The Bludgeon of History

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This past week, Rudy Giuliani sparked a war of words by questioning President Obama’s “love of country” and his faith at private Republican fundraiser. One thing that struck me that has not been discussed as much is this quote from Giuliani:

What I don’t find with Obama — this will get me in more trouble again — is a really deep knowledge of history. I think it’s a dilettante’s knowledge of history.

In American debate, “history” remains a frequent trump card. It’s been battered to death that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. As law-makers tote pocket Constitutions as evidence of their unsullied ethical prom-pledge, they forget the dirty art of compromise it once embodied.

History does have a powerful hold on the American imagination. We cite stories of victory and loss as if these anecdotes prove something akin to the laws of physics. This is why we still have philosophical fights about the curriculum of classes like AP US History, arguing over how (or whether) to teach students about colonialism, the causes of the Civil War, and dissent in America.

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What Giuliani misses in his criticism is that our reading of history is always selective. His experience having been mayor of New York during September 11, however, does not make him a scholar on Islam.

Some people have studied the long history of the tension between the West and the Middle East and concluded that the two philosophies will always be at odds with each other. Others have studied a time before that when ideas exchanged freely between the two cultures. We cannot choose to make our remembered experiences to be self-evident truths.

It is a folly to summarize the history of these cultures by the Crusades or the attacks on the World Trade Center as if we could make an empirical judgement about the nature of either religion. History can excavate knowledge from the past to give context but it can never draw conclusions.

9/11 commemorationPresident Obama’s favorite Martin Luther King-attributed expression could easily be paraphrased as “The moral arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” For him, American history recalls a hard fought war that eliminated slavery, protests to expand the right to vote to women and blacks, global fights against totalitarianism, and a Civil Rights movement that beckoned for a country to live up to the content of its creed.

While critics should point out lessons from the past that President Obama misses, they would do well to listen to his story too. Perhaps we should hold a summit to address both Giuliani and Obama’s historical blind spots. The syllabus for the first lesson: the ignorance of calling the Bin Laden raid “Geronimo.”

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