I was recently lectured by a reviewer for over-using the word "slave," which is offensive and dehumanizing to enslaved people. But "slave" was the word used by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and all the other people who actually risked their lives defending the humanity of slaves. The narratives written by former slaves all used the word: Twelve Years a Slave, etc. If the word is so offensive to you that you want to banish it from the language, can you read their writings? Three different young people I know have told me that they really can't, that slavery is so awful to them that they don't want to hear about it at all.
Maybe you're thinking that people can separate the language in old books from what they use themselves, but I don't buy it. Historians can do that; after immersing yourself in any past period for long enough, the vocabulary seems natural and no longer jars. But I very much doubt non-historians can.
And that is the thing I am wondering about history in my time. Many Americans are flat-out offended by the past and want nothing to do with it. Lynn Manuel Miranda was recently attacked on Twitter because Hamilton glorifies evil slave owners, and rather than bothering to defend his work he just said, "It's a valid point." But if we're not going to tell stories featuring slave owners, what stories do we have left to tell? Focusing on the oppressed might work for a few people, but that makes the stories pretty depressing and doesn't get you away from controversy. Plenty of American Indians dislike blacks every bit as much as whites and think they should go back to Africa when the whites go back to Europe. (I was once told this in a way I took to be completely serious.) There is simply no way to narrate North American history that is not offensive to somebody.
Meanwhile the new paleogenetics is threatening the connections that many people in Britain and Ireland feel with the builders of megalithic monuments, who, it turns out, were not their ancestors but the people their ancestors exterminated.
All of this has me thinking about what it would mean for people to lose all interest in history, and all knowledge beyond a vague sense that it was something bad.
It feels to me like a catastrophe, an abandonment of half of what makes life interesting. I love knowing about the past, reading about the past, watching movies set in the past or in fantasy versions of it. But other people feel differently. I wrote here last year about the fantastic fiction of N.K. Jemisin, which abandons all ties to the historical or mythic past in favor of an entirely imaginary world. Jemisin won the Hugo award three years in a row, I suspect because many American readers are also bored with or offended by the past and looking for something completely different.
But is there any more to our relationship with the past than that? I like it, you don't, who cares?
I have a strong sense that my approach to contemporary events is shaped by my knowledge of history. I believe that knowing some things trumpeted as new are really ancient, and some things proclaimed as tradition go back only a few decades, gives me insight into what is happening in the world. But is that an illusion? Is it the way I justify my beliefs to myself? Does knowing history really lead to better understanding of our own time? I suspect that if it does, it is mainly through knowing about the past 150 years or so. I doubt my learning about Viking heroic poetry or the structure of 14th-century manors is relevant.
It isn't that Negro Mountain is the hill I want to die on; the legislature of Texas voted unanimously to change the name, and how many things have Texas Democrats and Republicans agreed on lately? But despite a lot of rhetoric I don't see the country facing up to the bad parts of our past; I see us running as fast as we can away from all of it.