Notes on the state of history

Martin Niemöller’s poem is recited in times of strife to remind us about our collective responsibility to stand up to hatred.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.—

Hatred does not consume people overnight. It slowly seeps into their world view, embedding itself overtime until it is normalized and can more easily spread to others. But the events of the past week show another thing that hate can consume: our history. Hate will silence and simplify and skew our past, though we often don’t recognize the trend until it is too late.

We have a natural tendency to bury what is hard to talk about and hush the bad. In the US, Reconstruction never fully addressed the racial divides that underpinned society in both Northern and Southern states. We accept this silence because history is nuanced, difficult to parse and frankly painful to study. More than any other field of study it requires a deep understanding of many subjects like psychology, economics, politics and geography. So we accept historical analysis as an academic pursuit, something relegated to university departments and dense novels that few fully read.

Precisely because history is hard we don’t raise our voice when it is hushed.

But then history is misremembered. It begins when we teach history on a simplified, one-dimensional timeline. Such simplicity leaves open the possibility for unsubstantiated narratives. We let misrepresentations slide, chalking them up to cultural narratives, simple myths or regional tales. States glorify the Civil War one hundred years after under the guise of economic rights. Leaders garble historical facts to make a politically-convenient point.

These instances of misremembering don’t appear sinister at first. We falsely equate simplification with accessibility and under this notion water down history into narratives of ‘left versus right’ or ‘good versus evil’.

But we let such things go because at least at this point we are talking about history instead of hiding from it.

Then hate reclaimes history. By this time history is nothing more than a series of anecdotes and convenient narratives instead of a full picture of our collective past. This trend makes it easy for groups to pick what version of history they want. It’s how in the year 2017 Confederate and Nazi flags can fly side-by-side under a false historical narrative that fixates on racial superiority. It allows for pseudo histories and revisionist thinking on the Holocaust and World Wars and other social trends to still maintain a place in historical conversations.

But even if we know they are wrong, we seem have a hard time speaking out against false historical narratives.

Then history is militarized. We’ve seen it in Charlottesville and in other recent acts of domestic terrorism. Narrative histories become the spark plug for alternative versions of truth and therefore a danger to our basic premise of democracy.

We’ve seen history misremembered by today’s leaders (look no further than the Bowling Green Massacre and Trump’s speeches about General Pershing). We’ve seen it warped and rewritten by various groups because they know to control history is to control destiny. Let us be wary about how history is being simplified, misremembered and controlled by alternative groups today. If a group’s historical narrative leads them to overtly glorify their past – without recognizing the anguish and problems that go along with that past – they’ve simplified the narrative to a dangerous degree.

More than ever, we need historians to contextualize our collective past. We need schools to teach history with clinical importance, knowing that how the next generation thinks about the past will ultimately inform their future. We as a country must recognize the difference between remembering the past and glorifying it under the pretense of a false narrative.

Experiencing history should be visceral and emotional. It should make us stammer to find the right words because we are engrossed in the human condition and the fullness of human tragedy. It should embolden us to learn more – even if we don’t like the truth. Our ability to learn from the past is what makes us most human; therefore it is our job to speak out when history is misconstrued for malicious means.

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