Beating against the Tide: History and Memory

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Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

Unsurprisingly, for one who studies history, I tend to take the view that the past is an inescapable part of our existence. This might seem obvious, considering that the things which happened to us earlier in life have undoubtedly shaped us as human beings. But nor can we escape what happened before we were born, that realm that we tend to think of as being ‘history’. Our wants for legitimacy, our desire to understand, our need to formulate a narrative that explains why we are where we are, drive us relentlessly back through the decades and the centuries. 

Take, for instance,  Fox News’ virtual town hall with President Trump from the 3rd of May. The remote format meant that this could have been done anywhere, but Fox News decided to place Trump and their hosts at the Lincoln Memorial.

Yes, the Lincoln Memorial. The monument raised in salute of a President who lead the republic through its darkest and bloodiest days. He that defeated the slavers’ rebellion and freed their slaves, only to be cut down in the hour of his triumph, a veritable martyr to the cause of the United States of America. In the American national story, Abraham Lincoln looms large, perhaps only overshadowed by George Washington.

Fox put Trump’s town hall at the foot of this man’s monument. Literally. The statue at the Lincoln Memorial is of Lincoln himself, sat on a ceremonial chair upon a pedestal, around 30 feet tall in total. Sat as they were inside the building of the memorial, the view from the camera was of Lincoln sat over them, looming large in the back ground. As ever, there are two ways of interpreting this. You could argue that they chose this with Lincoln sat in judgement on the President, and indeed the expression on Lincoln’s face is grave.

Yet, that ignores the context. Placing President Trump in front of one of his most illustrious predecessors while he faces a severe domestic crisis seems an obvious attempt to parallel the experience of the two. Trump faces a devastating public health crisis, while Lincoln faced the end of the United States and a devastating war. This, and associating their images in one camera shot, makes a favourable comparison between Trump and Lincoln.

From a historical standpoint, this is rubbish. Lincoln, as mentioned, did not just hold the union together through a divisive political threat (the civil war), but also rid the republic of one of its most contentious divisions in the process. Not to mention ending the barbaric practice of slavery in the United States was a good thing.  Trump, by contrast, has mounted an incomplete and lackadaisical approach to the greatest public health crisis that most can remember. After announcing some less than effective measures on travel into the US from China, his administration went largely missing in action in February, as more cases of coronavirus began to appear in the States. Not to mention the small detail that he has since called for the reopening of America, compounding his early lack of support for the governors by calling for their states to ‘liberate‘ themselves from the state-ordered lockdowns. If we were to compare this to the civil war, which is still a terrible comparison and not really applicable, Trump would have not mobilised after Fort Sumter, and called for Union troops to mutiny against their generals. However, the specifics of the cases being compared, and the flawed nature of any comparison, aren’t really the point.

The point is the feelings these comparisons evoke. Associating Trump and Lincoln is to try and induce Americans to feel the same about the former as they do about the latter – a great president in a time of crisis, and someone to be admired. By playing on the way people ‘remember‘ history, they seek legitimacy. Nor is this the only example of the use of American history; the 2016 presidential debates took place in front of the US constitution written on flats, using an emotionally significant document to confer legitimacy.

Not to mention our own use of historical memory. Or, as I like to call it,  ‘Why Won’t Everyone Shut Up About The War‘. And I mean that sincerely. We can’t seem to face any medium-to-major challenge without someone saying we need to adopt a wartime spirit, or that so and so is the greatest x in peacetime. For a country in which the vast, vast majority of the population have never gone to war, we do so like to talk about it. And we interpret most things through that lens. Leaving the EU becomes expressing defiance against a monolithic continental enemy. Healthcare workers during the coronavirus outbreak become ‘the frontline’. When England played Germany in Euro 96, the Daily Mirror, edited at the time by one Piers Morgan, ran a headline of ‘Achtung! Surrender!‘, claiming that for the German team ‘Ze Euro 96 Championship is over [sic]‘. No matter the years elapsed, and arguably they’ve only increased it, we cannot stop talking about what we think of as the defining moment of our past.

We talk a lot about looking to the future, arguably now more than ever. But, like Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘boats against the current’ we are all driven back into the arms of our past. Understanding it, and understanding it in full,  therefore becomes paramount to check abuse of it.

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Politics. Foreign Policy. Counterterrorism and associated issues. Anything else I might be drawn to writing about. Thats all really.

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