Whose history is it? Who gets to tell it? And whose truth ends up in schoolbooks?
I pondered these questions after hearing President Biden address the recent ceremony honoring the police officers who defended the Capitol on January 6, 2021. During the event, the president said:
“The tragedy of that day deserves the truth above all else. We cannot allow history to be rewritten. We cannot allow the heroism of these officers to be forgotten. We have to understand what happened — the honest and unvarnished truth. We have to face it. That’s what great nations do.”
President Biden’s words recalled something another president articulated five years earlier:
“A great Nation does not hide its history; it faces its flaws and corrects them. This museum tells the truth: that a country founded on the promise of liberty held millions in chains…that the price of our Union was America’s original sin.”
At this moment, the United States is in a war over who gets to tell two pieces of history with extraordinary relevance and resonance. The story of the January 6 insurrection to overturn an election and subvert American democracy at the behest of a defeated president is one of these battles for history.
“The visual investigation, ‘Day of Rage,’ which was published digitally on June 30 and which is part of a print special section in Sunday’s paper [August 15, 2021], comes as conservative lawmakers continue to minimize or deny the violence, even going as far as recasting the riot as a ‘normal tourist visit.’”
The other is the titanic, racially-charged struggle over how we teach our children, and ourselves, about the country’s “original sin” – the Great Contradiction that a nation “conceived in liberty” was also born in shackles. That is no “theory” but a powerful thread of facts, events, and documents that course through the nation’s historical fabric.
Read: “The American Contradiction: Conceived in Liberty, Born in Shackles,” my article on teaching and talking abut slavery in U.S. History in Social Education (March/April 2020)
That “winners write history” is a well-worn adage. The United States has clearly had its share of a history composed largely by one group of winners. They were white, Anglo men who threaded together a proud, patriotic tale of the birth of a nation. It dropped a great many stitches. It was for that reason that Founder John Adams would write,
“The history of our country will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington.”
Adams was not far off. For much of the nation’s existence, its narrative has been crafted into a tidy legend by men who helped create the shibboleth now called “American Exceptionalism.”
The United States has no monopoly on the desire to promulgate a blemish-free narrative of its past. In Italy, Mussolini once said,
“Our myth is the Nation, our myth is the greatness of the Nation! And to this myth, to this grandeur, that we wish to translate into a complete reality, we subordinate all the rest.”
–From Herman Finer, Mussolini’s Italy (1935), p. 218; quoted in Franklin Le Van Baumer, ed., Main Currents of Western Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), p.748.
The Soviet Union was notorious for its vanishing generals – men wiped from Kremlin photographs following each Stalinist purge. Japan balks at any mention of its wartime atrocities, including the mistreatment of captive Korean “comfort women.” And as China celebrated one hundred years of the Communist Party, the erasure of such events as mass starvation and the Tiananmen Square massacre is complete.
Read “Democracy is not a spectator sport,” my article published in Social Education (September 2019 issue)
One notable exception has been Germany, where Holocaust studies including visits to concentration camp sites are mandatory in high school. On the other hand, it is worth noting that right-wing nationalist groups have been pushing back on the requirement. In Germany, writes The Atlantic’s Emily Schulthies, leaders of Alternative for Germany, a right-wing party, “have sought to diminish the importance of the Nazi era to produce an argument for renewed national pride: The party’s co-leader Alexander Gauland referred to it as a ‘speck of bird poop’ in Germany’s otherwise admirable history….” (The Atlantic, April 10, 2019)
Of course, the man who understood the control of history better than anyone was George Orwell.
“When one knew that any document was due for destruction, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces….
–George Orwell, 1984 (p. 35)
Orwell’s “memory hole” demonstrated the unconstrained power of the Party to shape both history and language. It is a lesson on display at this moment –not in darkened corridors but in broad daylight as January 6 has emerged in some accounts as an ordinary tourist day and America’s racist past is buried by state legislators who can’t stand the truth.
Strongmen and dictators of every stripe understand the central importance of Orwell’s “memory hole.” Tyrants know how to destroy a set of facts and create new ones –the “Big Lie” that demands complete submission. As Mussolini’s Fascist creed put it: “Believe Obey Fight.”
While part of the historian’s work is to recover and restore the true record of what happened, the facts should never be consigned to the memory hole’s furnace in the first place. Replacing truth with “Big Lie” partisan narratives or indoctrination sessions is the devious work of propaganda meant to sway people to “Believe” and “Obey.”
Instead, we must stay vigilant, dedicated to Truth. That, after all, is what sets us free.
© 2021 Copyright Kenneth C. Davis All rights reserved