Friday, January 20, 2017

History Only Has Time for Heroes and Villains

Winston Churchill once proclaimed, "history is written by the victors."  It is, in its way, a pithy comment that probably has more truth than most of us would care to examine.  Churchill likely said it because, in terms of history, he was the victor, a fact he surely knew would stand.  This wasn't only the case in terms of the fact that his country won a pair of World Wars during his lifetime, but at the end of the day he was the man who stood strong and tall against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.  There would be no Neville Chamberlain here-he had seen fascism's rise and showed his truth and bravery against it, and had made a stand.  A bloody stand, to be sure, one that would shape the core of diplomacy for some seventy years hence, but a principled stand.  Winston Churchill gets to be, at least at a surface level, one of the great heroes of the 20th Century.

Reading who the victors of history will be is not particularly hard in retrospect, because we know how things end up.  We know, for example, what the issues of the day that people will remember decades or hundreds of years hence will be.  History is unforgiving in that way-it doesn't care for nuance, and because it spans centuries, doesn't have a lot of time for scales of grey.  In the 1860's, either you were in the North, fighting against slavery, or you were in the South, fighting to keep slavery.  One group were the heroes in this regard, because they stood against prejudice and inequality, and the other were the villains.  The same can be said for World War II, or women's suffrage, or countless other good-and-evil portraits in history.  There is the side you want to be on, and the side you don't.

The problem with looking at history is that we want to cast ourselves as the heroes always.  We want to believe that we'd have helped the Underground Railroad or that we'd have kept Anne Frank in our attic, that we'd bravely throw tea into Boston Harbor or that we'd stand tall at Seneca Falls.  Ask any person in your life today whether or not they think they'd have been on the side of the Allies or the Germans in World War II, and they will tell you without blinking that they would have fought the Nazis.  The problem is (unless they're over ninety years of age, in which case you can take them on their word over what they did at the time), millions of people went on the side that history cast as the villains-that's why there is a history at all.  Millions of people supported Hitler, were slaveowners, denied women and black people the vote and their equal rights.  If they hadn't, we wouldn't have had to have the massive protests and wars that sprung from such events.

You see, of course, where I'm going with this-we don't entirely know who will be cast as the hero or the villain from our current time, but history is a pretty transparent indicator in that regard.  All of the above, the side that was oppressed and the people that spoke/fought for the oppressed-they're the ones that ultimately became the heroes of the story.  Those who fought to give more freedom, more choice, more opportunity to others, they are the ones that history was considerably kinder toward.  It is difficult to look at the Trump campaign, and his actions since being elected, and not realize that his supporters will be the villains of history.

Degrading women, vilifying Latinos, standing by while black men are beaten or denied the same justice as white men, espousing Muslim federal registries in a way that mirrors the start of the Holocaust, demeaning the disabled, and denying LGBTQ people their rights?  Standing against this feels very much like our current generation's civil rights issue.  Denying poor people access to education, housing, healthcare, food, employment-again, history isn't a forgiving mistress in this regard.  You can argue perhaps that people just don't care how they are treated by history, but the reality is that they do.  Call someone a racist or a Nazi, get their reactions, and tell me that people don't become upset about being seen correctly in history.

It's been said that Democrats lost in 2016 because they pointed out that Trump supporters were supporting a racist and a bigot, and ipso facto they were also racists and bigots.  There is probably some truth to this argument-no one likes being called a racist or a bigot, because those are considered universally bad things.  We all like to think of ourselves as being "one of the good people," one of the people that history will recall fondly, and some would rather deny the truth by endorsing the man who said their beliefs aren't racist than take a good, long look at what they're endorsing.  It's hard for many people to hear these realities, because they either have to condemn them themselves or a loved one who went along with Trump, wanting perhaps to be exempted from condemnation.  It's hard for me-I have people I know that voted for Trump that I don't want to become one of the pictures in a history book that are seen as the "villains," those spitting on the Little Rock Nine or armed with an insignia that will be considered vile by future generations (those Make America Great hats, anyone?).

But that's not how basic history works-it's more concrete, and it doesn't have time for the nuance of whether a person had a good heart but made a bad decision.  History in terms of mass opinion is a series of "yes" or "no" questions, and its hard not to see in 20, 30 years, the people who will read of this era and think "of course I would have voted for Hillary Clinton, it was the only logical choice," while those who ignored the cruelty of Donald Trump until it was too late will have slipped into the backgrounds of conversations, finding ways to believe that they did vote for Hillary Clinton or that they didn't vote that year, if only to give themselves reprieve from the quizzical looks of their children and grandchildren, wondering if those that came before them were heroes or villains.

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