By Jonathan S. Tobin | JNS
Angry mobs of activists are roaming American streets pulling down or defacing statues of historical figures. In some cases, governments and private institutions are joining their efforts by agreeing to take down examples of public art that reflect worldviews that are either now considered offensive or long gone out of fashion. Some are doing so because they’ve been intimidated by the 21st-century Jacobins who march under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement. Others are acting out of genuine conviction that they must join in the purging of the public square in order to virtue signal their abhorrence for racism.
The assumption on the part of many of those watching this spectacle with horror is that those involved simply don’t know or appreciate history. But this isn’t entirely true. While most Americans’ grasp of their nation’s past is shaky, what is going on isn’t so much the triumph of ignorance as it is that of revisionism. In this respect, the struggle in Israel over the efforts of the “new historians” to embrace the Palestinian nakba (“catastrophe”) narrative yields some insight on the attacks on America’s conception of itself as a nation conceived in a struggle for liberty.
When Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” was first published in 1980, his attempt to tell the story of America as an unending series of atrocities against people of color and the poor was cheered by many intellectuals. Yet it was also roundly denounced as being a cartoonish version of history that was the moral equivalent of early traditional efforts to depict America’s founders as flawless humans, such as Parson Mason Weems’ vastly influential 1800 book, “The Life of Washington.” Weems’ hagiography, which invented the myth about the first president and the cherry tree, largely set the tone for the works of others who helped inspire Americans to think of their nation as a uniquely inspired experiment in democracy.
By contrast, Zinn’s America was as consistently villainous as Weems’s Washington was virtuous. Despite the simplistic and often misleading nature of his writing, Zinn’s influence has grown over the decades with many schools now using it — or other works inspired by this book — to teach American history.
Lost in the revolutionary zeal of the protesters to erase all vestiges of the country’s past that do not pass muster by our current standards of morality is all sense of nuance about the complicated nature of American history.
The dynamic of such revolutionary moments is that once you start toppling statues, nothing is safe. Along with the Confederates, stalwarts of the Union like Ulysses Grant are also now being overthrown. The same fate is befalling images of Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and anyone else who can be linked to slavery or mistreatment of native peoples, like Christopher Columbus and even Theodore Roosevelt. The great good that many of them did is now deemed irrelevant in light of the new radical catechism about
Slaveholders perpetuated a great evil. Those associated with the Confederacy were also guilty of treason. And the belief of most Americans in the century that followed in the country’s “manifest destiny” involved notions of white European superiority over Native Americans and others.
Yet this willingness to rethink America as a nation born in sin and continuing, despite much evidence to the contrary, to be as racist as it was in the past requires us to forget that the arc of the nation has actually been primarily one of a continuous expansion of liberty.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin