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.”