“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905.
The last two American presidents from the Republican Party share a sad distinction, if for different reasons. George W. Bush bears the ultimate responsibility for the loss of at least a million lives in Iraq, while Donald J. Trump, through a mixture of incompetence and sheer hubris, has been credibly accused of allowing hundreds of thousands of excess deaths at home during the crisis provoked by the novel coronavirus.
From a report assembled by The Guardian:
“The US could have averted 40% of the deaths from Covid-19, had the country’s death rates corresponded with the rates in other high-income G7 countries, according to a Lancet commission tasked with assessing Donald Trump’s health policy record…
“In seeking to respond to the pandemic, Trump has been widely condemned for not taking the pandemic seriously enough soon enough, spreading conspiracy theories, not encouraging mask wearing and undermining scientists and others seeking to combat the virus’s spread.”
In the years since, these terrible losses have been pushed down the memory hole. Bush has been rehabilitated as a leader who represents a kind of normalcy in comparison to the reactionaries who have taken control of his party, while Trump’s daily scandals effectively efface his bungling of the covid crisis–errors far more deadly than the acts for which he is now indicted some 91 times.
In the former case there is a lot of precedent for the forgetting; in the English speaking world, there are dozens of examples of overseas atrocities like those inflicted on Iraq that go unmentioned as most of the mainstream press quickly moves on to the latest breaking news, no matter how trivial.
When troubling aspects of the past are scrutinized at all, it’s mainly through a rose-colored lens. After all, what British author Alan Moore has called “weaponized nostalgia” is at the heart of slogans like, ‘Make America Great Again’.
Trump, who popularized this recycled slogan, has been intentionally vague about when, exactly, he thinks his country was ‘great’ or when it stopped being so, but it does seem like he means the 1950s, an era long popular with conservatives who have been calling back to it since at least the 1980s.
The decade did see remarkable growth for the American middle class after the horrors of a world war and economic dynamism provoked in the U.S. by the New Deal but this focus on the positive ignores the reality of a time when marital rape was legal, lynching was tolerated in many places, and what would now be considered child abuse was encouraged in the name of ‘discipline’.
It was also an era when conformity was prized above almost everything else leading to both the red (commies!) and lavender (gays!) scares that played out during that decade.
It’s in this spirit that rightwing, mostly online organizations like ‘PragerU’ (not a university, but a rightwing disinformation video production organization) are now reaching further back into the historical record with the goal of ensuring that Americans don’t have to reckon with the evils of the past.
A recent Prager video for children has Frederick Douglass explaining to young students that the chattel slavery he spent most of his life fighting against was a political “compromise” rather than the evil that it was. This kind of ignorance is dangerous in that it then filters out into the larger discourse as demonstrated by a recent Florida Board of Education declaration that, “Slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”
Making excuses for slavery isn’t new, a whole industry of historical revisionism was devised soon after the Civil War to argue that it was fought as much to secure states’ rights as it was to end the system of racialized human bondage but even those who pushed this view didn’t have the temerity to suggest that slavery was some kind of educational or job training program.
Absurdities like these are indicative of a Western culture that is nostalgic for a past that’s been wiped clean of the blood, sweat, and dirt that are as important to it as any progressive triumphs, which is a recipe for future tragedies.
Derek Royden is a Canadian journalist.