1776, and all that

“There has to be some kind of accountability, because we cannot have a redemption, we cannot have healing without accountability, without the truth being told, without responsibility being accepted.”

Those were the words of Senator Cory Booker (D-NY) on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show on the evening of January 18th, a federal holiday marking Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. He was talking about the attack on Congress, and the failure of the President and several high profile Republican politicians to take responsibility for their part in inciting the violence on January 6th.

But he could also have been talking about the 1776 Report, published the same day. Conceived as a rebuttal to the 1619 project, the authors of the 1776 report set out to create a definitive conservative historical ‘truth’ of American exceptionalism that could be used in school history curricula instead of those pesky scholarly studies that reveal real problems of slavery and genocide in the American past. There was no expert in American history among the authors of the 1776 report, and historians across the board have dismissed it as propagandist rubbish. Indeed, incoming President Biden has declared he will dissolve the commission on his first day in office.

Also on January 18th, the White House released the names of 244 people who would be cast in stone or bronze in a National Statue Garden, each to be commemorated for their contributions to American society and, by the standard of the 1776 report, contributions to the inevitable march of American progress. The list is most peculiar. It includes Whitney Houston and William F Buckley, Frederick Douglass and George Patton. “The chronicles of our history show that America is a land of heroes,” said the press release. Such heroism conveniently allows us to focus on a narrative of progress: if Sitting Bull is a hero alongside Andrew Jackson, then they must both be good, right? Like the Declaration of Independence in 1776, would these statues also be theoretically sacred, and would it be ‘erasing history’ to destroy them?

In reality, just like the Declaration of Independence, the Statue Garden would provide just a snapshot of the past, open to interpretation and re-interpretation in context for generations to come. It is also, thankfully, unlikely to ever be built.

What is truly striking in these stories is how unusual it is to see this kind of wrangling about the past in mature democracies. We normally associate disputes over what is ‘true’ in history with autocratic states, or with new nations emerging from internal strife. In 2007, Northern Ireland established a Consultative Group on the Past, in an effort to find some kind of usable historical truth that would be accepted by two sides in a still deeply divided post-Troubles society. After the death of Franco, the political left and right in Spain colluded to ignore the history of Francoism so as to move forward without having to reckon with the past: they called this the ‘Pact of Forgetting’.

In contrast, the Germans have a dedicated word to express the process of coming to terms with a difficult and indefensible past: “vergangenheitsbewältigung”. Through careful coordination of public space, museums, statues and other monuments, and encouraging detailed examination of the atrocities of the 20th century, Germans have sought to create an open discussion to reconcile with their past.

The United States is no stranger to historical myth-making. But the inability to engage in good faith with the past, and the reliance instead on fairy tales which obscure the real harms done – and still being done – by slavery and its legacies, indicates real challenges ahead for its democratic norms. There are challenges here in the UK too, where we see a similar wrangling over the legacy of empire and Britain’s central involvement in the slave trade. There is a determination in some quarters (primarily conservative) to produce simplistic jingoistic narratives, and to protect statues rather than protect research into the nuance of the past. We can see this in the recent criticism of the National Trust for ‘erasing history’ through provision of new, detailed research on their properties’ historical links with slavery, and the incomprehensible attack by some newspapers on the Arts Council funded Colonial Countryside project. 

Weaponizing bad-faith inaccurate narratives of the past for political leverage creates further division, now and in the future. It is more useful in a mature democracy to encourage detailed study of history, robust good faith debate based on sources rather than ideological agendas. History is erased through lies, not research and simplistic platitudes that appeal to prejudices. What we need is more, and more detailed, historical research into these difficult questions in our pasts. Accountability, understanding, responsibility: these are the only things that will lead to a robust civic society capable of engaging in a critical and positive way with democracy.

The Spectre of Trump Haunts America

When Joseph R. Biden becomes President of the United States at noon on 20 January, you could forgive him a sense of déjà vu. When he first entered the White House in 2009, then as Vice President in Barack Obama’s incoming administration, he was facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions that would require swift action and a huge stimulus from Congress to resolve. The Republican party had been taken over by a small, ideologically fragile fringe group, which sought to stoke social and political division through lies and misrepresentations. Conspiracy theories abounded.

