until heroic redeemers put them to rights and restored racial equanimity. The Dunning School — that of such buzzwords as “carpetbaggers” and “States’ rights”- dominated historiography, North and South, for almost a century, and was absorbed by the Baby Boomers as the one true history of the United States between the Civil War and World War II. No less than Hilary Clinton, not exactly a covert white supremacist, echoed its general theorems in a 2016 debate when speaking of Lincoln’s death, lamenting “we had Reconstruction, we had the reigns of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant.” One of the most popular books ever written on Reconstruction Era was 1929’s “The Tragic Era,” which detailed the suffering of the Southern whites under an allegedly tyrannical Northern government, arguing that “It was not until the original Klan began to ride that white women felt some sense of security.” It was this form of history that members of Trump’s generation were taught, and old legends written by dusty, honored historians die hard.
They must also be seen for what they were- men who lived very much in the world made by Jim Crow’s violent suppression of black equality. Dunning, a member of an elite white establishment absorbing much of the dubious racial science of the day, wrote his history just five years after Plessy v Ferguson enshrined separate but equal into the ignominious canon of American racial law. Decades later, the author of “The Tragic Era”, Claude Bowers, was a dedicated Democrat who aimed to woo the White south back to the Democratic party after the Republican Herbert Hoover won the 1928 election by flattering its racist pretentions. He wrote to a colleague “I have written a book which will be the most powerful single factor in bringing the South back into line.”
Much of what we have been taught about racial relations post-Civil War was, like the Doubleday Myth, created to explain why the world not only is as it is, but why it should be- for domestic political reasons no less blatant and far less charming than Albert Spaulding’s Anglophobia. Even the Civil Rights movement itself did little to change the powerful myth of the Dunning view: in popular white parlance, the Civil Rights movement ended all organized racism and hence seeded equal soil from which the future could grow. Yet even the successes of the Civil Rights movement did nothing to address the economic effects of a century of Jim Crow, and as capital’s power at the expense of labor’s and its hold on the political process grew in the 1970s and beyond, black political power was largely frozen in hardened amber. Cut out of capital’s rise, black Americans have struggled to escape Dunning’s views that white elite rule was preferable to the messiness and tectonic turbulence of true multiracial democracy.
A complex view of determinism, now rising on the American Left, does not coexist easily with American triumphalism. Trumpian refusal to accept any revision of the historical myths as timeless as the statutes which adorned city halls is at the swirling center of our current widening rupture because rethinking the past necessarily implies rethinking the present, and indeed, the entire basis of the movement’s claim to earned dominance. Those who grew up in the comforting cocoon of white supremacy were taught that it stood on sturdy intellectual roots: that things were the way they were because they were supposed to be. In the virulent appeal of the Dunning School came the first seeds of the view that federal interference was tyranny (but only if used to advance equality), white civilization was the one true civilization, and local communities should be left to their own devices to manage racial relations, all bedrock beliefs underlying Trumpism. Yet that scholarship, that history, did not delve into the origins of political control as much as provide justification for continuing the world as it is. In the past, historians no less than the rest of us, see what they choose to see.
Questioning of that past is causing intense fissures in the fragmenting present. George Floyd’s death necessarily implicated a historiographical long view of oppression, coming just months after the New York Times’s 1619 project taking a big history look at American slavery and its cascading effects through the centuries. Yet even the idea that contemporary criminal justice inequalities have roots delving back nearly four hundred years dips into a deep subterranean river of rejectionism on the part of those asked to consider a new thinking of the past. Senator Tom Cotton, a cipher for contemporary American racial grievance, has made two proposals in the last three months: that US combat troops attack American protestors, and that public schools be prohibited from using federal funds to teach the 1619 Project. His is the politics of the purest acidity in these history wars and a perfect example of just how the study of history and the atomization of our body politic in the present are directly linked. The granite answer of whites to the pretensions of equality held in determined repose by their black countrymen and the Dunning School which provided ample intellectual cover for their endurance are the reason American brownshirts, standing without insignia and answerable only to the President, now flood our cities, America’s purest paragon of racial intermixing. Far from an arcane academic debate on historiography, in in Kenosha, Portland, in Washington DC, and potentially in other “Democrat-led cities,” American fascism rides into battle on the shoulders of the very ideological history for which the statutes were erected and for which the President demands a “patriotic” teaching. To question the past for the reactionaries is to undermine the hope for the future; conversely, to question the past for the protestors is to offer it.
If there is indeed hope, it comes from the example of the recently departed John Lewis. Lewis’s most prominent moment occurred on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. That Bridge is now inexorably intertwined with Lewis and the civil rights movement — yet on the day of the 1940 bridge dedication, it stood for something very different. A parade attended by some 7,000 townspeople included a float depicting slaves, quite understandably, given Pettus’s role as a Confederate general. The town newspaper printed a laudatory biography which said Pettus was “devoted wholly to the upbuilding of our state and the bringing of order out of the chaos of carpetbaggery and negro dominance” after the Civil War. The Dunning School coursed through Selma, and by the physical courage of Lewis and his fellow marchers, was repudiated in the blood of those fighting for the deeper ideological roots of Jeffersonian democracy in fullest expression. Millions of Americans are in the streets today looking to Lewis and his generation as the exemplar of re-thinking and recasting history into a present struggle for equality.
On a larger plane, Americans are living James Baldwin’s cogent observation that “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” Marechal was wrong: learning a fuller version of our history, dovetailing stories of freedom and failure, of yearning for better and falling short, pushing ever further into an unknowable future with confidence in the timeless principles of the past, isn’t amnesia but its very repudiation. Reinterpretation is reinvigoration, not destruction; history is complex because the human agents who drive it are complex. Trump has claimed the mantle of keeper of the flame for historical truths carved in the granite tablet of Americans past, unchanging and forever triumphant, a comforting blanket for white Americans struggling with the unsteadiness of constant change. His is a false hope, for history, conversely, is not fixed in time; it is a conversation without end, a constant discussion moving the camera lens to bring forgotten or erased experience into sharper relief, all in order to further advance an ever fuller panoramic horizon of national meaning. Whatever history is built exists to be expanded upon, to be forever challenged, with fuller stories added to the burgeoning skyscraper of knowledge upon which our society rests. The wonder of history is not that one must accept another’s interpretation — that is, after all, what the Dunning school has demanded of black Americans, and what many white Americans fear today if other views are legitimized- but that the grand vistas of all should be heard, seen, and understood together, fused in a majestic narrative of inheritance for all who dwell within the shelter of our shared past. Fascism in America, like its foreign counterparts, requires a simple past of excusable and concluded racial dominance, but it also requires an unthinking, dull acceptance of history frozen in amber. We cannot fight together for the present without taking a deep plunge into the past: the greater we are willing, the more likely we are to win the fight against the reactionary assault upon which an unwillingess depends.