History as End: 1619, 1776, and the Politics of the Past

tags: racism, culture war, teaching history, 1619 Project

Matthew Karp is Associate Professor of history at Princeton University.

ast spring, 155 years after the fall of Richmond, the Confederate capital surrendered again. In April 1865, the capitulation was swift and almost outlandishly theatrical: after learning that Robert E. Lee’s army had withdrawn from nearby Petersburg, the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, and his military guard escaped south under cover of darkness, setting half the city on fire as they fled. Early the next morning, the first Union troops arrived. As Richmond’s black residents celebrated in the streets—joined by more than a few poor whites—the black soldiers at the head of the Union column worked to put out the flames. The embers of a regime dedicated to preserving African slavery were extinguished by hundreds of former slaves. The occupying forces then marched to Davis’s executive mansion and commandeered it as their headquarters.

The second fall of Richmond was hardly kinder to the Confederate president. In June of last year, Davis’s eight-foot bronze likeness, which had presided over the city’s Monument Avenue for more than a century, was torn from its pedestal and dumped into the street—his face nullified with black paint, his overcoat spiked with pink and yellow, and his outstretched hand now reaching upward as if making a forlorn appeal to the heavens. In the weeks that followed, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, and Matthew Maury, Davis’s bronze company on Monument Avenue—the so-called Champs-Élysées of the South—were likewise eliminated from view, but they at least enjoyed the honor of an official state removal. Davis, their chief, received no such courtesy: protesters tied ropes around his legs and dragged him to the ground with what news reports described as “a tiny sedan.”

The conquest of Monument Avenue represented a key front in the renewed struggle for racial justice: the demand for a dramatic rethinking of U.S. history and its place in public life. Strikingly, the most powerful energy behind this fight comes not only from scholars but from activists, journalists, and other thinkers who have made history a new kind of political priority. Although American historical amnesia is the laziest of tropes—“We learn nothing,” said Gore Vidal, “because we remember nothing”—liberals today are more committed than ever to a passionate remembrance of things past. In recent years, a distinct pattern has emerged. Acts of horror—the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown; the Charleston church massacre; the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; the murder of George Floyd; the storming of the U.S. Capitol—are met not only with calls for justice but with demands for a more searching examination of history. Reading lists and syllabi are distributed; institutional commissions are tasked with extensive historical inquiries; professional historians appear regularly in op-ed pages, on television, and in social-media feeds.

Every modern political movement makes some contact with history. Even in the United States, with our notoriously weak memory, progressive reformers have always invoked earlier struggles. Eugene Debs boasted that the Socialists of 1908 “are today where the abolitionists were in 1858”; Martin Luther King Jr. never tired of talking about the Declaration of Independence, a beacon of democratic equality whose light exposed how little of it the United States had so far attained. Yet the role of history today, especially within liberal discourse, has changed. Rather than mine the past for usable politics—whether as analogue, inspiration, or warning—thinkers now travel in the opposite direction, from present injustice to historical crime. Current American inequalities, many liberals insist, must be addressed through encounters with the past. Programs of reform or redistribution, no matter how ambitious, can hope to succeed only after the country undergoes a profound “reckoning”—to use the key word of the day—with centuries of racial oppression.

In public debate, this order of operations has produced some unexpected ideological alignments. The Atlantic, a sturdy citadel of centrist thinking on every contemporary subject from populism to Palestine, has been the editorial home of both Ta-Nehisi Coates, this century’s most influential writer on race and U.S. history, and Ibram X. Kendi, the historian who has emerged as this moment’s most prolific critic of American racism. The New York Times, whose editorial board could not muster more than one vote out of thirty for Bernie Sanders, has in the past two years published the 1619 Project, which was billed as “the most ambitious examination of the legacy of slavery ever undertaken” in an American newspaper; an essay making the case for reparations; and an excerpt adapted from Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which compared America’s “enduring racial hierarchy” with those of ancient India and Nazi Germany.

In the age of Sanders and Trump, the Democratic establishment has assumed a defensive posture, concerned above all with holding off various barbarians at the gate. And yet in its consideration of the past, the same establishment has somehow grown large and courageous, suddenly eager for a galloping revision of all American history. For some left-wing skeptics, this apparent paradox requires little investigation: it redirects real anger toward vague and symbolic grievances. No, the Democrats who govern Virginia will not repeal the state’s anti-union right-to-work law, but yes, by all means, they will make Juneteenth an official holiday. If this movement only signals a shift from material demands to metaphysical “reckonings”—from movement politics to elite culture war—then it is not an advance but a retreat.

This critique, however persuasive as a reading of many liberal politicians, does not do justice to the intellectuals and journalists who have driven the national debate on these issues. It does not quite capture the significance of their interventions, or the ambition of their challenge to traditional liberal ideas. Nor does it capture the peculiarity of today’s politics of history. American conservatives, traditionally attracted to history as an exercise in patrimonial devotion, have in the time of Trump abandoned many of their older pieties, instead oscillating between incoherence and outright nihilism. Liberals, meanwhile, seem to expect more from the past than ever before. Leaving behind the End of History, we have arrived at something like History as End.

Read entire article at Harper's

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