11/2/17 The True History is Important
The most well known quote about history is no doubt the aphorism attributed to George Santayana, who wrote: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The one qualifier that might have been missing from that quote is the word “accurately”. If I formulated that statement today, I would write: “Those who do not remember the past accurately are condemned to repeat it.”
The profound need for accuracy became acutely apparent this past week, both in the United States and in Israel. Here in Israel, this week marks the annual commemoration of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and how this occasion is to be observed has been controversial. In the United States, President Donald J. Trump’s Chief-of-Staff created a small fire-storm with his comments on Robert E. Lee and the Civil War.
While I have written previously about many of the similarities between the Netanyahu government and the Trump administration, it was hard not to be struck this week by a very different parallel. The Netanyahu government is dependent on the religious-right to remain in power. It was out from the religious-right that Rabin’s assassin emerged. Moreover, it was the long-term agenda of the religious-right that the assassination served. Soon after Rabin’s ideologically inspired murder, a law was passed by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first government that the day of Rabin’s assassination must be commemorated throughout Israel.
So, if you are the beneficiary of a political assassination and you have been in power for the better part of two decades since the murder, how do you commemorate that event? Simply, you begin to blur history. You stop using the term “assassination” and talk about “the death of Rabin” instead. You never speak about the assassin, and you never, ever discuss how the assassination succeeded to change the direction of the country. You focus on the fact that there are extremists on both sides. You appeal to the need for unity; unity which turns into another way of saying — despite the fact the assassination was the ultimate political event, the descendants of Rabin, whether familial or from his party (Rabin was the head of the Labor Party) dare not politicize the event. Instead of turning the light of history on to the next right-wing extremist who might try to assassinate another Israeli leader who dares give up territory in a future peace agreement, you serve up “national unity” as your over-arching mission.
The Trump Administration, and to a lesser extent the Republican party as a whole, have a similar problem. Much of its core base are white Americans from the South. As someone who has written extensively about the US Civil War, I can say (without hesitation), I would be a much wealthier man if I received a dime for every time I was criticized for not titling the app I wrote about America’s epic struggle — “The War of Northern Aggression”.
An interesting paradox exists in the United States. The Civil War is the most popular subject in American history, with hundreds of books and movies dedicated to chronicling and commemorating its narrative. Civil War battlefields are some of the most visited tourist sites in the US. Yet, according to a Pew poll taken marking the 150th anniversary of the war, 48% of the Americans believe the war was fought over states’ rights, while only 38% believe the primary cause of the war was over slavery.
To put that statistic into perspective, 99% of historians believe the American Civil War was fought over states’ rights, or to put in more succinctly — over the states’ rights to hold slaves. So, what do you do if you are President Trump and your base is concerned that their attempt to rewrite history, which has been remarkably successful (at least as far as the general public is concerned), runs into difficulty? You come down squarely on the side of the base. You talk about the positive and honorable heritage of the base. Then, you have your Chief-of-Staff, who until he started opening his mouth had been a highly regarded Marine veteran, start making historically inaccurate statements — i.e. praising Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who, if a less forgiving man than Abraham Lincoln had been President, would have been executed for treason. Then, you make an even more astonishing statement asserting that the Civil War could have been avoided, if only people knew how to compromise. You completely ignore the fact that it was the South who refused to compromise regarding slavery, as evidenced by the fact that the Civil War began because the country elected a President who had not promised to end slavery, but rather held a compromise position, to stop its further expansion westward.
If you are Netanyahu, you dare not upset you base, you must blur history … If you are Trump you dare not upset your base, rather you must mobilize them to believe that their values are under attack and only you can defend them. Never mind the fact that the views of your base — whether in Israel or in the United States — may be divisive and dangerous for the country you lead. If you are Trump, or Netanyahu, what counts is making sure that you and your base are one. Continue to repeat your mantra … I need to stay in power … inconvenient truths about history be damned.