The Weaponization of HistoryRoundup
tags: Holocaust, slavery, history, conservatives, World War 2
Mr. McClay is a professor at the University of Oklahoma and author of “Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.”
History is the most humbling and humanizing of subjects. It opens reality to us in all its gorgeous variety, from the earthbound lives of ordinary peasants and servants to the rarefied universe of the mighty and wealthy, and the astonishing range of human experience in between. It seeks to provide a balanced and honest record of humanity’s achievements and enormities alike, generous enough to acknowledge the mixture of motives that every one of us flawed humans bring to life’s tasks.
That, at any rate, is how it ought to be. But instead of expanding our minds and hearts, history is increasingly used to narrow them. Instead of helping us to deepen ourselves and take a mature and complex view of the past, history is increasingly employed as a simple bludgeon, which picks its targets mechanically—often based on little more than a popular cliché—and strikes.
The best example may be the evergreen argumentum ad Hitlerum, in which every evil from bigotry and militarism to vegetarianism and appreciation of Wagner’s operas is referred to the transcendentally evil standard of Nazism. The detention centers on America’s southern border should be called “concentration camps,” according to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. When questioned, the young, irrepressible Democrat advised Americans: “This is an opportunity for us to talk about how we learn from our history.” But that history isn’t ours. By invoking such an emotionally laden term, she was playing on a potent theme, but in a way that underscored the limited range of her historical reference, as well as the public’s.
A more disturbing example is the pell-mell rush to pass judgment against heroes of the past and tear down or rename the monuments to them—including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. Are we really so faint of heart that we can no longer bear to allow the honoring of great men of the past who fail in some respects to meet our current specifications?
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