History at the Barricades
History has always been a mixture of fact and value, and the interpretation of the past has never stopped shifting in line with current preoccupations. But what the West’s history-fueled culture war reflects most dramatically is the ongoing power shift from Western to non-Western civilizations.
LONDON – Donald Trump demonstrated his almost non-existent understanding of history throughout his presidency, and yet he managed to turn “History” into the central battleground in today’s culture wars. One of his final acts as president was to release a study of America’s founding which the head of the American Historical Association described as weaving “a narrative and an argument that few respectable professional historians, even across a wide interpretive spectrum, would consider plausible.”
The prominence of the past in current US political debates – indeed, across the West – makes it essential to examine how history is produced – and, perhaps more important, how it is taught. We must now take a fresh stab at answering the question posed decades ago by the British diplomat-cum-historian Edward Hallett Carr: What is history?
History can certainly arouse strong passions. Since 2015, for example, statue iconoclasm has swept the Western world, largely inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Statues and monuments associated with colonialism and slavery have been removed, beheaded, defaced, or threatened in the United States, Europe, and South Africa. In former slave-owning and Jim Crow US states, monuments to civilian and military leaders of the Confederacy have been removed. Trump described such monuments as “beautiful statues,” and ordered federal forces to protect them against “mob rule.”