During my lifetime I have witnessed what some people call “revisionist history” overturn cherished myths and traditions among people who, in my experience, when questioned lack the solid understanding of history in the first place and the role played by cultural propaganda, appropriation, and the narrative of conquest. I grew up being mindlessly expected to laud the Pilgrims, draw inspiration from the Opening of the West, mourn the deaths of Custer and his cavalry, and uncritically praise the martial adventures of our various periods whether they were legitimate or not. Sifting through all this, you find that occasionally there’s something of value in the narratives, but more often than not it’s all just cheering from the grandstands for the winner, as if history is nothing but a football game and the heroes are the ones who make the most touchdowns.
This is not to say I am unhappy about where I am personally in all this, but that is largely an accident. I had no part in all the occurrences that have led to here and now. Which leaves me really only with the responsibility and obligation to have some perspective and not blindly accept the epic triumphs I’ve been told I should just because things might have gone otherwise, and “then where would you be?” Which is beside the point.
The point is, having that perspective, knowing a little bit more about what happened—and why—contributes to how we behave today. Some things you really do not want to repeat. Some things you might want to do again, only differently. And some things edify simply by showing us how we got here and what we should be about.
But for a lot of people that is no easy thing, sorting out the great stories from the real history, and when often reality fails to support the good feelings we may have gleaned from the Stories, some might choose to believe the actual history is either irrelevant or itself a lie. Because the only response of which they are capable is either helpless shame or absolute denial. There seems to be no spectrum that contains learning, improvement, and a sense of justice.
I was a kid during the heyday of “America, Love It Or Leave It.” I confess I never accepted that as anything but a ridiculous attempt to silence criticism, criticism which we desperately needed. It never meant what it said. It always meant “Shut Up.”
We can talk about context, circumstances, try to explain it this way or that, but sometimes wrong is just wrong.
But some people really do not handle criticism well. They want things to be fine. They do not want to feel responsible and the fact is that when confronted by the revelations of the past, it is legitimate the ask “What the hell can I do about it?” Because if one has any kind of a conscience, that question is natural, because when confronted with a wrong, if we have any sense of decency, we want to try to help, try to fix it. But some things cannot be addressed effectively by one person overwhelmed with the problems of just getting by. And when the revelations keep coming, it becomes such a burden that one response is to seek a place where the hammering of truth stops, at least for a little while. A little distance, a little peace, and maybe we can find something to do that’s helps.
Others, however, never get to that point. All they see and hear is the continual march of new facts telling them that everything they believe about something is wrong or at least only a half truth. They reach a point where telling the voices to Shut Up is very appealing.
Clapping hands over ears and squeezing eyes shut changes nothing. Wrongs do not go away because we refuse to look at them.
They can, however, get worse. Bigger. More perverse.
The attraction of a great many people to Donald Trump has been his continual attempt to shut people up. His entire campaign was basically “Vote for me and I’ll say ‘Shut Up’ on your behalf.” Shut Up to the voices of justice, to the historians who tell us we come from not very nice people, to the scientists who tell us that we have large problems that need attention, to the proponents of economic and social equality who tell us that our system is broken and the poor are being used to scare the rest of us into giving all our resources to the few. Because these problems are complex and often rooted in pasts we thought we knew but really had never been taught about, it is all too much, and the surcease of just shutting them all up would be so very welcome. Trump does that. He has tried to undo everything that has been put forward to try to redress these problems with the promise that America Will Be Great Again, but meaning that you may all sit back and enjoy your John Wayne view of who we are unchallenged by reality.
In exchange, he gets to try to be king of the world.
Well, it may be more complicated than that, but at base that’s about it. He’s pretending to be Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, bullying the world, and promising people they can relax and be who they wish to think they are. In so doing, of course, he’s been ruining a lot, wrecking the machinery that might actually do some good, and reducing our capacity to do good in the world, all in the name of shutting up the critics, who are too often quite correct.
We can explain this, make excuses, try to find something in the rubble to justify it, but some things are just wrong.
His people are, apparently, seeking to threaten Colonel Vindman’s family to get him to shut up. You can question Vindman’s patriotism if you want, but that’s kind of beside the point. Some things are just wrong.
This man was never fit to be president. He’s not even doing what people elected him to do. He can’t even manage his avarice properly. He fundamentally misunderstands his position.
But it’s like football, isn’t it? The one that makes the most touchdowns wins? And isn’t winning the only thing that matters?
Well, no. Or at least, if you accept that Trump is representative of your values, then I have to say, you don’t even know what winning means. For you, perhaps, it really is just getting the other guy to Shut Up.
It never works, by the way. Here is some of that inconvenient history. In 1856, Senator Preston Brooks attacked and beat Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate. He used a walking stick and horribly injured Sumner, who damn near died. Brooks was pro-slavery, from South Carolina. Sumner was an abolitionist and had given a speed critical of slaveholders, among whom he mentioned Brooks’ cousin. The “code of honor” of the Southerner empowered Brooks to seek physical retribution for the perceived slight.
It was not, however, an answer. Sumner challenged slavery on moral grounds. All Brooks could bring to the debate was a cane and the demand that Sumner Shut Up.
Sometimes wrong is wrong. In this case, the wrongs compounded. Sumner’s arguments were correct and his position morally sound. Nothing any slaveholder could say could counter it, argument for argument. Four years later, Lincoln was elected, the South seceded, and people like Brooks lost their argument anyway. Of course, recently we have seen the old justifications re-emerge and an attempt to recast the Civil War as something other than what it was.
My point being, if you have no cogent answer to a criticism, getting the critic to Shut Up is merely an admission that you have nothing.
Three years in, it is clearer than ever that Trump has nothing. Nor do his supporters.
Of course, I’m told occasionally not to be so categorical about them, that there are reasons for their support, that circumstances are not quite so cut and dried, etc etc. Yes, surely.
But sometimes wrong is just wrong.
(Of course, you might say I’m wrong, because, well, look at the economy. And what about North Korea? Yeah, well. The virtues of those may be debatable, but we could have done those things without turning into world-class dicks. As I say, sometimes wrong is wrong.)