In the wake of President Trump’s embrace of “patriotic history” at the National Archives on Thursday, I rise to speak in favor of the discipline I taught, studied, researched, and wrote about for decades. I also rise to oppose categorically the debauched definition of history he espoused in that hallowed national space within sight of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence.
Back in the day, before the internet, I used to regularly listen to shortwave radio to find out what was happening in the world. Back in that day, one of the loudest voices on those bands was Radio Moscow. I can still hear the baritone voices giving the English language version of the Soviet Union’s story. Part of that story was the sovereign belief that the USSR had never been wrong, had always acted honorably, and that life under the Soviet Union had been uninterrupted rise to greatness. In this telling, there were no gulags, no forced labor, no liquidation of the kulaks, no pact with the Nazis. In fact, by the 1980s Stalin had largely disappeared from the narrative. It was all sanitized, rosy, varnished, and a lie.
Since the advent of the internet, and my discovery of email, my signature has included the phrase, “History—the way today got here.” My history career rested on the truth that history is real, knowable, and valuable. The past is our mirror. In it, we can see ourselves for who we are, if we take the time to wipe the fog from that mirror. Something else promotes a clearer vision. Christ said we should first remove the planks blinding our own eyes, before denouncing the mote obscuring someone else’s. Willful ignorance can tempt and curse any of us. And as Reinhold Niebuhr warned about sanitized national histories, such collective, willful ignorance destroys all it touches.
To say, as President Trump suggests, that the history of the United States is nothing but the triumph of freedom, is willful ignorance. Our national story is both 1776 and 1619, both “all men are created equal” and the “peculiar institution”. Both are true, not just one or the other. Two of the founders carved on Mount Rushmore—beneath which the President stood in July—owned, bought, and sold human beings. The Confederacy’s leaders, whose statues the President deems sacred, committed treason against the United States (as actually defined by the Constitution) to preserve slavery. The Constitution, which the President used as prop the other day, condoned slavery. In fact, condoning slavery made our national government possible. Abraham Lincoln, another face on that South Dakota mountain, was killed for his opposition to slavery. And Theodore Roosevelt lunched with Booker T. Washington at the White House—just once. Then came the backlash in the press. These are hard truths; nevertheless, they are true.
The Scriptures also tell us, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” While the immediate context may refer to religious truth, Christianity does teach that ultimately all truth is one. We cannot be Christian and engage in deliberate distortion of the truth. History happens. People propel the events we read about and study; but people are not perfect. Therefore, the people’s story—our American history—will be rife with our imperfections. Unless we anesthetize ourselves into distortion, we have no choice but to address those imperfections staring at us in history’s mirror.