What is the Shelf-Life on Memory?

What is the Shelf-Life on Memory? August 24, 2016

Are Europeans in the EU allowed to remember Europe’s Christendom past? Are Armenians allowed to persist in their memories of the Turks’ genocidal policies? Are white people who live in the southern United States allowed to celebrate the South’s heritage? Are Americans allowed to remember the greatness of the American founders (who were also racists)? A lot of memory seems arbitrarily impermissible. Consider whether Yale should remember John C.Calhoun or Princeton Woodrow Wilson.

So when Kevin Levin opines “A black person voting for Trump is like a slave fighting for the Confederacy,” he seems to be employing selective memory:

There is a reason blacks have not supported the Republican Party. That party has made clear its feelings about us. During the civil rights movement, it was Democratic presidential candidate John Kennedy who helped get Martin Luther King out of jail while Republican candidate Richard Nixon did nothing. It was Republicans who opposed the civil rights movement and most other rights that affect blacks.

Yes, the Democrats have not lived up to all their promises, but the Republicans have never offered any serious options — and Trump certainly is not a serious option. All he is saying is give Trump a try?

Why not also remember that the Republicans are the party of Lincoln, the great emancipator? Why not remember when blacks overwhelming supported a Republican Party that was progressive by nineteenth-century standards? Shouldn’t historians try to help non-historians remember everything, not just the bits that console us in our prejudices (read correct opinions)?

The piece of advice implicit in those questions also applies to Paul Prather’s convenient recollection of evangelical Protestants’ liberal leanings:

Granted, some evangelicals, especially in the South, were conservative all along. Some used the Bible to justify slavery, for example. But if you look at the larger record, both in Britain and in the United States, those folks were exceptions. More commonly, evangelicals led the social-reform avant-garde.

Recently I happened across my aging, marked-up copy of Pulitzer Prize-winner Garry Wills’ 1990 book, “Under God: Religion and American Politics.”

Its chapter on the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” illustrates my point, and it upends our received wisdom about that particular political drama.

. . . “It was,” Wills writes, “in many respects, a nontrial over a nonlaw, with a nondefendant backed by nonsupporters.”

Bryan, the evangelical who helped the prosecution, was a peerless liberal.

Quoting Wills again:

“His wife listed with justifiable pride the many reforms, later adopted, that he had championed in their embattled earlier stages — women’s suffrage, the federal income tax, railroad regulation, currency reform, state initiative and referendum, a Department of Labor, campaign fund disclosure, and opposition to capital punishment. His (presidential) campaigns were the most leftist mounted by a major party’s candidate in our entire history.”

All true, but partial, at least if Mr. Prather wants to persuade evangelicals to vote Democrat. Yes, Bryan was a Democrat. But Democrats in the nineteenth century were the party of agriculture (against modern finance capitalism) and slavery. Republicans then were the liberals.

So again, when do we stop remembering the past one way and begin remembering it our way?


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