If We Ignore Our History, We Are Doomed To Repeat It
By refusing to acknowledge the awful truths about what has happened on American soil, we become complacent in its repetition
In the midst of the controversial debate regarding the removal of statues of Confederate soldiers, Donald Trump chimed in with a plea to honor our history.
Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You…..
As with most tweets from the President, this failed to take into consideration any contextual knowledge of the historical events he was talking about. While the understanding and awareness of our own history is more than important, Trump doesn’t really care about the facts of our past. (He doesn’t care about facts at all, but that’s another story). He uses the most shallow and naive version of events to rack up retweets, without thought to the bigger story.
Unfortunately, he’s not alone in this way of thinking.
We live in an era where, even with so much information at our fingertips, many ignore the multitude of ways that our collective past has led to the current political climate. This ignorance contributes to a national discourse that is severely lacking in both context and perspective. We don’t know why things are the way they are, and as such, we can’t fix them.
For example, Trump campaigned on an ideology of putting “America First.” This phrase resonated with his base and is still used to describe his actions to this day. However, it happens to have a dark and anti-Semitic past. The American First Committee opposed any U.S. involvement in World War II and went so far as to suggest the Jewish community was advocating the U.S. to enter a war that would be detrimental to our national interest. The anti-Semitism that has seemingly reappeared in the wake of Trump’s election was never as far from our shores as we would like to believe.
Guam has suddenly been thrust onto the center stage of international relations. As an important link between the United States and Asia, one would think its history would be well known in the American consciousness. In reality, it is not common knowledge that after being colonized by both Spain and the United States, Guam served as the front lines of Naval forces. Four hours after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Guam suffered a similar fate. In this case, Japanese troops were able to seize the island and remain in control for over three years.
13,000 American citizens were injured, forced into labor, or ended up in internment camps. Over a thousand citizens died. Yet, as they were facing another threatened attack from a foreign adversary, Trump told the people of Guam that they shouldn’t worry because it would increase their tourism.
There is much talk regarding a need for prison reform in this country. Yet, there is far less discussion of the era that gave us the racially prejudiced sentencing laws that have had nearly immeasurable ramifications. Without an understanding of how the crack epidemic of the 1980s devastated communities of color, and more importantly how political and legal responses compounded the tragedy, we can’t possibly hope to begin to restructure sentencing.
How sharecropping allowed for a continuation of almost slavery, how the slaughtering of bison led to the destruction of many indigenous tribes, the effects of the first Gulf War on our current relations with the Middle East — these are all moments in history that we need to understand if we hope to create a more progressive future.
Without knowledge of our past, we are truly lost.
A Culture Of Historical Blindness
So what happens to a society that doesn’t know its own history? What does this ignorance lead to? The recent tragedy in Charlottesville revealed the extreme danger this lack of knowledge creates.
Let’s bring back the debate regarding the removal of Confederate statues for a moment. Are we erasing our history by taking down these statues? Trump himself suggested that if we took down of statues of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, we might as well knock down all the monuments dedicated to George Washington. His personal attorney, John Dowd, later circulated an email furthering this claim of moral equivalency:
“You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington. There literally is no difference between the two men.”
Yes, there’s literally no difference between President George Washington, a man who helped found this nation, and Robert E. Lee, a man who led a hate-fueled rebellion aimed at destroying it.
Some, like the President, would argue that these statues represent an important part of American history and by taking them down we open the door to the rewriting of other elements of our past.
This might bear some semblance of truth if most of the statues were put up right after the war, but they weren’t. According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were “two major periods in which the dedication of Confederate monuments and other symbols spiked — the first two decades of the 20th century and during the civil rights movement.”
Confederate statues were mainly erected during the Jim Crow era and during the fight for civil rights in the 1960s. I’m sure you can all figure out why this is the case. This is the history these statues represent — not some misguided call for an appreciation of Southern culture.
Every time we leave up a Confederate monument, every time we glaze over the terrors of the Civil War, we are normalizing these sins. We are normalizing the way white supremacy is woven into the fabric of this country.
This normalization creates a culture that is passively accepting, if not encouraging, of this white supremacy. All one needs to do is look at Richard Spencer’s responses to Trump’s statements on Charlottesville to see that this is true.
Trump has never denounced the Alt-Right. Nor will he. #ArizonaTrumpRally
Our lack of historical context (be it willful ignorance or simply not having been educated on these moments) helps create a culture where we do not recognize the warning signs of potential dangers. By pushing our past under the rug, we become blind to the festering issues of racism, sexism, and evil that permeate the far — and not so far — reaches of our country.
This idea presents a more dangerous threat when we consider the rise of “alternative facts” over the last election season. Firstly, let’s call these what they are — lies. The presentation of them as fact, however, by high-level public officials plays directly into the dearth of historical understanding and allows for a gaslighting of the American public.
The people that peddle lies and misinformation capitalize on a civilization ignorant of its past and use this advantage to rewrite the narrative. This Orwellian idea has already caused great chaos, as seen in the 2016 election.
A dismal historical understanding allows one to fall victim to lies and propaganda. The loss of a well-informed electorate may be one of the single greatest threats to democracy in general. When you can’t separate fact from fiction, you are at the whim of those presenting you with information, unable to recognize whatever agenda they may have.
If, for example, a politician presents you with an emotional appeal saying that Syrian refugees present a great threat to national security, and you don’t have the context to know how utterly illogical that statement is, how can you possibly vote in your best interest?
A knowledge of history empowers voters to make their own choices, without falling victim to the pandering of politicians who do not have their best interest at heart. The Founding Fathers were concerned about this very issue — having an engaged and educated citizenry was one of their original arguments for the formation of public schools.
Being unaware of our history puts us at risk not only of being complacent in its repetition but failing to recognize those that would harm and hinder our democracy.
So how do we combat this? How do we protect ourselves from the inundation of misinformation and propaganda? How do we fight back against a culture of forgetting and erasing our past?
The first thing we have to do is take responsibility for our own knowledge. There is much to be said for education reform in this country, but we can’t wait for someone else to teach us how to think critically. We must learn to do so ourselves.
To do this, we need to be aware of what we don’t know — an idea that seems as meta as it gets. We must search for our own knowledge gaps and take the power of understanding our past into our own hands.
When tragic events like Charlottesville take place, we need to reflect on how we got there. Self-reflection and criticism may be painful, but it’s the only way growth happens.
As Thomas Jefferson said,
“Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.”
Democracy is not a spectator sport, and if we hope to continue this grand American experiment, we need to be as informed as humanly possible.