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History and Contemporary American Politics

A few months ago, CNN’s Jim Acosta challenged Stephen Miller of the Trump administration on new immigration restrictions by claiming that the restrictions “were not in line with American tradition.” Acosta recited the famous line of the poem “New Colossus” engraved on the Statue of Liberty which famously says “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breath free”. Miller retorted what can only be called a “fake history” of the Statue of Liberty, offering up an inaccurate lesson by putting forward a fact in a misleading way, stating that the poem was added to the statue years after it was initially was constructed, thus implying that the statue’s original meaning was distorted and misrepresented. He neglected to acknowledge that it was this poem, and the attached symbolism that came with it, that transformed the Statue of Liberty into a symbolic welcoming post for the “wretched refuse”, which has made it an American and world icon for over the past century.

Miller then explicitly attempted to vaguely redefine the meaning of the Statue of Liberty, claiming that it was a “symbol of American liberty lighting the world.” Even when measured by the standards set by the Trump administration in producing and controlling its own information, it was audacious to refuse to acknowledge the world landmark’s historical attachment to immigration. General Kelly has followed this up in recent weeks by seeking to redefine the meaning of the Civil War to cater to the Trump support base.

Then again, the Trump administration has sought to control narratives, including historical ones, from the beginning of his presidential campaign. It has manufactured a nostalgia for a non-existent, isolationist golden age of American history where immigrant labor-power was apparently unnecessary, and the country was able to grow from entirely within without exerting any imperial strength anywhere else in the world. Likewise, Trump has rewritten his own personal narrative as his own interpretation of the “American dream”. According to his self-made narrative, he is a self-made billionaire, which has all to do with his street smarts and business acumen acquired in New York, and little to do with his father’s financial backing.

Using history to establish legitimacy is, of course, not the preserve of one specific party or regime, but is omnipresent across politics universally. History is one of the most potent and evocative tools in both bringing people together and dividing them; it is used as a weapon to both assemble nation-states and to destroy them in civil wars.

The abuse and misuse of history by public figures is particularly troubling these days, as the academic field of history has seemingly retreated further and further into the ‘ivory tower’ decade by decade. The lack of historians in the public eye means that “bad history”, often loaded with dangerous and ideological motives, is increasingly disseminated through more and more mediums to more and more people without adequate and diligent research. The response from the academic world is inaudible in the ocean of mass media.

One of the most compelling reasons to study history as a subject is that it enables us to understand how society functions today and what brought us to this point. From this, it follows that historians indeed do have insights which could prove helpful in policy-making and the broader functioning of society.

For example, most historians at a high level can roughly agree on the fact that nationalism is a modern and divisive phenomenon that is at least partly responsible for more deaths than any other motive within the past three centuries. Another point from the historian’s eye relevant to today’s world is that the various immigration crises which plague the modern world are directly traceable to European and American imperial influences in Africa, Asia, and South America. It is clear from these issues alone that if historians had more of an influence on wider society, it would make us all more aware of the perils of the hyper-chauvinistic racially-based nationalisms which are gathering steam across the Western world. It would probably make society as a whole more sympathetic to the refugee crisis, if it was clearly demonstrated to us that our country’s foreign policy over the past few centuries has played a large role in making immigration necessary.

Instead, historians get little airtime through popular sources, and so our public understanding of history is largely derived from politicians, the media, and school curriculum – all mediums with ulterior motives to tell certain types of histories. (Part of this lack of airtime is our own fault as historians, as we often write in ways almost indecipherable outside of the ivory tower of academia.) Politicians, as demonstrated above, manipulate or invent historical narratives outright to suit their own ends. Media attempts to tell stories of the past can often result in entertaining and neatly-packaged yarns which over-simplify historical issues and transform historical figures into story characters.

We all learn history as a compulsory subject in school, but what is included and excluded in textbooks is tragically and scandalously determined and influenced by legislators on a state-by-state basis. While many states have improved their curriculum over the past few years to make them more balanced more pluralist and to feature more about the histories of racial minorities, women, and labor, feel-good ‘master’ narratives in the end are fed to students, praising the ideals of the founding fathers and portraying the United States as a country with a linear march going only forward, with only minor historical setbacks.

Historians certainly need to become more active in the public eye for the enhancement of society, but this is not to suggest that they should or could control how society perceives history. History is everywhere. It affects our senses of self, our identities in relation to our own communities and associations, and our relations to all other humans on the planet. We must critically examine and analyze all the historical narratives and ideas which are ribbon-tied and handed to us. History is something which needs to be afforded ample time in both the public and private spheres in order to make sense of our own beings as well as the ones of those all around us.

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