Nicholas Goldberg: Statues of Jefferson are coming down in the US; statues of Stalin are going up in Russia
The point is this: History is fraught, everywhere.
Americans are again battling over history.
Is the year 1619 as important as 1776? Shall we tear down statues of Robert E. Lee — or go further and topple Thomas Jefferson too? Is the left telling a “twisted web of lies” (as President Trump put it) about America’s “magnificent” history, or was the U.S. indeed built on a rotten foundation of genocide, disenfranchisement, bigotry and oppression?
Angry debates have spread from social media to school board meetings to state capitols to the White House, as Americans haggle over who we really are and the past that formed us.
But let’s not be myopic. The United States is not alone in this. History is being rethought, reinterpreted, relitigated — and, all too often, cynically manipulated — around the world.
Just this month, Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader, wrote himself into that country’s history books on a par with the 20th century giants Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The Chinese Communist Party’s newest official history devotes more than a quarter of its 500-plus pages to Xi’s nine years in office, according to the New York Times, and a recent party “resolution” dictates how he will be portrayed in textbooks, classrooms, movies and TV shows.
In Israel, historians are pressing the government to release documents about a massacre of civilian Palestinians in the village of Deir Yassin during the creation of the state in 1948. Historians want the documents as they study the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the government is stonewalling to protect the country’s image.
Meanwhile, a shocking 56% of Russians said in May that the monstrous, murderous dictator Joseph Stalin was, in fact, a “great leader.” Stalin’s rapidly rising favorability reflects nostalgia for a dimly remembered Soviet past and pride in Russia’s victory over fascism in World War II, but it is also the result of an effort by President Vladimir Putin to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation for his own political purposes. Statues to Stalin were dismantled in previous generations but are now being re-erected in some cities.
The point is this: History is fraught, everywhere.
That’s because it is more than just a collection of old harmless stories; it’s actually about national identity, about how nations and citizens define themselves. Where do we come from? What do we stand for? Who are our heroes, and who are our villains?
For the most part, it’s good to debate history. People should know their past and engage with it. It’s healthy to reconsider it every generation or so through the lens of an evolving present and newly uncovered facts.
But history can also be manipulated — for power, for ideology, for votes, for factional advantage or simply to justify one policy or another. That’s what Xi and Putin appear to be doing. The past can be used to stoke enmity or a sense of injustice and grievance. That happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. It happens today in China, where the Communist Party has long emphasized the so-called “century of humiliation” by outside powers, beginning with Britain and the Opium Wars in 1839.
Trump, too, was a deft manipulator of historical narratives. As president, he began an overwrought campaign against the New York Times’ “1619 Project” (which has received some pushback from historians on issues of accuracy and interpretation) and established his own “1776 Commission” to encourage “patriotic history” about our “magnificent” country.
That wasn’t a serious proposal. It was politics and marketing that played conveniently into his “Make America Great Again” propaganda, riling up disaffected voters.
The reality is that history — whether at home or abroad — is rarely black and white, as Trump and other political leaders might have you believe. Countries aren’t good, evil or “magnificent,” but complicated.
What’s more, history is full of contradictions. Stalin was an egregious mass murderer, but he was also our wartime ally who sat beside Churchill and Roosevelt as they worked to defeat the Nazis.
Jefferson was the chief author of the Declaration of Independence, but he also owned more than 600 slaves. (The New York City Council recently voted unanimously to remove a statue of him from their City Hall.)
Israel created a refuge for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust in Europe, yet its establishment also began a new odyssey of displacement, dispossession and conflict.
Real historians need to labor in that murky nuance, wrestling with that cognitive dissonance.
To fight false narratives, they need to be intellectually honest, not polemicists or partisans or propagandists.
As we rethink our history periodically, we need to view it from a range of perspectives and in all its ugly accuracy, without whitewashing. To do otherwise is self-defeating, because we study the past in part to learn from our mistakes.
Inevitably, there will be clashing interpretations. Here at home, some historians portray U.S. history as an uplifting story of the slow but steady expansion of rights and liberties to more and more Americans, while others emphasize the mistreatment of Indigenous people, the horrors of slavery, the denial of rights to immigrants and people of color.
The study of history is fuller and richer because of these competing points of view.
As the British historian Christopher Hill said: “History has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past doesn’t change, the present does; each generation asks new questions of the past and finds new areas of sympathy as it re-lives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors.”
That’s a positive process as long as the rewriting — wherever in the world it takes place — adheres to basic standards of honest scholarship, rather than power politics and gamesmanship.
Nicholas Goldberg is an associate editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.