Day By Day

Monday, April 19, 2010

Obama and the Search for a Usable Past

Nearly a century ago Van Wyck Brooks wrote about the need for a "usable past" -- a narrative that would make sense of American history in terms that would be useful for the present. That term has plagued the study of history ever since, as generation after generation of historians has rewritten and reshaped accounts of our national past in terms of their contemporary interests.

This cynical use and misuse of the past has had a not always beneficial effect on our national consciousness and an even worse effect on the profession of history itself. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was perhaps the first important serious historian to place himself fully and abjectly in the service of contemporary political interests, but he was by no means the last. Today such toadyism is ubiquitous and stellar figures in the field openly debate whether or not a particular line of enquiry will be "interesting", by which they mean will it be useful in advancing or resisting a political or ideological agenda. The historian's primary duty -- to understand the past fairly and on its own terms -- is largely forgotten, and the public understanding of who we are and what we were as a people is muddled.

Today -- April 19th -- is and for a long time has been, a day of national remembrance, and so it is being treated in our popular and political cultures. On radio, TV and in the press we are being asked to remember the experience of the past, but which past? Led by Bill Clinton -- perhaps the most loathsome figure ever to occupy the White House -- we are asked today to remember the bombing of the Murrah Federal office building in Oklahoma City back in 1995. The political utility of such remembrance is obvious at a time when the Obama administration and its toadies are desperately seeking to de-legitimize conservative opposition by portraying them as a subversive, dangerous force that must be opposed.

Forced far into the background is the perhaps more significant attack, two years earlier to the day, by Federal agents on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco in which dozens of men, women and children died. This neglect is purposeful. The Democratic Party and the current administration find it useful to blame the Oklahoma City bombing on a generalized "climate of hate", which they imply is similar to the sentiments animating opposition to Obama's agenda, and to ignore the stated cause of Timothy McVeigh's attack -- he was seeking revenge for the victims of the Waco assault. In this way history is being reinterpreted so as to serve contemporary political interests.

But even more striking is the neglect of another, far more important, point of remembrance. It was on this day in 1775 that the "minutemen" took their stand against British tyranny at Lexington and Concord and "fired the shot heard round the world." These were the opening battles of the American Revolution and until recently they were considered to be one of the most important symbols of our national heritage. But today Americas ruling elites have no interest in commemorating the heroic and consequential actions of citizen militias. Rather they invoke a distorted account of the Oklahoma City bombing as a warning against citizen involvement in the political process.

But there is a larger meaning to all this rewriting of our nation's history. Two years ago John Judis, writing from the perspective of the civil rights generation of liberal historians and journalists, argued in a terribly misconceived essay that Barak Obama represented an "escape" from the "burden" of American history and a chance for a new beginning in which the slate would be wiped clean of our original sin of racism. This argument was based in a particular view of American history -- a narrative that dismisses the achievements of the founding generation on the grounds that they were little concerned with the goals of "social justice" -- and celebrates instead the influence of successive reform movements. This truncated narrative underlies Barak Obama's view of American history.

Responding to Judis' essay, Richard Yeselson writes:

Obama... links his vision of America’s future to a particular reading of its past. Obama repeatedly reminds his listeners of the wrenching but concrete history of American reform movements for social justice whose leaders, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Walter Reuther, and Martin Luther King Jr., appropriated the Founders’ universalist aspirations for their own uses.

Obama evokes that history—from the proto-post racialism of the abolitionists through the great social-justice movements of women, workers, and African Americans in the 20th century—in almost every major speech he gives. Obama's first speech of this campaign, his announcement of his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, in January 2007, depicted Abraham Lincoln, not merely as the Great Emancipator, but as the great synthesizer of an American civil nationalism forged in blood and struggle. Lincoln, Obama said, "was heard to say: 'Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought to battle through.'"

In this view America's national history begins not at Lexington and Concord, or in the Pennsylvania statehouse, but in the abolitionists' struggle for racial equality and "social justice". This is the narrative that informs the current administration, is commonly expressed by the nation's managerial elite, and is increasingly represented in our nation's popular culture. It is sad to note that April 19th has these days become more a commemoration of tragedy and an expression of elite anxiety than a celebration of the great American experiment in self-governance and personal liberty.

Such is the nature of "useable history". It is invoked in support of a contemporary agenda. And in the process important elements of our common past are being lost because they are no longer useful. The memory of Lexington and Concord and the heroic citizens who fought there is fading to be replaced by other, less universal narratives particular to one grievance group or another. The aroused citizens who once stood beside "the bridge that arched the flood" and defied British authority are being lost to our civic memory to be replaced by an image of citizens as dangerous and subversive troublemakers. And this specific change in the meaning of April 19th suggests that though America's leaders used to exalt the American people, today they fear them. And that is the saddest thing of all.

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