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Monday, February 20, 2012

February 20, 2012: Precedents Day

My suggestion, repeated from last President’s Day, for how we can make this national holiday into a more meaningful remembrance of our leaders and histories.

One of the most nonsensical of our current national narratives (emphasis on the national—the top ten thousand most nonsensical current narratives stem from the general area of one Mr. Beck, but I’m focusing here on narratives that have achieved a pretty broad and cross-community level of support and buy-in) is the idea that we have lost a certain kind of civility in our public or political discourse, and that one of our main goals should be finding and reemphasizing it. Civility may or may not be a worthy goal in and of itself, but it has most definitely never been central to our public and political cultures; even a few minutes’ reading of the materials related to the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates over the Constitution, the controversies over the Alien and Sedition Acts, the extremely heated and divisive Adams v. Jefferson election of 1800, and many other foundational moments should be more than enough to make clear how uncivil those cultures have often been from the outset.
That isn’t necessarily a good thing, and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s a historical reailty thing, and the goodness or badness of it would have a lot more to do with our own perspectives and agendas in narrating the histories. And the truth of the matter, as it so often is when it comes to our national narratives—hence this blog, at least in significant measure—is that we have precious little interest in understanding or narrating the historical realities, especially since they so often refuse to fit neatly into our simplifying ideas (such as “We used to be one big happy family who were nice to each other, and now we’re so divided and partisan and mean”). Much has been made of a particular line from President Obama’s speech at the Tucson memorial service, when he expressed his hope that the tragedy’s deaths could “help usher in more civility in our public discourse”; but I would contend that the far more significant sentiment came later in the same sentence, when he called instead for “a more civil and honest public discourse.” Again, whether or not civility is a worthwhile pursuit, I believe that honesty is most definitely a more worthwhile and valuable one—and, not unrelatedly, that an honest assessment of our history would force us to admit that we have never been particularly civil.

So on this President’s Day, I’d like to set, in my own small way and space, a precedent for future remembrances of our national leaders: honesty rather than celebration, accuracy to history’s complexities rather than “respect for the office of the president” (which is really just another way of saying civility) and all that. This does not, I hope it goes without saying, mean simply revisionist attacks on our presidents; those are just as simplifying, just as dishonest, as any hagiographies could be. Instead, I mean genuinely complex, honest engagement with the whole pictures; not necessarily of every president (to put it uncivilly, who really gives a fuck about Chester Arthur?), but of the ones we particularly want to remember as prominent parts of our histories and identities. Obviously such honest engagement would require more time and effort than a simple President’s Day remark allows, but still, even in the shortest lines we can work in starting points toward it: Thomas Jefferson, articulate defender of democracy and slaveowner who almost certainly conducted a multi-decade affair with a slave, impassioned opponent of the Alien and Sedition Acts and imperialist who more than doubled the nation’s lands with the likely unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase; Abraham Lincoln, who held a nation together and in the process decimated fundamental civil liberties like habeas corpus, who without question would have been willing to sacrifice any pretense of abolitionism to preserve the union but who once the war had begun was a vocal and steadfast defender of African American rights; Ulysses Grant, who presided over the most corrupt administration of the century but wrote and worked ceaselessly for freedmen’s rights; Teddy Roosevelt, who contributed greatly to negative stereotypes of Native Americans and the Filipino insurgency but helped solidify the National Park System and entrench Progressive reforms; and so on.
None of those get close to capturing the complexities of each man and administration, and the precedent would be most ideal if it just inspired more reading and research, more investigation and analysis of these historical figures and periods and the many issues and questions to which they connect. And if in so doing we got a bit closer to the historical realities of who and what we’ve been, and started to emphasize honesty and accuracy more than either agendas or civility, well, that’d be a day worth celebrating each year. More tomorrow,

PS. Links:

1) Full text of Grant’s eloquent and memorable Memoirs (1886):
2) Full text of Roosevelt’s influential and troubling The Strenuous Life (1900):

3) What else should we remember?

2/20 Memory Day nominee (no known birthdate so date of death): Frederick Douglass, one of the most significant and impressive, eloquent and brilliant, and vital and inspiring Americans, full stop.

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