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Why Study History?

By       Message Paul Street       (Page 1 of 4 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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As liberal Democrats for the most part, United States historians have no doubt been having a field day with Donald Trump's recently reported clueless comments on United States history. The president's moronic take on the nation's past was front-page news last Tuesday in liberals' and academics' favorite newspaper, The New York Times. Times reporters Peter Baker and Jonah Engel Bromwich told readers about Trump's historical idiocy, seen in the president's:

+ Suggestion that Andrew Jackson had been "really angry" about the Civil War, which did not break out until 16 years after his death.

+ Assertion that the Civil War could have been prevented by smart policymakers who should have just gotten together and cut a deal.

+ Apparent belief that the great 19 th century Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass is still alive.

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+ Apparent surprise at learning that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.

+ Putting up a golf course plaque marking a Civil War battle that never happened.

The Times quoted Princeton "presidential historian" Julian E. Zelizer, who thinks that "Presidents should have some better sense of the nation's history as they become part of it."

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Historian Paul Starobin told the Times that "Trump seems almost uniquely ill equipped to process history, whether because of his lack of empathy, his allergy to complexity, or his tendency to keep distant from anything that might carry the whiff of defeat"History is not tidy. Trump likes tidy. He likes slogans. History doesn't offer any."

So, yes, Trump is a dummy about American history, too. I could almost hear the sneers and chuckles across the faculty rooms in academic history departments from coast to coast.

United States of Amnesia

Great, but once they're done laughing at Dunce Cap Donald, the nation's academic historians might want to reflect on the broader and unsettling historical ignorance that stalks the United States -- and their own roles in enabling it.

Trump is of course E plurbius unum -- "one of many" (the traditional motto of the United States) -- when it comes to historical amnesia in the U.S. U.S.-of-Americans live and think in chilling accord with the vicious anti-Semitic U.S. capitalist Henry Ford's famous dictum that "history is bunk." They go through life in mass cluelessness about the millennia, epochs, centuries, generations, and decades that preceded them. They know little about the relevance of the past to their contemporary experience and the future. The whole nation seems "almost uniquely ill equipped to process history, whether because of lack of empathy, his allergy to complexity, or tendency to keep distant from anything that might carry the whiff of defeat."

It's a very lethal way for a Superpower's citizenry to carry on.

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History is a Weapon

Part of this mass national memory loss has to do with the United States' status as historical ground zero for the art and science of corporate and imperial thought control -- something that Alex Carey wrote about darkly and brilliantly in his posthumously published book Taking the Risk of Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (1997) (See especially the first chapter, titled "The Origins of American Propaganda"). As George Orwell knew, the deletion, distortion, dismissal, and devaluation of history is a critical dimension of thought control. "Who controls the past," the reigning totalitarian party portrayed in Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 (flying off bookstore and library since Big Brother Donald's election) proclaimed, "controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."

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Paul Street ( and is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007), Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (more...)

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