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The Year History Died

We lost our hold on history when we declared it had ended

“Thus, the past is the fiction of the present.”

–Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History


What is the meaning of history today? What idea of history is supposed to come to our minds when we hear its name invoked day after day? After all, Donald Trump’s political rise has been fueled from the beginning by the promise of a return of history, or a return to history. Moreover, whether in an attempt to sing their own praises or excuse themselves from blame, President Trump and his disciples have repeatedly (and often falsely) appealed to the “historic” weight, size, and significance of his election victory, of his inauguration and the crowd it drew, of his trips to Europe, of his trips to Asia, of the GOP tax bill, of his defense spending, of his dismantling of national monuments, of the natural disasters that have occurred during his time in office, etc.

Liberal pop culture has likewise developed something of an obsession with “historic” moments, markers, and achievements. Leftists, too, are doing battle among themselves over their own historical legacies as they continue forging a politics that seeks to address injustices done to the “historically oppressed.” At the same time, white supremacist and proto-fascist groups are growing bolder by the day, marching to the beat of their own blood-soaked appeals to a “proud” history they refuse to let die. Rising from the boiling broth, every week brings renewed battles over the very idea of history as it exists in personal experiences, monuments, classrooms, building names, stories, textbooks, prophecies, awards, etc.

Everyone is seemingly obsessed with history and also completely incapable of agreeing on what it means.

One could say that these are the consequences of an age in which history itself no longer seems to mean anything. Or perhaps the opposite is true—perhaps our problem is that history means too much. It’s clear, in either event, that we’re living through a curiously counter-historical era—one in which everyone is seemingly obsessed with history and also completely incapable of agreeing on what it means. This, I believe, is the central feature of our political moment: the accelerated death of any semblance of a commonly accepted (or tolerated) idea of history, and the resulting, increasingly ruthless war among competing visions of what history is, what it should look like, what purposes it must serve, what bearing it will have on the present, and what place any of us will have in it.

To be clear: this is not to say we’re experiencing (or re-experiencing, as the case may be) the much-ballyhooed “end of history.” In that distant, pregnant moment immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union, “free-market” liberal democracy had seemingly secured its place as the pinnacle of historical development, the “final form of human government,” as Francis Fukuyama confidently declared. Though that’s not to say this prematurely announced Hegelian victory has no bearing on what I’m describing. In fact, I’d argue that history’s relatively rapid death has been due, in large part, to the many and repeated manifestations of our deeply ingrained belief that, for decades, we have been sitting proudly at its summit.

Even if we never willfully bought into the idea itself, life in twenty-first-century America has largely suffered from the peculiar affliction of operating as if history itself was over—as if the endpoint was never in question, as if the continued dominance, let alone the very survival, of our interlocking arrangements of life and commerce and governance were never in doubt (at home or abroad). This affliction has much to recommend it. Its chief symptom, after all, is comfort: the comfort that allows us to remain blissfully ignorant of all the unlovely ways in which the American empire continues to operate as a motive force in the perpetual unfolding of history; also the comfort in the blind, imperial hubris of our now taken-for-granted role as a tirelessly interventionist superpower. However, taking such premature and unmerited comfort in the assured “end of history” is precisely what left so many of us oblivious to history’s continued work—oblivious, if not to the wars being waged at home on the world we took for granted, then to the legitimate threats posed by the insurgent forces behind them, from the Kochs and ALEC to Trump and the alt-right. This past year should have left no doubt in our minds about the latter.  

Victors’ Tales

As much as it is a type of memory, history is a form of authority. The ultimate difference between “history” and “the past,” after all, is that the former always imposes itself on the latter. The past is always in the past—the past always was—but history can only be insofar as it can recover and represent the past through stories. And stories are never neutral. Even if it does so with the utmost respect and gentleness, history can never be entirely neutral or wholly inclusive in its recuperation of the past through stories. Stories always need authors, and authorship is always, inescapably a condition of authority.

The very act of narrating the past, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminds us, involves often subtle but unavoidable operations of power. To fit into a narrative that can be understood, available information must always be interpreted and ordered to “make sense”; choices must inevitably be made about what to include, how to present it, and what to leave out; questions of causality must be explained with hypotheses; etc. “Something is always left out while something else is recorded,” Trouillot writes. So, naturally, it matters who is doing the recording and how. The reasons for narrating the past, together with the sanctioned ways of turning the past into capital-H History have varied widely across cultures and time periods. But history itself is always a battle over how history itself is told—a battle to claim the right, the authority, to “author” the past.

History itself is always a battle over how history itself is told.

