President Donald J. Trump is a huge fan of the past, largely because he doesn’t understand it.
He fails to differentiate between the historical past – which is always with us to enlighten, inspire and, at times, to warn (those who do not remember the past are doomed, etc.) – and the social past of deathless grievances, like Trump’s feud with Rosie O’Donnell, which is deader than Jacob Marley.
We live with the past, not in it, and study its narrative, which is history itself. The study of history provides you with context and context drives perception. The greater, the wider the context, the deeper the perception.
But as President George W. Bush once noted astutely, Americans are not much for looking in the rearview mirror. To which we might add, Trump even less. And so we find ourselves at the intersection of ignorance and arrogance in the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy, in which a white supremacist rally against the city’s plan to remove a Confederate memorial led directly to one death and 19 injuries and indirectly to the deaths of two state troopers.
Trump has said since Saturday that the tragedy was a result of wrong on many sides, but this is a false equivalency. As I’ve written before, bigotry against bigotry is not bigotry. Hatred of hatred is not hatred. The denunciation of evil is not evil. What if ordinary German citizens had stood up to the Nazis as they carried out a systemic attack against the Jews on Kristallnacht on Nov. 8 and 9, 1938? More to the point, what if the Allies failed to stand up to the Axis Powers? History might’ve been very different.
You don’t let violent prejudice fester. You stand up to it and nip it in the bud. By creating a false equivalency, Trump has emboldened the white nationalists who have always been an undercurrent in this country. The difference is that past presidents have been above the underbelly. Now the presidency is one with it.
Trump created another false equivalency when he suggested that statues of the slaveholding Founding Fathers would be next. But then, exaggeration is always the refuge of the politically incorrect. The Founding Fathers, however imperfect, were – as the name implies – busy founding a nation. The “Con federates” – against the federal union – were busy trying to destroy it. And, as every Little Leaguer knows, only the winner gets to keep and display the souvenirs of the experience.
The Confederate monuments that dot the South were not erected in the aftermath of the Civil War when money was nonexistent and the desire to forget great. They were erected in the 1890s post-Reconstruction and in the 1950s during the incipient Civil Rights Movement as a way to intimidate blacks. (They were often funded by Confederate widows, daughters and granddaughters, who had derived their power and status from their menfolk.)
So these are not innocent artworks. But they needn’t be destroyed. Instead they should be preserved in a museum where they would not be celebrated but rather explored in a thoughtful curated collection that would tell their story and explain how we came to this moment.
As for the rest, I think the words of Jesus apply: “Let the dead bury the dead.”