This time, the Covid pandemic replaces the financial crisis, Trumpists are the new Tea Party, and Q anon and assorted ‘stop the steal’ conspiracists take up from where Birthers began. Same problems, different January. And this time, Biden takes the oath as President instead of VP.

Some other things will be familiar. The ceremony will be outside the Capitol building, as has been the case for most inaugurations since the 1830s. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, will administer the 35-word oath as required by the constitution, swearing in the new President. Biden is expected to use his family Bible for the ceremony, as he follows in John F. Kennedy’s footsteps to become only the second Catholic to occupy the Oval Office. President Biden will give an inauguration speech, but to a small in-person crowd. He will almost certainly echo most of his recent predecessors who sought to use their first remarks in office to reach out to those who did not vote for him, unlike the outgoing President whose inaugural speech conjured up a dystopian image of American carnage, a country “destroyed” by immigration, universal healthcare, anti-racist movements and eight years of progressive Obama policies.

But for the most part, this inauguration will bear little resemblance to any other.

There will be no parade. There will be no inaugural balls in the evening. There won’t even be proper crowds: the National mall will be empty and television and online coverage will provide a proxy. The entire city is on a lockdown, the product of dual concerns over security and the pandemic. And with the exception perhaps of Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration on 4 March 1861 – when seven states had already seceded from the Union and Civil War looked inevitable – it’s difficult to think of a more fraught inaugural ceremony. Now, just as then, Washington DC will resemble a warzone, with tens of thousands of police, military and National Guardsmen patrolling the Capitol and the city, expecting riots, protests and possibly even assassination attempts. Given the reports that some rioters on 6 January may have had plans to assassinate members of Congress, these fears do not seem unreasonable.

Even as Biden takes command of the nuclear codes, the spectre of Trump haunts America.

When he takes office, Biden will inherit a carnage of Trump’s making. Trump’s vice-like grip on the Republican party has only exacerbated the party’s worst failings. As a result of Trump’s routine lying, and the spineless failure of party grandees to stand up to him, and others cynically exploiting unfounded conspiracy theories for their own political gain, confidence in the political system is at an all-time low. Political discourse is broken. Bipartisanship has been destroyed. 147 Republicans in the House voted to block the certification of the election results, in direct contradiction of the clear voice of the electorate which voted in unprecedented numbers for the Biden/Harris ticket. Trump’s part in encouraging a dangerous attack on the Capitol on 6 January left the Democrats in the House little choice but to call for his impeachment. Those impeachment proceedings will distract from Biden’s agenda in his first weeks in office. Although Trump will not be physically present at the handover of power (only the fourth President to refuse to attend the inauguration of his successor), Joe Biden is not yet rid of Donald Trump.

As a student of the 1960s, I can’t help but recall the words of John F. Kennedy, 60 years ago to the day: “United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do–for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.” The line harked back to Lincoln’s “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Any sensible examination of American history reveals that unity as a country has always been difficult to articulate. But rarely has the nation been quite so divided, and rarely have these divisions seemed quite so irreconcilable. There are two large constituencies in the United States, each in its own echo chamber of talk radio, television, social media. It is difficult to see how they can be brought together.

Perhaps he will echo Lincoln’s first inaugural exhortation to friendship between both sides: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” But like Lincoln, I suspect this would fall on deaf ears. Perhaps instead Biden will follow Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural pledge to truth: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.” But truth has been the great casualty of the past four years. Each side has their own truth.

What we do know is that Biden’s theme will be “American Unity”. Whatever he says at his inauguration, he’s going to need a lot of help to achieve that.

Is America better than this?

On Wednesday morning, I woke up to the news that the state of Georgia had elected the Reverend Dr Raphael Warnock to one of the state’s two Senate seats, in a keenly anticipated run-off election after the November ballot failed to produce winners in either of Georgia’s senate races. Warnock’s victory was unprecedented: when he is sworn in, not only will he be the first Black Senator in Georgia’s history, he will also be the first Black Senator representing the Democratic Party in any former Confederate state. He joins Tim Scott (R-NC) as the only two Black men elected to the Senate in the post-Reconstruction South. Joining Cory Booker (D-NJ), they are three Black senators out of a total 100. It’s hard to overstate the significance of Warnock’s election. It’s hard to overstate the historic whiteness of the Senate.

