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History Is Not Comfortable
One thing to remember about American history is, as far as a scope of time is concerned, it’s pretty darn short. We are 246 years from the Declaration of Independence. In fewer than three of my lifetimes, a lot, and I mean A LOT, has happened.
The idea of history keeps pulling at me.
For one thing, I have seen much of what is now considered “the past” unfold before my eyes. And that makes particularly resonant the fact that our historical reckonings are one of the biggest battle lines of our current time.
The stories we tell of our past, to ourselves, each other, and especially our children, are the seeds that will grow to shape our future. This is not unique to our time or place. Wrestling over who controls historical narratives, and thus controls what a society views as its origins and values, can be found across the ages and around the world.
But in this vulnerable moment in our country, at a time of the “Big Lie” and schisms over how we view the fundamental definition of our nation and its fate, we can see the acrid smoke of the cultural battlefields hovering overhead.
One particularly egregious example comes out of Florida, where governor Ron DeSantis has tethered his political fortune to strumming the cacophonic notes of white grievance. A bill being moved through the Florida legislature would, according to the Washington Post, give “parents and state regulators considerable authority to ban books or teachings that cause discomfort, including carefully reviewing lessons about ‘the Civil War, the expansion of the United States … the world wars, and the civil rights movement.’”
The number of outrages this provokes are almost too many to count. And it points to a very dangerous reality that has existed for a long time, one that has only metastasized in the Age of Trump - a misplaced sense of white victimhood. It’s not just Florida. This struggle for the narrative of our nation is happening all across the country. It’s a big reason why reactionary candidates are trying to take over school boards.
The imbalance of feelings in this law over who might be hurt by the way we teach our history is stunning. Nevermind, apparently, the amount of “discomfort” non-white Americans have been subjected to over the course of this nation’s history. To deny telling the hidden stories of their central part in the building of this nation, or the stories of slavery, Jim Crow, the extermination of Native Americans, Japanese internment camps, the Chinese Exclusion Act, redlining, and all the other governmental and social actions that were meant to make sure those who were non-white didn’t feel welcome, often violently so, is to deny the truth about the United States. And let’s be clear, whitewashing our history hurts everyone because it is an attack on the truth, and the truth must be the basis for the foundations upon which we build our nation going forward.
For a political movement that likes to boast about how tough its members are, how Democrats and liberals are all a bunch of “snowflakes,” this represents a blizzard of “snowflakery.” But of course the intent is obvious. It’s a natural outgrowth of the misrepresentation and demonization of Critical Race Theory, or the attacks on “woke” culture.
This is not about the past as much as it’s about the future. It’s about a group that has had an unquestioned hold on power due to privilege, obfuscation, and being the unchallenged majority in a nation that is undergoing rapid change.
There are very ugly chapters in American history. Yes, they can cause “discomfort,” and they should. But they can be a path to pride. Even the founders believed in the pursuit of “a more perfect union.” At least that’s how I see it. Look at what this nation was, the chasm between its ideals and its truth, and look at how it has been able to evolve during its short history. We cannot be content with where we are, of course, not by a long shot, but we can take some comfort in how far we have come and what that means about where we can go.
This is a narrative where we can show that progress is possible, and that progress is not the purview of any one segment of society. Benefit cannot be seen as a zero-sum game. Our nation is stronger, more dynamic, and more resilient when it is more just and more equal.
But this view of American history, where we acknowledge openly our faults and how many of the problems of the present can be traced to the actions taken in the past, is a threat to those whose narrow self-interests are bolstered by telling myths. And it is a reminder that we never have fully contended with our past.
History is always open to debate. There is no view of the past that is completely unbiased from the present, or who is doing the interpretation. It is healthy to have disagreement, to seek new perspectives. But that cannot be an excuse for ignoring what is known and documented.
Those who seek to keep our history classes the realm of comfortable fairy tales rather than hard truths are not trying to wrestle with the past in good faith. They don’t care about what really happened. They don’t want to know about it. And they don’t want anyone else to know about it either.
What we are seeing, however, is also a broad recognition by millions of Americans of the dangerous game these people are playing. We are also getting a much fuller accounting of our history than most of us received in school. We should remember that those who are working to suppress this trend towards more context and knowledge are threatened by it. Theirs is an act of fear masked as bravado. That doesn’t make it any less perilous, but it does mean that the more truth that is out there the more they will lose control of the narrative they seek to force upon the country.
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