What’s Going On?

No really, Laurel Leff wants to know. This isn’t a poltical-rhetorical question but something bigger. What are we to make of the president’s recent nod to Holocaust denial? We need to consider the matter in an open, fearless, and dispassionate way, but how?

For those of us who teach and research the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, the Trump administration’s refusal to mention Jews in a statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been both horrifying and confusing.

Read Leff’s whole piece, and if you haven’t read Deborah Lipstadt on why “Holocaust denial” is an appropriate term here, be sure to follow that link in Leff’s piece too.

Governmental Data Erasure

The following piece contains an important error, which I have highlighted in yellow below. I have corrected the record in a follow-up post.

In the USSR, during certain periods, key individuals were erased from photographs and history when they fell out of favor. Trotsky was perhaps the most famous example. Such attempts to falsify images and textbooks for political ends went further, however. Historical reality itself—not just its interpretation and instruction—needed to bend to the regime’s will. Who knew that such crude reality-bending tools would be used in the United States in the 2010s by the party that credits the end of the Cold War to its hero, Ronald Regan?

The new administration’s erasure of data might be one of its most offensive actions thus far. If lives are not immediately threatened by it, the long term will be a different matter. But how to prove such harm when the time comes? Congressional prohibitions on research into the public health effects of gun violence have been effective so far.

At least there are capable individuals and organizations working to safeguard existing data, as in the case of the Internet Archive and recently erased USDA reports on animal welfare. But how did such a class of reports become too hot for certain politicians to handle?

We once punished tobacco companies for suppressing information, but our public servants actively suppress public health data that doesn’t comport with their worldview. Wouldn’t it make more sense to trust the public and to compete in the marketplace of hard data and ideas? And why not serve the public interest by supporting the research that organizations like the USDA, the CDC, the Department of Energy, and the EPA require to fulfill their missions?

Don’t be a Sucker (1947)

There is an infectious simplicity about this film, which rings true politically in these times, even if the history it tells was more complicated.

Contemporary Political Rhetoric and Teaching History

Earlier this month I did a post on my Hist 100 blog that might be of some interest to readers here, “Contemporary Politics and History.” My audience was primarily freshmen in their first semester at university, most of them too young to have voted in the last election.

I have said this in class, but it needs repeating here: Our contemporary American political discourse about socialism and nazism has absolutely nothing to do with those terms and phenomena in actual history. While we are not in class to talk about American politics, I want to point out how language and history are being abused for political purposes. I am not doing this to undermine the stances of politicians who use hyperbole to make their points. There are perfectly good ideological and policy reasons that one can bring to either side of the health care debate, the energy policy debate, environmental policy debates, and so on. But none of these reasons has anything to do with Hitler, nazism, communism, or socialism—not if we are being honest, and as long as we are willing to see the slippery slope argument for what it is, a logical fallacy.

This abuse of history used to just offend me as a citizen who knew something about history, but addressing the abuse became part of my teaching job this summer when I had a student try to explain Hitler in terms of “socialism” and “big government.” That is when I realized that not only was history being abused for political purposes, but our contemporary political discourse was getting in the way of students understanding the past. That’s why I wrote a blog post on my own history blog sarcastically entitled, “What Having a Socialist Nazi in the White House Means for the Classroom.”

I could follow the logic of the student who described Hitler in terms of “socialism” and “big government,” if I were willing to understand the past in terms of this country’s contemporary self-image, but I am not. We need to take the past on its own terms and try to understand it in some detail before we attempt easy analogies. In other words, my concern relates to historical thinking, that is, that thing I began teaching you with the reading assignments from August 31st, including Gerald Schlabach’s “A Sense of History.”

This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me on this date.