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Why Do Americans Refuse History?

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As a start, we need to understand the verb “refuse.” Why not “ignore,” “deny,” or “hate”? On the other side of the issue, why not “embrace,” “accept,” or “heed”?

There are two opposite and colloquial definitions of history that serve to polarize the use we may make of the topic. First is the expression from Jorge Santayana, Spanish philosopher, who wrote: “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The other comes from Henry Ford, who thought that “history is bunk.” Synonyms for “bunk” are absurd, silly, inane. Ford, characteristically, was American.

There are at least two close definitions of “refuse” that might describe the American intellectual culture: “ahistorical” and “anti-historical.” The first is indifference; the second is hostility. The first presupposes an innocent, casual dismissal, the second a deliberate, premediated dismissal, but both “dismiss” the subject. Dismiss is a synonym of refuse.

The second meaning is more insidious, insofar as it implies a deliberate manipulation of the subject for personal advancement. In a colloquial definition, it is called “cherry picking,” i.e., a selected use of evidence to endorse one’s opinions. Such a preference is truly “anti,” thus intellectually dishonest. Unfortunately, it happens also to be the dominant strain of American “Studies” as they have advanced in the academy. It is also dangerous, since it is a convenient and useful tool to undermine and/ or destroy the value of the country. But if that is exactly the purpose, substitute “dangerous” with “necessary” (if that is one’s intention).

One can emphasize “faults” if the intention is to improve. But the intention becomes “dangerous” if it means to “replace” or “destroy.” Two presidential slogans represent the difference. Trump wants to “Make America Great Again,” which depends upon history. Obama declared that he wanted “Change We Can Believe In,” which depends upon the future. One relies on the past and wants to renew it. The other, in effect, “refuses” history and wants to change the present for the future. That’s the difference between “traditional” and “progressive.”

From a larger perspective, that defines the differences between the two political parties, or, as it once was called “armed camps” (metaphorically). If the differences were just philosophical, the argument would be “civil,” as some would cast it. The argument, however, is not philosophical when it enters the political arena, when it involves daily life, and when emotion enters. Then, it becomes hostile and, indeed, polemical.

And that’s exactly where we are right now.

In the hands of politicians, argument becomes accusation, and life itself seems to depend upon the latest speech or conversation. There is a great deal of exaggeration also, but it appears needed to prevail. Perhaps that’s why politics is called an “arena,” or a “blood sport.”

To demonstrate the manner in which the history/futuristic debate is cast in apoplectic terms, one need only to pick up a newspaper. In a single column in a recent New York Times, the issue was expressed in terms that might be considered as life or death for the entire country (presumably the world as well). The author viewed the future in excited and expectant terms. The author was also highly “political”: “When Barack Obama was elected, it felt like we were moving to a bold, gleaming future with a young, appealing president…”  On history, the same author had nothing but fear and loathing: “…Donald Trump got into the White House and began yanking us back to the ’50s … Trump always seems like someone who walked out of a Vegas steam bath in 1959. And now the whole country is starting to smell of moth balls.”

One might be forgiven if the metaphors appear as “overkill,” “gleaming future” against a “moth ball” country. But journalism, as opposed to analysis, should entertain.

Beyond the rhetoric, however, lies a profound issue: how to employ both past and present toward a favorable future?

Unfortunately, the temptation to express the twin preferences as life or death becomes too strong to resist. To progressives, history is only a repetition of a series of “isms,” be they of race, sex, nation or other. The worst is singularly applied as definition of country, be it slavery, voting rights, sexual orientation etc. Traditionalists show the “gleaming” highlights: liberty, prosperity, democracy, “pursuit of happiness,” etc.

The first chooses defects, the second chooses solutions. Take the great Civil War: the first says slavery existed, the second says it ended. Approximately 4,000 blacks were lynched from the end of the Civil War to about 1950. In the war itself, four years long, approximately 720,000 white soldiers died. What facts best describe the country?

A related problem involves separating reality from idealism. Are the defects of one country separate and unique or part of humanity itself? What does one oppose against slavery, for example, the country or society? Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Are we against him or the eighteenth century? 

To be fair to journalists, on the same page of the newspaper, above, another author related the dilemma for his own children. He neither wants them, in his own words, to be “trapped by nostalgia or tempted by the darker side of nationalism” or on the other hand “falling prey to the progressive tendency to remember the past only in order to hold it in contempt.”

Many years ago, the late Senator Edward Kennedy gave an answer to this issue in a eulogy to his fallen brother Robert, “some see things that were and ask why, my brother saw things that never were and asked why not” (1968).