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…