If you approach me to ask me a question, and I hit you with a baton and spray teargas in your face, I have committed a crime. If you are walking down the street and I forcibly pull you into a van, I have committed a crime. These are now the routine actions of employees of the US federal government directed against US citizens.
“Rapid deployment teams” of federal employees, now in Portland, Oregon, and soon in other US cities, are committing crimes on the basis of a theory which holds that Americans are due no legal protection.
Why? Because a statue might be endangered. For US President Donald Trump, the concept of human rights has been replaced by the concept of the protection of sacred objects. He has declared that the entities that enjoy rights are not people, but monuments (all of them, apparently).
Illustration: Mountain People
When federal officials speak now of “violence” or threats to “homeland security,” they do not mean racism or the COVID-19 pandemic, but graffiti. Humans figure as potential violators of the moral order created by things. We are to be surveilled because we might be thinking of damaging a statue, and arrested or beaten because we are in a place where there is a statue.
This is not just a distraction or an overreaction. It is an antidemocratic form of politics that is characteristic of the new authoritarianism worldwide. In my books I call it the “politics of eternity”: a displacement of the real challenges of the actual world with a myth of a sacred past that must be protected.
We face a racial crisis that threatens African Americans and a pandemic that has taken nearly 150,000 lives. A responsible government would address these problems.
The Trump administration is not just distracting us from them by creating lawless mayhem, but building a different idea of the task of government — from policy to memory. It is displacing the idea of democratic responsibility with that of the politics of eternity. A politician of eternity seeks to shift the work of government away from the actual problems of actual people and toward the enforcement of national myth.
Although politicians such as Trump like to use the word “history,” the politics of eternity is not at all about history. It is a myth of guilt and innocence. It proposes that, at some mystical moment in the past, our nation (or race) was innocent and perfect, and that we must commune with that image, closing our eyes to the complications of both past and present, and forget entirely about the future.
For Trump, statues of Confederate notables, often erected between the two world wars, are the touchstone of our national communion.
Of course, these statues do not embody “history.” The erection and the destruction of monuments are facts in history, not history itself.
Like all monuments, Confederate statues represent a moment of social consensus and political power. In this case, the moment was the triumph of white supremacy, and the success of racial cleansing in US towns and cities two and three generations after the end of the Civil War.
Every monument that has ever gone up will at some point come down. That is what history looks like.
During World War I, Americans insisted on national self-determination in Europe, and at its end the statues of the old emperors came down.
After the next world war, American GIs watched in Europe as city squares named after Adolf Hitler were renamed. (The German term for “rapid deployment teams,” by the way, was “task forces,” or Einsatzgruppen.)
Americans cheered when the Lenin monuments came down after the revolutions of 1989. Americans themselves brought down a statue of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Should all of this now be restored?
Free people aware of their history can debate and dispute what should go up and what must come down. History is not a fictive permanence where an autocrat tells us that we are right and the others are wrong because we have mystical objects in the sacred locations.
History cannot be captured by the dead weight of metal or cement and transformed into an object of worship, the meaning of which is defined by a leader’s whim. That is the politics of eternity, used to make us unfree.
History, by contrast, is about recording and understanding change. It takes for granted that the past structures the present, but also that people can understand those limitations and find ways to transcend them. That is freedom.
Democracy requires history, because free people must always be judging our leaders, and ourselves, for our past mistakes. The history of those years between and around the world wars, if we attend to it, tells us things that we need to know.
The black American GIs who returned from World War I were beaten and humiliated. African Americans were purged from US cities. The US after World War I suffered from a pandemic. We failed, then as now, to establish national public health. Then, as now, a sense of white entitlement got in the way of a system in which everyone would have access to care. We chose “racial hygiene” over public health, and have ever since.
Adolf Hitler admired the Jim Crow laws of the interwar years and emulated them. We sent a segregated army to fight in World War II. The men who returned very often found that they could not vote nor enter public places. Then, as now, the separation of African Americans from their basic rights makes us all less free.
US history tells us that freedom is impossible for all when it is denied to the few, and that public health is thwarted by racism. If our democracy is to survive, and if we are to contain a pandemic that has defined this year and a history of racism that goes back 400 years, we will need to reckon with our actual past, insist on everyone’s rights in the present, and plan for a different and better future.
The politics of eternity must give way to a politics of responsibility: where we see the past as a source of inspiration, caution and reflection.
Humans have rights because we are capable of this, and democracies will thrive when we do.
Timothy Snyder is the Levin professor of history at Yale University.
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