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.

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