History and its discontents

In 1940, when Great Britain stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut, France lay conquered, the United States was officially neutral, and the Soviet Union was tied by treaty to Germany, Winston Churchill recruited history to cheer his countrymen and stiffen their spines. In a September 1940 radio broadcast, as invasion loomed, Churchill said:

We must regard the next week or so as a very important period in our history. It ranks with the days when the Spanish Armada was approaching the Channel, and Drake was finishing his game of bowls; or when Nelson stood between us and Napoleon’s Grand Army at Boulogne. We have read all about this in the history books; but what is happening now is on a far greater scale and of far more consequence to the life and future of the world and its civilisation than these brave old days of the past.

Churchill could speak in this fashion because, not only was he well versed in British history, he knew his listeners were too. He knew that they knew who Drake and Nelson were.  And he knew that British schoolchildren found pride and inspiration in their country’s long history.

It’s harder for American leaders to follow his example. For one thing, American schoolchildren do not learn much history, and their ignorance follows them into adulthood.

A recent study by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only one in three Americans (36 percent) can actually pass a multiple choice test consisting of items taken from the U.S. Citizenship Test, which most immigrants pass easily. (Example: “Identify whether Rhode Island, Oregon, Maine, or South Dakota is a state that borders Canada.”)

Only 13 percent of those surveyed knew when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, even on a multiple-choice exam similar to the citizenship exam. About 60 percent didn’t know which countries the United States fought in World War II. Seventy-two percent of respondents either incorrectly identified or were unsure of which states were part of the original 13. Only 24 percent could correctly identify one thing Benjamin Franklin was famous for, with 37 percent believing he invented the lightbulb. Twelve percent thought World War II General Dwight Eisenhower led troops in the Civil War, while 6 percent thought he was a Vietnam War general. Fortunately, only two percent identified climate change as the cause of the Cold War.

If it’s any consolation (and it isn’t), the situation is no better in Great Britain. If Churchill were alive today, he would have to find something other than history to leaven his oratory. In a 2008 survey of British teenagers (cited in Andrew Roberts’s excellent biography of the man), 20 percent thought Churchill was a fictional character, while 58 percent thought Sherlock Holmes and 47 percent thought Eleanor Rigby were real people.

To his credit, President Trump has made some effort to enlist history to foster unity. He proclaimed that the purpose of his Fourth of July speech was “to celebrate our history, our people, and the heroes who proudly defend our flag – the brave men and women of the United State military.” And that’s just what he did, recalling the glories of each branch of the armed forces, and saluting the nation’s achievements in science, medicine, sports, culture, and civil rights. But of course he was simply reading the words others had written for him. When the teleprompter temporarily froze, the President revealed the shallow depth of his knowledge of history:

The Continental Army suffered a bitter winter of Valley Forge, found glory across the waters of the Delaware and seized victory from Cornwallis of Yorktown. Our army manned the air, it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports, it did everything it had to do, and at Fort McHenry, under the rocket’s red glare, it had nothing but victory.

Until the President’s speech, few knew that George Washington’s army had to contend with the Royal Air Force. Nor was it widely appreciated that the Revolutionary War lasted nearly four decades, until the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814.

Of course, even before the speech, Donald Trump was not exactly known as a history buff. Early in his presidency, at a gathering of black supporters to mark the start of African-American History Month, he described 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.”

But if ignorance hinders the mobilization of history to instill pride, the problem at least is curable. It just requires a good dose of education.

For those who describe themselves as “progressives,” the problem is more profound than ignorance. Those folks are quite confident in their knowledge. For them, the only function of history is to inculcate a sense of shame and embarrassment.

Democratic Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke summed up progressive sentiment when he told a group of immigrants and refugees: “This country was founded on white supremacy and every single institution and structure that we have in our country still reflects the legacy of the slavery and segregation and Jim Crow and suppression, even in our democracy.”

In a recent column, Charles Blow of the New York Times developed this theme, expressing words that most progressives would embrace:

America expanded much of its territory through the shedding of blood and breaking of treaties with Native Americans. It established much of its wealth through 250 years of exploiting black bodies for free labor.

And, for the entire history of this country, some degree of anti-blackness has existed. Now, there is an intensifying anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant xenophobia.

America was born with a congenital illness and it has been in need of active rehabilitation ever since, although it has often rejected the curative treatments and regressed.

This same intellectual disorder led the San Francisco School Board to appropriate $600,000 to paint over all 13 panels of the 1600 square foot mural “Life of Washington,’’ a historic work commissioned during the New Deal. Ironically, the mural was created in 1936 by Russian-American artist and Stanford University art professor Victor Arnautoff, a committed Communist and practitioner of the school of social realism made famous by his mentor Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

Now it’s worth stating why all these woke constructions of American history are profoundly wrong. American was not born with a congenital illness. It was born with a congenital idealism, an idealism based on the noble vision of the sanctity of the individual. Thomas Jefferson (whose statue at the University of Virginia has been vandalized and may be removed) articulated this vision in the timeless prose of the Declaration of Independence.

Congenital characteristics are inherent. They may be disguised or repressed, but only temporarily. Ultimately they will have their day. Thomas Jefferson, like many founding fathers, was a slaveholder, and to that extent, his life was woefully inconsistent with the principles he helped establish for the new country. But those principles – those congenital principles — made America the freest, most successful nation in human history. It was only a matter of time before they would emerge and prevail.

The problem for progressives is that they have embarked on a path that leaves them with shame as their only heritage.

They have already disowned Washington and Jefferson, along with Andrew Jackson, slaveholders all. But it doesn’t stop there.

Joe Biden has been roundly condemned for working cooperatively with segregationists when he first entered the Senate forty-five years ago. By that retroactive guilt-by-association standard, there are no Democratic presidents to whom progressives can look back upon with unalloyed  pride.

Woodrow Wilson has been discredited as a segregationist.  Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was built by a coalition that included Southern segregationist congressional leaders. One of those, Alabama Senator Hugo Black, was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan who became Roosevelt’s first Supreme Court nominee, over the opposition of the NAACP.  Roosevelt’s successor was Harry Truman. As a young man, Truman told his future wife Bess that one man was as good as any other as long as he wasn’t black. When he got involved in politics, he did what any aspiring politician did in the South: he paid $10 to join the Klan.

John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton were notorious womanizers. Kennedy was on a yacht with female company cruising the Mediterranean when his wife Jacqueline gave birth to a stillborn infant. His friend George Smathers told him: “You better haul your ass back to your wife if you ever want to run for president.” Bill Clinton’s infidelities are well known, and include credible accusations of sexual assault.

Barack Obama ran for president in 2008 on a platform opposing gay marriage, stating: “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.”

All of these Democratic Party leaders accomplished deeds that should endear them to the hearts of progressives, notwithstanding the negative facets. But progressives must alienate themselves from them, for their goal is to prove that American history is a long saga of infamy, punctuated by frequent outbreaks of racism and sexism. Achieving that goal requires an endless search for feet of clay.

They may succeed. After all, the only ones they need to persuade of their grim message are those of like minds.

But persuasion comes at a cost. Those who scour history looking for acts of which to be ashamed are bound to find them. Then, having found them, they render themselves orphans of history, uprooted from the past and condemned to dwell in darkness, where they savor their smug superiority in splendid solitude.

About the Author
Lawrence J. Siskind is an attorney practicing law in San Francisco, California. He blogs at