Cherishing History or Cherishing the Past?

Several days ago, during his non-condemnation of white nationalists, President Trump said that “We must love each other, respect each other and cherish our history and our future together.” This line got buried beneath a lot of anger toward his suggestion that there was blame “on many sides.” Nevertheless, plenty of commentators have recognized that Trump’s call to “cherish our history” was a dog whistle to white nationalists. This has become clear from his subsequent comments. 

This is one of those times that it’s useful to get really pedantic and distinguish between “history” and “the past.” Simply put, the past is what happened. But history is the systematic study of the past based on evidence. History helps us to set the past into context, to understand why and how the past unfolded as it did, and the understand the relationship between the past and the present. It shows that Robert E. Lee himself existed in a time and place that was distinct from Washington and Jefferson in important ways. More to the point, it shows that memorializations to these individuals and to the Confederacy also emerged from specific contexts and motivations. In particular, we know that most Confederate monuments were built in the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras (see this animation) as an attempt to bolster white supremacy rather than to honor southern heritage. 

Yesterday, Trump said that by taking the statues down, “You're changing history.” But Confederate monuments are not history. They do not offer an interpretation of the past based on evidence. For the most part, they were never intended to offer a real interpretation of the past—merely a celebration of a particular version of the past. Tearing down these monuments is not a threat to history. Burning books, defunding museums and archives, or as Trump has proposed, eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities—those would be threats to history. If we want to “cherish our history,” we should defend those things, not Confederate monuments. Of course, Trump won’t support those things because evidence-based inquiry generally does not support his view of the world.

But if Confederate monuments are not history, then what are they? They’re relics. They are products of the past. They belong in a historical repository or maybe in a museum where they can be thoughtfully interpreted and set in proper context. They do not belong in spaces of veneration. As a society, we don’t get to choose our past, but we do get to choose what parts of the past we celebrate. Placing these monuments in privileged spaces does not honor American “history”—it honors some of the most twisted and disgusting parts of America’s past. 

When Trump says he wants us to “cherish our history,” which sounds fairly anodyne to most people, we must not fall for his trap of conflating history with the past. What he’s really saying is that he wants us to cherish our past—a period of imperialism, a time when people of color lived in terror, and when women were relegated to the margins of society, when America was imperialistic. This was always the meaning of the “Again” in “Make America Great Again.”

Refusing Empathy

Shortly after the election I got into a debate with a friend. The fight wasn’t about our votes or our policy preferences (this particular friend and I tend to land in similar places on the political spectrum). Instead, it was about empathy: specifically, my apparent lack of empathy for the evangelical Christians who supported border walls, Muslim bans, more deportations, and an end to police reform. I was focused on protests and resistance, but my friend thought that I was going to become an extremist myself if I refused to take the fears and concerns of the opposition seriously.

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Driving Spokes into Wheels of War

The tagline of One Spoke is taken from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “We are not to simply bandage the wound of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” In other words: don’t be content with soothing the signs of suffering; disrupt the causes of suffering.

In my paraphrase of Bonhoeffer, I could have used the word “attack” to describe the action of driving a spoke: attack the causes of suffering. If I had, I would be echoing the kind of rhetoric used to justify recent airstrikes against military bases in Syria, as well as a seemingly endless stream of drone strikes and military operations conducted in the Middle East for decades. Rather than care for refugees, we are going to bomb targets. And the result, we are told, will be less suffering.

But how would people of faith respond to such a gloss?

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Black Testimony and White Supremacy

Shortly after the November election, a wave of hate crimes swept across the United States. Invigorated by the Trump campaign’s racist rhetoric, a number of white people engaged in a campaign of violence and terror against people of color. A number of tweets about these incidents were collected by Shaun King as they happened. They make for harrowing reading. This was a scary time for people of color in the United States.Social media became a crucial means for victims of this aggression to document and circulate it. But it also quickly became a space of conflict.

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Immigration 101: What it's like to immigrate to the US, part 3

See, I too was surprised by the complexity, difficulty, length, and expense of the legal immigration process. After witnessing the process up-close, however, I came to realize just how many elements of privilege and luck had to be in place to allow my husband to immigrate. For example, if his situation had been exactly the same, but my family had been from a lower economic rung, or even if my dad had been self-employed, things would have been much more complicated for us, and we might not be living in the US today. Many people are barred from this process from the start. It's not that they're unwilling to "wait in line" for their turn to legally immigrate; it's that the line doesn't even exist.

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Immigration and the Unbearable Whiteness of History-ing

Finally. I’m popular.

Like many people who end up in graduate school studying history, high school was rough for me. Even today I’m not usually the life of any parties. But over the past four months, history has been hot. It’s gratifying. When I explain that I study American history to a stranger, they’re more prone to ask follow-up questions than (as I suspect) mentally compose their grocery list for a polite length of time before excusing themselves. People seem to be recognizing the urgency of understanding the past in order to understand this crazy present we’re all grappling with. Call it an opportunity. Call it a search for answers in an age of uncertainty. Call it the “Trump effect.” Whatever you call it, for once, I feel like the belle of the ball. But like most young ingénues in teen movies, I face a challenge: how do I keep the attention of the popular kids without compromising something important about myself?