With such authority comes the power to set the acceptable standards for what history should look like, how it should function, and so on. At least since the end of the Cold War, the national popular consensus of neoliberalism (refreshed regularly by politicos, media pundits, pop culture, etc.) had seemingly settled on a core collection of shared assumptions about these concerns. Of course, this is not to suggest that all historiographical debates were magically settled (quite the opposite, in fact). But there was a certain continuity, an apparent shared consensus regarding the most basic historiographical demands ranging from who got to speak “with authority” about history and which (real or imagined) audiences they were expected to engage in suitably deferential fashion. Today, three decades after that confident moment of democratic reckoning, there is nothing shared about our standards and assumptions about history.

Not Even Past

We are living in an in-between period, an interregnum, in which history has lost all semblance of agreed-upon authority. Far from serving as a reassuring arbiter of social goods and larger political goals, the past today is a battlefront in a metastasizing war of all against all. The combatants are familiar enough to anyone glancing across a newspaper’s front page or a battery of cable chyrons: politicians, citizens, pundits, institutions, extremist groups, media outlets, social-media feeds—all are frantically jockeying to redefine and rezone the acceptable sources of historical authority as an essential step in their own parochial quest for political, cultural, and economic domination. This entails, among other things, directing their most vicious efforts at discrediting, destroying, or elbowing out traditionally accepted sources, practices, and standards.

It would be shallow to argue that such a state is the direct result of a twenty-first-century ecosystem dominated by the same digital media that have fried our attention spans, flattened our long-term historical memories, and provided a haven for fake and algorithmically filtered news, “alternative facts,” splintered publics, echo chambers, and so on. That is, an ecosystem that has provided many of the very conditions that have aided and emboldened these simultaneous assaults on history as we understand it. But it is absolutely true that history would not be in its current state without these things. Explaining how these and other socio-historical factors have directly or indirectly set the stage for the “death” of history is a much larger task. The real issue right now is the end result. When history has been unmoored from the sanctified markers and standards that anchor its authority, when accepted discourses and institutions are being viciously discredited, when individual and collective memories have been so dangerously flattened by the pace of the digital content stream, the result is a history up for grabs and a free-for-all battle of competing historical visions that operates, not by persuasion or compromise or consensus, but only by the singular principle of blunt force.

One presumes it won’t be this way forever, though. What is playing out as we speak is a battle over who gets to wield history’s power and how. And if we continue to play by the assumption that history has “ended,” that the result is already somehow guaranteed to be in our favor, we will lose.

The End of the End of History

As a historian, watching the news these days feels a lot like standing on the walls of Troy after Achilles slew Hector, looking down forlornly as the thing I love is defiled and dragged mercilessly through the dirt. It feels that way every time President Trump burps out proof that he knows next to nothing about the Civil War, or when he confidently implies that Frederick Douglass is still alive, or when he proudly shows the world he doesn’t know the basic history between China and Korea, or when he and his cabinet pathologically lie about just about anything in the recent past. It feels that way every time I’m reminded that Dinesh D’Souza crawled back out of the swamp and published a bestselling work of revisionist claptrap this summer claiming to expose “the Nazi roots of the American left”—and that this same person also coached the Trump administration on how to defend white supremacists and vilify the left. It feels that way every time the mainstream opens itself up to renewed and proud defenses of colonialism, monarchy, robber-baron capitalism, and myriad other skeletons in Western civilization’s dark, cavernous closet. History as we know it is being repeatedly brutalized before our eyes, and it seems like there’s little we can do to stop it.

As we confront, over and over again, the profound wrongness and stupidity of the Trumpian right’s grasp on history, the typical liberal-left response is to roll our eyes, to point and laugh, to maybe even express disgust and disbelief while still taking comfort in knowing what we know. But in the process of this no-doubt necessary cleansing of the lymphatic system, something else oozes out: the viscous trace of some elementary conceit at the core of how we’ve come to understand the world. It’s the kind of conceit about history and one’s place in it that has traditionally been reserved for those who enjoyed the greatest power and privilege of their day—up until, or just before, they lost it.

What is playing out as we speak is a battle over who gets to wield history’s power, and if we continue to play by the assumption that history has “ended,” we will lose.

I’m not interested in rehearsing another finger-wagging sermon about people being unduly “smug” or “elitist” about their historical knowledge. Nor do I plan to launch some relativist screed proposing that we are all somehow equally guilty of playing just as fast and just as loose with history as Trump and his ilk are. My real concern is that we will be either powerless or too late in confronting the horror of our historical moment if we do not seriously reckon with the peculiar conceit that has shaped our idea of history itself. Such a conceit is premised on faith in a history whose authority is tied to the standards and practices that have been secured by the very technocratic powers (from government to academia and the media) that are now under direct attack. It is premised on the normalized belief that the way we see history will always be the norm, that the world will continue to reflect back to us a history we recognize. At bottom, this enabling conceit suggests we actually take far less comfort in knowing the truth about history than we do in presuming that we are the living, rightful subjects of a truth that will always be secured and validated by history. If there is anything that can be taken as an enduring truth of history, it’s that such conceits always eventually come to an end.

