Symbols of an (un)usable past

In December 2015, I published an opinion in these pages making “the case for Woodrow Wilson,” as Princeton University debated his legacy. Almost five years later, Princeton University announced that it will take Wilson’s name off its prestigious school of public and international affairs, and off one of its residential colleges as well. Princeton’s decision was followed by an announcement that Governor Murphy was removing the “Wilson desk” from his office in Trenton.

These decisions are about much more than Woodrow Wilson. Our nation now is engaged in debate over national memory and how to use its past.

Institutional, statuary, and other relics of memory (like Woodrow Wilson’s desk) are the icons through which cultures create memory. The essence of those symbols are the meanings with which cultures endow them, the memories and stories they tell. Memory and history are related but not identical. History is the narrative that historians weave from recognized data. Memory is the selection of those narratives, the way they clothe a culture and give it identity.

The debate in America today is over the nature of its identity. Are we “the land of the free” or are we a nation that has embedded racism in its foundations, rebelling against an island across the sea but maintaining the subjugation of other peoples in our own homes and fields? Who is included in the “we” of the “We the People” is the question being asked today. It is a question about memory and identity, not of events and history.

The Confederate flag, the Stars and Bars, raises many emotions. It represents a regime that supported slavery. But some celebrate it as signifying an identity that is based on geography, ethnicity, and self-worth. Others object to it on the grounds that it stands for a rebellion against a country that we love, that someone cannot embrace the Stars and Bars and at the same time pledge allegiance to the Stars and Stripes. The wounds of the Civil War continue to fester as the larger nation continues to struggle with what it means to be America.

When we are bothered, offended, and shamed by acts of racism, it is not enough, I suggest, to demonize the Old South, as if the culture of the North were pure and innocent. Our nation was built around pragmatism, but at the end of the day we still are accountable for which compromises we find acceptable and which we do not. The dramatist Lin-Manuel Miranda has posed the experiment of staging the Founding Fathers in the bodies of people of color. Now that “Hamilton” can be streamed into everyone’s living rooms, we all can struggle over the question of what “the face of America” looks like.

The president celebrated the faces on Mount Rushmore last week, while many are questioning the usability of those very white personae of the past. Moving away from the Confederacy, Woodrow Wilson is remembered for his racial prejudice, even as he crafted the ideological platform of the modern Democratic party. Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson’s political rival (and New Yorker rather than Virginian), literally is stepping off his horse at the entrance of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where he has been remembered for a century as riding above a subjected African American and a Native American. And then we move to the indispensable man himself, our first president, who presided over the Constitutional Convention that resolved to count slaves as three-fifths of a person, owning over a hundred such enslaved people himself.

All of this is true, and yet I felt my American soul crying out when the New York Times published an opinion piece questioning the usability of the memory of George Washington. He was a human being, and as such he was flawed. But he stands in our memory for decency and honor. And especially in these times, we can use the memory of a founding president who understood that terms of office are finite, that a president is not an “excellency,” and that all democracies must guard against becoming dictatorships.

We must not forget, as we debate the use of symbols, what the real cause of anger and outrage is. Sometimes we confuse symbols with the meanings they symbolize. Let’s not make the error of permitting racist murderers today to compare themselves to the likes of George Washington. Symbols can be liabilities — but they also can be great assets that we might retain rather than discard.

Ours is not the only nation that has struggled with the memory of its past. The members of the old Warsaw Pact continue to address the legacy of Soviet hegemony. A generation of Germans have come of age in a culture of articulated rejection of its Nazi past. The alarming resurgence of neo-Nazism is by definition countercultural. But while the enormity of the Nazi crimes cannot be surpassed in the history of our species, Germans face a dangerous temptation to relegate those crimes to the Nazis, a “them” who exercised control over a mere 13 years. The challenge facing Germans today is one of identity: who is included in “us” and who is relegated to “them”?

Similarly, throughout Europe it is far too easy for complicit countries to blame “the Germans” rather than look at their own actions. On the other side of that question, we as Jews should remember that the Jews of Germany struggled with these same questions of identity. Were they “Jews” being oppressed by “Germans,” or were they “Germans” being oppressed by fellow “Germans”? In the United States, our contested symbols go back further than the 20th-century constructs of Communism and Nazism. As many re-evaluate the usability of our symbols of national memory, we continue to ask what an “American” looks like and is.

We retain, cultivate, and cherish memories to root ourselves in our identity for the present. But we all need a past to get from there to here. As Jews, we are among the heirs of one of the longest histories and string of memories in the world. Our founding document acknowledges the institution of slavery as well. The contradictions between the ideals of the American Declaration of Independence and pragmatics of the U.S. Constitution pale compared to the contradictions between the narrative of the exodus from Egypt and the Sinaitic legislation regulating human slavery. Only a few columns in our Torah scrolls separate these polarities in the Book of Exodus. They are bound together in one scroll that we crown with ornaments and parade around our sanctuaries (God willing soon again).

As inheritors and crafters of long memories, we have learned how to celebrate what speaks to us from our past, while giving historical perspective to those elements that do not. The interpretive process, what we call “midrash” or “exegesis,” provides the tools for refashioning the past. We sift out the values that no longer speak to us and we retain the ones that do, all the while maintaining our identity and rootedness. The concept of Oral Torah, that the wisdom of each age has a claim to the “original Torah” at Sinai, establishes each generation’s autonomy while preserving the continuity of form and memory. Actually, it is that continuity that gives us the permission, the authorization and power, to change.

The legal and historical sources of what has made America great can continue to evolve as meanings change through the march of time. It’s not about being great “again” but rather “anew.” We should not look for the past for perfection. When we look to uncritically glorify a past we will meet with either disappointment or blindness. Rather, we should use our past to forge our present and future. That is why we carefully but authentically say hadesh yameinu kekedem, “make our days anew as of old” whenever we return our Torah scrolls to the holy ark.

About the Author
David J. Fine is rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, NJ, and president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. He received his PhD from the City University of New York in 2010, and his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1999.
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