But by Wednesday evening, Warnock’s momentous victory in Georgia was overshadowed by the insurgent attack on the Capitol building by supporters of Donald Trump, the most openly racist President since Wilson, who has teetered on the brink of sedition since he lost to Joe Biden in the November election. One can’t help wonder whether Warnock’s victory pushed his mostly white, conspiracy theory loving, confederate flag bearing base over the edge.

In the aftermath of the riots, president elect Joe Biden delivered remarks from Wilmington to reassure Americans that this was an aberration. “America is so much better than what we’ve seen today”, he said.

Is it though?

One of the other notable things about Raphael Warnock is that he preaches at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King, Jr began his ministry. Biden’s inauguration is scheduled for two days after the federal holiday named after King. When King and his colleagues in the Civil Rights movement marched peacefully against racism, they did not meet with police forces who moved barriers for them. They did not take selfies with local policemen. The were arrested en masse.

On 2 May 1963, in Birmingham Alabama, Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor and his police forces jailed 1,200 men, women and children who took part in peaceful protest. Last August, DC police had no difficulty arresting 41 participants in a Black Lives Matter protest march. You might come to the conclusion that the police know perfectly well how to arrest peaceful Black and Brown people in the street, but seem at a loss when it comes to arresting white far-right insurrectionists attacking the seat of government. So far, Capitol Police have arrested 14 people as a result of the riots at the Capitol. Many more were arrested overnight for breach of curfew; in a city that is majority Black, one can only wonder who they were, and marvel at the injustice that the lives of ordinary DC citizens were disrupted by curfew because of the actions of mostly white, radicalized Trump supporters intent on anti-government activity. The double standard is striking.

The mythology that these white racist radicals are somehow ‘un-American’ is one of the most dangerous stories of the post-Reconstruction era. White racism upended any potential for real healing after the Civil War. White racism created the need for the very Compromise of 1877 that Ted Cruz used as a pretext for opposing certification of the electoral college results, before senators had to leave the chamber because of the incursion. Donald Trump has consistently used racist dog whistles to foment divisions that allowed him to win the presidency.  In using the campaign phrase ‘America First’ and styling himself on Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump has deliberately aligned himself with a vision of America that privileges white experience over all others. The rioters yesterday thought nothing of filming themselves illegally entering and damaging the Capitol building, exposing their identities and giving interviews to the mainstream press. Why? It literally did not occur to them that the police would turn on them. And they were right, for the most part.

On 18 January, many Americans will mark the federal holiday commemorating Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. They will remember King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, and reassure themselves that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. But let’s not forget that in Mississippi and Alabama, the holiday commemorates Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who fought to retain slavery. Because commemorating sedition is as American as apple pie. Trump’s attempt to overturn the election is just the sharp end of generations of voter suppression that were not eliminated by the 15th Amendment, nor by the Voting Rights Act. And the attacks on the Capitol are the natural end point of generations of Know-Nothings, Klansmen, Massive Resistance, Tea Partiers and politicians using race-baiting disguised as ‘law and order’ and vague notions of ‘socialism’ to deliberately sabotage normal political discourse.

When Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th President two days after MLK day, he may well give a speech articulating his own dream of harmony, a desire to shift away from Trump’s American carnage. But this crisis has been years, generations, in the making. Fuelled by systemic racism, economic inequality, an under-resourced public education system and the intentional sabotage of bipartisan politics (mostly by the Republican Party), the United States is dangerously divided. As Abraham Lincoln warned in 1858, “a house divided cannot stand.”

The election of Raphael Warnock will be interpreted as a beacon of hope, and maybe it is — the tireless work of Stacey Abrams and others in Georgia took almost a decade to get to this point. Kamala Harris will perhaps overtake Dick Cheney as the most powerful Vice President in history. But there’s no getting away from the reality that America is not better. It has never come to terms with its past. It is unlikely that the incoming Congress and President will be able to mend these divisions, within a divisive climate encouraged by mainstream and social medias. The only salve will be a wholesale change of political culture.