In calling out the historical ignorance of Trump and his disciples, our impulse is to overreach. The problem isn’t that they’re wrong and we can usually prove it with facts, references, links, and arguments. The problem is that, in seeking to demonstrate the fanciful and malicious historical fictions of our not-so-loyal opposition, we unknowingly become dependent on this idealized notion of history as some vast, unmoving, and rigorously vetted archive of verifiable truth—and we assume the position of the qualified knowers of this truth. In our rush to confront the stupidity of others, we can end up boiling complex historical questions down to the matter of being right vs. being wrong, being smart vs. being ignorant, because on the surface, the dispute in question really is that painfully simple. But we are also overlooking the one essential truth about history that we absolutely cannot afford to: History is not about “correctly” remembering the past; it’s about the power to determine what gets remembered, and how.

The conceit of a fixed and undeviating history shares in the same disastrously blind overconfidence that fueled the bullet-train ride to our current mess: the confidence that there is just some objective, definitive body of historical knowledge that others are too ideologically warped to see or accept. It is of a piece with the liberal fetishization of “statistics” or “science” as authoritative instruments of inarguable knowledge we can deploy in order to effectively banish the vicious anti-knowledge of dangerous idiots, even when we don’t fully grasp them ourselves. Within this charmed circle of empirical privilege, it doesn’t really matter all that much whether our assertions are right. The real issue is our undying, technocratic faith in the rightness and permanence of the very things whose rightness and permanence depend on the power we are currently losing.

The Politics of Time

Our typical responses to history when it happens generally prove that we have no idea how history works. This is more observation—and admission—than judgment. A lot of it just has to do with the ways we’re wired. Getting by doesn’t really require that we try “to see the forest from the trees,” or to assiduously ponder our places or roles in history; on the contrary, it discourages it. We aren’t really programed to feel that history is somehow on the line in our day-to-day lives. From elementary school on up, we’re given a pretty boilerplate idea of what history is, when and where it “happens,” and who or what “makes” it. And it’s not this, not here, not now, not me.

But this, too, is an essential ingredient in the making of history: a critical mass of passive life that can adjust to it, absorb it, embody it, make it move, and make it stick. Here I don’t mean “passive” in any sort of condescending or derogatory way. It is more or less a name for the general condition of living in the world together. Again, we are encouraged and often need to operate with very little active or sustained concern for capital-H History. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t still and always participating in it. Indeed, one of the most crucial features of our participation in history has been our notorious inability to apprehend the high-stakes battle over history’s world-making power until it’s too late. For all the whiggish certainty that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, the real problem would seem to be that the populations who disregard history are condemned to be eaten by it.

Many Americans, I think, are currently experiencing for the first time what so many peoples on history’s stage have experienced in the past, even by America’s own hand: the imminent threat of erasure. Like the Maya who watched much of their culture disappear into the vacuum of historical loss, like the millions and millions of other indigenous people who once populated this continent, like the countless slaves who, in building this country, were denied the right to be historically legible as anything else, many today are facing for the first time the reality that their stories are not guaranteed a place in the future. The bone-warping dread and anger and refusal that comes with facing such a reality has been, at times, enough for groups and individuals to storm the castle of history themselves and rewrite the world as we know it.

We would be wrong, though, to assume that these groups and individuals are always, to put it crassly, “the good guys.” No one who was ever erased by history saw themselves as the hero, or the villain, at the time. Determining who the villains of history are is one of the great spoils of historical conflict; heroes are designated after the fact by those who get to tell the story. “[T]he past is the fiction of the present.” We know this. It is also a grim fact that the Trump-led right and its many radical fiefdoms had long seen themselves as the ones under threat of historical erasure (a point that their opposition did not deny). That is, of course, until they got power.

Now it’s our turn to fear the abyss. Now it’s our turn to fight against oblivion. The frightening truth, however, is that for too long, too many of us have continued to operate on the same privileged belief that the supports holding up our given idea of history will not collapse—the same, shibboleth, in other words, that has sheltered us from ever having to consider what it would be like to face the kind of threat we’re now facing. Too many have failed to acknowledge that the Trumpian political mission is determined, not just to secure a place in history, but to dictate what history will be moving forward. Because such a prospect has never encroached on our privileged ability to expect that history would always have a favorable place for us (or any place at all), we seem to be utterly incapable of recognizing it for what it is. And time is running out.