Good use of history

Good use of history

The debate in the United States over President Trump’s 2nd impeachment attempt is historic.

First, because he will go down in history – never has a president been the subject of such a procedure on two occasions. “Historical”, too, insofar as this debate is loaded with references to the past.

We in Quebec are proud of our motto “Je me souviens”, but Americans seem much more up to this oath in their political debates.

In Congress and on television, all the time, people are quoting Madison, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Luther King, Kennedy, Reagan, etc. All refer to the promises of the “founding fathers”, to the lessons of key events of the past. As if the elders were part of the exchanges.

“We cannot escape History,” repeated the President of the House of Representatives, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, yesterday, quoting Abraham Lincoln.

The same references are not always used by the same camp. Louisiana Republican elected representative Steve Scalise also mobilized Lincoln, but to implore his colleagues to reject impeachment. At his second inauguration in 1865, the great Abraham was magnanimous, claimed the chosen one: it was not necessary to cultivate hatred against the old adversaries but, on the contrary, “charity towards all” …

In Quebec, it is extremely rare for a politician to quote one of his illustrious predecessors. “I remember” is a kind of antiphrase placed on the pediment of the National Assembly. If we made our current elected officials (and journalists, including me!) Pass a knowledge test on the 26 bronze figures on the facade, I have the impression that the results would be appalling.

So I admire the ability of American democracy to refer to its great figures and its initial promises (this veneration of the “constitution” and their authors).

I am aware that in these days of crisis any expression of admiration of the American spirit may seem incongruous. At the same time, the reminders of history in these troubled times are like deep roots that can enable a great old tree to withstand raging winds.

In “Democracy in America”, Tocqueville wrote about this new country: “The past no longer illuminates the future, the mind walks in darkness.” Almost 200 years later, the United States has developed a memory, a kind of foundation. As if History inhabited them and they inhabited History.

A historian friend to whom I submitted the idea yesterday replied that history is often misunderstood and that this is not without consequences.

For example, “this belief that they made their independence thanks to the militiamen coming out of their homes with their personal rifles”, became a supposedly absolute argument in favor of the 2nd Amendment. And which obscures the role of the French expeditionary force of 1781, of the professionalization of the American army.

I also saw, in the crowd around the Capitol, on January 6, “demonstrators” disguised as revolutionaries of the 18th century, wearing tricorns …

There is certainly a good use of History to cultivate, in our schools, in our public debates.

Broad topic. I will definitely come back.

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