Last year witnessed a handful of significant deaths; and each has offered time for the public to reflect on their history and legacy. I don’t know Prince or David Bowie or Fidel Castro or Janet Reno or Gwen Ifill that well, but I do know a great many people who have such deep connections to their work or legacies that their death was akin to that of a relative or close friend. And so many people seemed torn between honoring the dead and recognizing the flaws intrinsic to one’s humanity. With the exception of Fidel Castro, not many of 2016’s celebrated dead were terribly flawed. But the act of recording the lives of the deceased, and with it the complications that life, is important. History is as much an act of creative storytelling as it is factual reconstruction and all of us bear some obligation to realize the problems underlying the way we remember political and cultural icons.
Two recent events illustrate the public invention of history. Last month, Donald Trump claimed to have been the “[most] unfairly..treated” official in U.S. political history. Memes flooded social media in response depicting other personalities more unfairly treated – like JFK and Lincoln – most of which (from my newsfeed’s perspective) were historical personalities upon which #resistance progressives would like to model their presidential alternative. Alternatively, Barack Obama’s presidential legacy has been the topic of public rumination from Politico’s emphasis on his liberal policy shifts to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s declaration that “My President Was Black.” Whether Donald Trump or Barack Obama, media criticism and policy programs are selectively emphasized in such a way as to initiate a conservation where rebuttals, by and large, emphasize their own selective accounts of recent history.
The problem with this kind of partisan narration, besides the obviousness of limiting ourselves to a short-term and party-affiliated memory, is that we rarely reflect on the ideological perspectives we perpetuate in assuming certain common sense “facts.” USA Today‘s response to Trump’s victimization was to emphasize Lincoln and Kennedy’s assassinations. While killing a political opponent is obviously worse than critical media coverage, we should ask why Lincoln is a figure worth drawing attention toward as a contrast to Donald Trump. Lincoln was not a fervent abolitionist who believed in the equality of Blacks Americans. He initially opposed ending slavery. He then grew to favor a form of abolition with strict segregation before sometimes advocating that the U.S. return all enslaved Blacks to Liberia. And he continually believed in the biological inferiority of Black persons. Do we want to champion as a hero someone who believed wholeheartedly in the preservation of a white-dominated Union? Alternatively, when we praise Barack Obama’s for overseeing the expansion of healthcare and breaking the conservative stranglehold on U.S. politics that has existed since the Republican congress under Bill Clinton, we do not mention the utterly repugnant foreign policy that Obama continued (and in some cases made worse) when he inherited the White House: a long, racist legacy of promoting U.S. intervention in the Middle East, increasing Drone warfare and its “civilian casualties,” expanding the executive authority of the President with disastrous potential, and quietly increasing deportations in lieu of effective immigration reform. By and large, we remember both Lincoln and Obama by excusing their attitudes on race and foreigners. After all the U.S. is still predominantly white, and we are predominantly concerned with ourselves.
We make excuses for racism and U.S. global authority through appeals to political pragmatism. Lincoln preserved the Union. He was also a man of his time. He might not have been elected had he not actively promoted racism. We dismiss his racism as the product of historical circumstances — as if there weren’t any other white abolitionists active in the public sphere who promoted radical equality, full political inclusion, and emancipation. In other words, Lincoln had no historical excuse for his racism and the ways that race inflected his policies. Obama faced deep criticism as the first Black president for which we sympathetically dismiss his foreign policy and expansion of executive authority as necessary responses to unprecedented Republican obstruction. Political pragmatism, or “realism,” is itself ideological. It is not sufficient to dismiss the racist attitudes of political or cultural icons are mere words or social-historical necessities. It is not sufficient to accept disastrous foreign policy and immigration policy on the grounds that the blame rests with the other side. Outright acceptance of what is “real” and “possible” limited the boundaries of political criticism, allowing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign to be relatively unchecked on her own disastrous foreign policy.
Our short-term historical consciousness allows us to selectivity remember the cultural and political icons we like in ways that let’s us forget their flaws – flaws that for immigrants and persons of color are more akin to terror that political mistakes. It does not matter if one is deceased, one’s political term is over, or if one received unwarranted criticism because of their gender or race. As long as we find excuses in historical determinism or appeals to reality, we will continue to diminish the power of criticism and our need to find a politics that isn’t limited to the two-party consensus of White U.S. Hegemony.
And for these reasons, we need to constantly remember that remembering is a political act. Remembering is an act of criticism. If the dead were protagonists in political narratives of terror, then we should ask ourselves what right they have to be remembered generously if such selective memory allows us to continue ignoring “flaws” that are far more than mere flaws for people unlike ourselves.