Perhaps not in America, but in other nations some intellectuals have come to believe that historical scholarship over the past generation has more than fulfilled its role of destroying memory, and they have reacted with alarm. In France the power of critical history-writing in eroding memory became serious enough in recent years that historian and editor Pierre Nora was provoked into publishing his seven-volume Lieux de Mémoire—Realms of Memory—much of which has appeared in English translations.
Modern critical history-writing in the Western world, Nora claimed, has broken the “ancient bond of identity” with “memory.” The “conquering force of history,” said Nora, has called “into question something once taken for granted: the close fit between history and memory.” History has now clearly become the enemy of memory. “Memory,” wrote Nora, “is always suspect in the eyes of history, whose true mission is to demolish it, to repress it.” Because critical historians had been so successful in disenchanting the history of France, in reducing its past to a cold and critical contextualism in which no living memory could survive, Nora believed that something had to be done to reverse the process. His project was designed to revive many of those sites that evoke the collective memory of the French people. So he and his collaborators wrote essays on everything they could think of as vital elements of French memory—Joan of Arc, Versailles, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Bastille Day, the “Marseillaise,” the Dictionnaire Larousse, the Tour de France, Verdun, and so on.
Nora believed, as does the English historian David Lowenthal in his Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1996), that this kind of collective memory is essential for any society. Memory, or what Lowenthal calls “heritage,” may be, like the Tea Party’s use of the Founding, a worthless sham, its credos fallacious, even perverse; but, wrote Lowenthal, “heritage, no less than history, is essential to knowing and acting.” It fosters community, identity, and continuity, and in the end makes possible history itself. “By means of it we tell ourselves who we are, where we came from, and to what we belong.”
I agree that memory is essential for action. Without a sense of what has happened it is impossible to think meaningfully about what ought to be done. Consider that history's most successful revolutionaries, the Marxists, based their actions on a carefully worked-out theory of history. And consider again that the Marxist vision of history was wrong, and their revolutions led to disaster. I suspect few of my readers know that American labor unions have funded a lot of archaeology at places like squatter camps and the sites of the coal field wars, which they do because they know that support for their causes in the present depends on people knowing their version of history.
The problem with the Tea Party is not just that they have an antihistorical relationship with the past, it is that their imagined past encourages them in dubious directions: toward hatred of immigrants, distrust of non-white people, belief that markets can achieve things that have always been done (if done at all) by governments. They are hardly the only ones to do this sort of thing. Most people like to view history tribally, picking out people in the past to identify with and then celebrating their victories, explaining away their defeats, denying their atrocities, and making them seem much more like us than they ever were. If critical, professional history can show that all virtue does not reside in anti-government white men, and that government has done a great deal of good, that strikes me as a positive thing. I am not sure, though, that it is every possible to convince believers of anything, no matter how much evidence you bring.
My personal politics are very much bound up with my vision of the past. I see human history as enormously various and diverse, with wickedness and virtue spread thinly across all societies; I see that all societies have their strengths and their sins; I see that oppression of the lower class is the norm, but that oppressed people nonetheless get on with their lives and many find happiness. I see that violence, conflict, hypocrisy and lies are the norm, but real catastrophes like World War II are few and far between. I see that things change, and that what seem like eternal truths in one age are swept away by the next. I see little evidence of justice, but much for resilience and creativity.
My reading of history leaves me with a suspicion of all extreme rhetoric and all claims that anyone knows the "solution" to a major problem. I can be stirred by bold rhetoric, and I admire heroic characters like Abraham Lincoln. But I prefer to vote for pragmatists who understand the complexity of the world and the limits of what can be achieved. I like politicians who know that purity is a dangerous fantasy, that everything is a compromise, that nobody ever gets everything he wants. What irks me most is any claim that the situation or the answer is "simple."
I doubt that my sort of understanding of the world will ever be shared by the majority. Most people react strongly against complexity and long for simplicity, especially in politics. Most people want to see things in moral terms, and to be for the good and against the bad. The mixed-up reality of history is not what most of us want to see, and politicians who have a clear and simple vision will always have an advantage.