The Year History Died

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Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-PhD candidate and graduate student instructor in the departments of History and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. He received his BA and graduated with honors from the University of Chicago in 2009.

“Thus, the past is the fiction of the present.”

–Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History


What is the meaning of history today? What idea of history is supposed to come to our minds when we hear its name invoked day after day? After all, Donald Trump’s political rise has been fueled from the beginning by the promise of a return of history, or a return to history. Moreover, whether in an attempt to sing their own praises or excuse themselves from blame, President Trump and his disciples have repeatedly (and often falsely) appealed to the “historic” weight, size, and significance of his election victory, of his inauguration and the crowd it drew, of his trips to Europe, of his trips to Asia, of the GOP tax bill, of his defense spending, of his dismantling of national monuments, of the natural disasters that have occurred during his time in office, etc.

Liberal pop culture has likewise developed something of an obsession with “historic” momentsmarkers, and achievements. Leftists, too, are doing battle among themselves over their own historical legacies as they continue forging a politics that seeks to address injustices done to the “historically oppressed.” At the same time, white supremacist and proto-fascist groups are growing bolder by the day, marching to the beat of their own blood-soaked appeals to a “proud” history they refuse to let die. Rising from the boiling broth, every week brings renewed battles over the very idea of history as it exists in personal experiencesmonumentsclassroomsbuilding namesstoriestextbookspropheciesawards, etc.

One could say that these are the consequences of an age in which history itself no longer seems to mean anything. Or perhaps the opposite is true—perhaps our problem is that history means too much. It’s clear, in either event, that we’re living through a curiously counter-historical era—one in which everyone is seemingly obsessed with history and also completely incapable of agreeing on what it means. This, I believe, is the central feature of our political moment: the accelerated death of any semblance of a commonly accepted (or tolerated) idea of history, and the resulting, increasingly ruthless war among competing visions of what history is, what it should look like, what purposes it must serve, what bearing it will have on the present, and what place any of us will have in it.

To be clear: this is not to say we’re experiencing (or re-experiencing, as the case may be) the much-ballyhooed “end of history.” In that distant, pregnant moment immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union, “free-market” liberal democracy had seemingly secured its place as the pinnacle of historical development, the “final form of human government,” as Francis Fukuyama confidently declared. Though that’s not to say this prematurely announced Hegelian victory has no bearing on what I’m describing. In fact, I’d argue that history’s relatively rapid death has been due, in large part, to the many and repeated manifestations of our deeply ingrained belief that, for decades, we have been sitting proudly at its summit.

Even if we never willfully bought into the idea itself, life in twenty-first-century America has largely suffered from the peculiar affliction of operating as if history itself was over—as if the endpoint was never in question, as if the continued dominance, let alone the very survival, of our interlocking arrangements of life and commerce and governance were never in doubt (at home or abroad). This affliction has much to recommend it. Its chief symptom, after all, is comfort: the comfort that allows us to remain blissfully ignorant of all the unlovely ways in which the American empire continues to operate as a motive force in the perpetual unfolding of history; also the comfort in the blind, imperial hubris of our now taken-for-granted role as a tirelessly interventionist superpower. However, taking such premature and unmerited comfort in the assured “end of history” is precisely what left so many of us oblivious to history’s continued work—oblivious, if not to the wars being waged at home on the world we took for granted, then to the legitimate threats posed by the insurgent forces behind them, from the Kochs and ALEC to Trump and the alt-right. This past year should have left no doubt in our minds about the latter.  ...

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