Our democracy is under open attack. Americans who have long considered our system of government to be the source of all our nation’s problems have at last acted to overthrow it by invading the Capitol building in an attempt to stop the certification of a fair and legal presidential election.
These people have been taught to hate “the government” at least since the days of President Reagan, who claimed in his January 20, 1981 inaugural speech that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
This was the official start of an alternate American history, one that identifies all government, but particularly our federal government, as the enemy of American freedom and individuality. This imaginary history describes a “great” America that was controlled by white Christian men, where there were no homosexuals, non-Christians, or feminists, and all immigrants were “honest, hard-working” white Christians.
Those of us who study and love actual American history have always had to fight against this fantasy American history.
We’ve done our best to teach the people we talk with about the real history of race, sex, religion, immigration, and politics in America.
We do this tirelessly because the study of real American history is always the study of the struggle to fulfill the unique mandate of our founding documents, which commit Americans to promoting the general welfare by acknowledging the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We take pride and pleasure in helping people understand the importance of the pledge of allegiance they make to stand up for liberty and justice for all.
We are ever-ready to show other Americans how the language “all men are created equal”, with its assumed meaning of “white men”, was a starting point from which generation after generation of Americans expanded rights to include women, non-white Americans, and all citizens of this country.
We don’t pretend that American history is a rose garden of justice and triumph. But we help people understand that we have a unique national conscience that drives us, each generation of Americans, to live up to our founding principles, that won’t let us settle for less, that makes us despair over injustice and recommit, over and over, to creating a more perfect union.
Today, in 2021, we must do even more.
Today, we must rise up to take real action against the terrorists who would destroy our democratic government. Not just by issuing statements of dismay, but by actually mobilizing protests in the streets and online.
There is no line between “history” and “current events”, between “studying history” and “talking about politics.” Today’s political event is tomorrow’s history. We can’t divorce our study of American history from political activism in the name of justice.
This is a time for action as historians. What can we do?
We must first demand that emergency actions be taken to remove a treasonous president, and the treasonous members of Congress who voted to overturn a legal election.
We must fearlessly identify anti-democratic, racist, nativist activities and groups and explicitly call them out as enemies of our democracy. This is not the time to call for “trying to understand.” If we pretend not to understand tyranny and terrorism after studying it for years, we are part of the problem.
We must acknowledge the magnitude of the terrorist overrunning of our Capitol and Congress. We cannot tell the public this is just another in a long history of anti-democratic activism. If we minimize what happened on January 6, we help Americans to normalize it, and we are part of the problem.
We must teach Americans their real history, which does not include a once-great America in the undefined past that only a dictatorship can restore. We must teach Americans that our history is one of success and failure in the never-ending pursuit of liberty and justice for all, and that only when we do that work are Americans truly great.
We must speak out to interrupt lies and hate speech. If you are called on to give commentary in any public forum, speak bravely and clearly about the anti-democratic terrorism taking place in the United States, and make it clear that we are bound as Americans to call it by its name and fight against it.
We must refuse to find, provide, or tolerate excuses or justifications for hate speech and for physical acts of terrorism.
We must give talks and write articles and have discussions where we explicitly connect what we learn in American history to the politics of the present day, and the American mandate to create a just and democratic state.
There is open war in America today. If historians can’t or won’t take action in this moment, then we really are just useless “history nerds” and academics, escapists who hide our heads in the sand of the past.