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Immigration 101: What it's like to immigrate to the US, part 2

In my last post, I talked about all the ways to immigrate to the United States, besides having a family member sponsor you. In today’s post, I’m going to share what it was like to obtain residency (AKA a green card) for my husband after our marriage. If I could subtitle this blog post with a noise, it would be the bitter laugh I gave in response to people who asked, “So, now that you’re married, your husband gets a green card, right?” Sure, if by “gets” you mean “embarks on a 2.5 year process, pays over $2000 in fees, and submits piles of paperwork for the chance to apply for a green card” then yes, our marriage did mean that he got one.

Let’s start from the very beginning...

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Living Beyond Fear: Parenting, Risk, and Immigration

Fear is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” It’s a primal response—one of four foundational emotions in the human spectrum—and an instinctual reaction to the charging bear, the sudden sea of brake lights, the mysterious phone call from the doctor’s office. These base emotions biologically overwhelm our heart rhythms, clam up our hands, and tunnel our vision. They also help rewrite our laws and overwhelm our politics, despite consistently reasonable evidence that might suggest alternate solutions.

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Immigration 101: What it's like to immigrate to the US, part 1

Milk in Spain is sold in shelf-stable cartons. I had been warned that Spaniards thought American fondness for a cold glass of milk was strange, so I gamely purchased a box of milk my first week living in Spain and brought the room-temperature liquid home to my apartment. I needed to adapt to Spanish culture, I told myself, as I poured the white stuff in my cereal and in my coffee, finding it more and more distasteful. One day, however, after watching my roommates fix a bowl of cereal, I realized my information about Spanish milk was incomplete: once the box is opened, it does, in fact, need to be refrigerated. How I didn’t get violently ill after drinking milk that had been left outside for days is a mystery to me.

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Why I Resist: Being Here for the Vulnerable

In my sixth grade social studies class, we spent half the year on two historical events: the Holocaust and the American Civil Rights movement. Now, both of these periods stand out to us as moments of sparkling moral clarity, when the actions of a few, brave, ethical resisters shine out like beacons of goodness in a sea of incontrovertibly evil actions. But my teacher, Ms. McConnell, took a different tack. She pointed our attention to the sidelines, where nice people served their families dinner or rode the bus to work while their neighbors were being arrested, beaten, lynched, or sent to camps, and asked us to take seriously some very difficult questions: how do good people end up letting atrocities happen? What do we have to do to avoid being among them?

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How to Have a Conversation: Collaborative Nuancing

Ever since I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s piece in the New Yorker, I have been trying to answer the call that she presents so movingly and forcefully in this essay. As someone who has often bristled at euphemisms (even as a kid they made me feel uncomfortable), I am immediately sympathetic to her argument that we should stop using political euphemisms like “alt-right” and “climate contrarian” because they obscure what these people are actually doing and saying. Especially since I study literature and teach writing, I recognize the power of language to shape people’s actions and thoughts. So her point is well taken: if we care about truth (not to mention justice), we should testify to this truth by using words that reflect the ugliness of reality. So I want to heed her command to “talk about what we are actually talking about.” But I am not sure how to talk about what we are actually talking about.

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How to Have a Conversation: Empathy

I’m upset about a lot of things in our current state of affairs. And it’s easy to feel justified for having the feelings I do. I have the Bible to back me up in my support of the most vulnerable in our society and an education that allows me to read critically, research, and synthesize information. It’s easy to enjoy my place on the moral high ground. I tell myself that I am justified in my anger...

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How to Have a Conversation: When you're a little afraid you're living in the end times

And it struck me that La Barre and Uebbing are basically giving the same message, but in two extremely different contexts: They are both saying, “Everything is normal. We’ve seen this before. There’s no need for alarm.” La Barre, we now know, was completely wrong in his assessment of the situation. At the moment, we have no way of knowing if Jenny is wrong too.

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Barriers to Conversation: Certainty

When I talk politics with friends and family members who disagree with me, I just want to change their minds. My ideal conversation would go something like this: after they describe their point of view, I articulate my opinion, leading them down a road of epiphanies that ends with them relating to the world in a whole new way and singing songs of my genius that will be passed down for generations.

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How to Have a Conversation: The Limits of Unity

In the wake of a long, rancorous election cycle, I can understand why a lot of my friends and family hoped that November 8 would mean an end to painful division. In the months that have followed, I’ve seen many people grow exasperated with the continued anger and protest of those opposed to the Trump agenda. I’ve seen many of them grow exasperated with my continued protest and anger. “It’s over,” I hear them say, “can’t we all just come together and unify behind our president?” So what’s wrong with calls for unity and peace? The question, perhaps, is what kind of unity and peace we are hoping for...

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