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Without Historical Perspective, We Are Dangerously Adrift

Historical ignorance is creating a citizenry of people unable to comprehend the consequences of their actions.

Last week, over 1,200 US historians and scholars in related fields signed a statement, of which I was a co-author, calling for vigilance against potential civil rights and liberties abuses under the coming Trump administration and an emboldened far right. The avalanche of signatures and speed with which the statement circulated suggested that our worries were shared by many. At issue were the calls for a Muslim registry and the creation of a “Professor Watch List,” which brought to mind troubling antecedents such as the Japanese American internment of World War II and the McCarthyist witch hunts of the Cold War. This is alarming because as a nation we long ago repudiated these episodes as profound mistakes in judgment and terrible miscarriages of justice, the likes of which should never happen again. That we now have prominent voices in the public arena disclaiming this orthodoxy illustrates a disregard for or ignorance of history and its lessons. We have, it seems, powerful forces in our culture that regard the expansion of democracy and justice over the last century as setbacks or errors calling for a rollback, and with Trump about the assume the presidency, the consequences of amnesia and demagogic revisionism can be grave for our most vulnerable people and the very health of American democracy.

While our statement focused on threats to civil rights and liberties in relation to a Muslim registry and list of “unpatriotic” professors, the urgency of historical understanding and critical discernment touches on numerous areas, too many to name here. If Trump’s campaign rhetoric and recent appointments are a guide, racial minorities, LGBT people, the working class and poor, women, and undocumented immigrants are just a few of the groups in for a rough ride. Taking LGBT rights, for example, it was only in 1973 that the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and in 2003 that the Supreme Court invalidated state sodomy laws that criminalized homosexuality. It was was only last year that marriage equality became the law of the land. Such forms of social progress and the expanding of democracy occurred in no small measure because of grassroots political action by LGBT Americans who had suffered under homophobia and believed a better society and nation was possible and worth fighting for.

Social progress and inclusion, albeit sometimes too slow and incomplete, has been a clear pattern across the last century. For those who see the world in zero sum terms, inclusion for some has meant the exclusion of others. Through this lens, it was not just that basic rights and cultural visibility extended to LGBT people, but the privileges to which straight people were accustomed also came under assault. It was not just that women were entitled to live free from patriarchal control over their bodies and personal dignity, but men’s rights were also being undermined. Welfare and affirmative action did not create precious opportunities for disadvantaged people against a rigged system, but gave unfair advantages to the undeserving. This outlook, that a gain for some equals a loss for others, has long existed in tension with the view that greater inclusiveness is ultimately a good for all. That the former has achieved the spectacular popularity it has in the recent election has left many of us astounded.

Without understanding history — of what has changed in this nation from past to present and what rolling things back would mean — we are adrift and dangerously close to a precipice. For a long time, we have seen intellectualism and the pursuit of knowledge get dismissed as elitist and irrelevant. Current squabbles over “facts” — whether they exist or if we need even heed them — is creating a disorienting landscape in which political contests now center on who gets to define social reality for the rest of the country. This increasingly widespread cognitive confusion and historical ignorance is creating a citizenry of people unable to comprehend and unwilling to give thought to the consequences of their actions, doing only what “feels” good in the moment.

As we disseminated our statement, a few colleagues respectfully demurred, saying it engaged in unnecessary fear mongering. Why warn, they asked, of coming civil rights violations that have not yet occurred and exist in the realm of hypotheticals? Such questions gave us pause to reflect upon how our work as historians intersects with our obligations as citizens. While our work is primarily consumed with studying and interpreting the past in its richness and complexity, some events are so egregious and horrifying in their scale of dehumanization that our sense of morality and civic duty compels us to join others, and bring our expertise, in saying, “never again.” If this sounds like fear mongering, it is because our fears, in light of what we know about the past and how far we have come, are real and reasonable, even as we strenuously hope those fears do not materialize. However events play out, we must do so with a grasp of history and the ability to discern facts from misinformation. These may prove our most critical tools in the coming months and years ahead.