Don't Know Much About History

By Bill Mefford

I remember watching President George W. Bush bone-headedly push for an invasion of Afghanistan and an illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. All the while I kept thinking that what Bush needed more than military advisers were anthropologists. He had no concept of the complex cultures he was dealing with as he strutted across the globe with immense military power while clueless as to why people thought and behaved the way they did. If he had listened half as much to anthropologists who understood how cultures are structured and how cultures do in fact change as he did to the neocons whispering into his ear, there is a chance that his administration would not have been so colossally murderous. 

The needs of the trump administration are far more numerous than those of the Bush administration - than any administration in history. Rarely a day goes by without me laughing at some incredibly stupid thing someone does or says (and yes, most of the time it is trump). But in addition to the many anthropologists, 4th grade spelling teachers, and a team of trained psychiatrists, this administration is deeply in need of a historian. 

Earlier this week donald trump was on the phone with the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, as they heatedly discussed trump's ill-informed use of tariffs to punish our allies. Trudeau was thankfully pushing back on trump (something neither anyone in his administration or in the Republican Congress ever does), when trump blurted out, "Didn't you guys burn down the White House?" 

First of all, why you are bringing up a war over two hundred years ago as you discuss tariffs on aluminum and steel is beyond me, but dude, read a book! The War of 1812, which is the context for when the White House was burned down (and it was actually burned down in 1814), was fought with the British. Canada was a colony of Great Britain at the time and was unable to declare war on anyone. The ironic thing is that the War of 1812 actually started because the United States was a pawn in a trade war between England and France. 

Awkward and embarrassing. 

I would have loved to have been a staffer for Trudeau and in the room when he was on the phone with trump in order to see Trudeau's bewilderment and I am sure suppressed laughter at trump's historical ineptitude. Yes, the United States is officially a joke. 

But there are so many more occasions of trump's historical buffoonery:

  • trump spoke of Frederick Douglass last year in the present tense saying he "is doing a tremendous job." Of course, Douglass was a former slave and died in 1895 having led the abolitionist cause (something he did in fact do a tremendous job at). 
  • At a rally during the campaign trump said that African Americans have been voting for Democrats for over a hundred years. Yeah, try again. African Americans, particularly in the South, were denied the right to vote since Reconstruction ended and that lasted until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (and continues to today as the right to vote is constantly being attacked by - you guessed it - Republicans). Further, it wasn't until President Roosevelt that any significant portion of African Americans were voting for Democrats and their first taste of political power was their role in helping to decide the 1960 presidential race for John F. Kennedy. 
  • At the honoring of Native American code talkers from World War II, trump stupidly held the event right in front of the portrait of Andrew Jackson. Jackson is best known for his hatred towards Native Americans. He was involved in a number of "Indian Wars" in Florida and then later, as president, he signed the Indian Removal Act, which forced indigenous people off of their lands in the East for lands further West. This later lead to the "Trail of Tears" in 1838, when over 16,000 members of the Cherokee nation were forced to march over 1,200 miles with one-fourth of them dying from disease, famine, torture, and murder by the US military. Needless to say, honoring brave men who served their country in World War II in front of a portrait of a man partly culpable for an attempted genocide of their ancestors is stupid and downright mean. (And I did not even touch on trump's racist attack on Senator Warren at this event as well). 
  • trump always likes to claim that a lot of people share his beliefs or his prejudices, but he once claimed that a lot of people do not know that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. Uh-huh. Dude, YOU are the one who does not know that. Stop blaming everyone else for your complete dearth of historical knowledge. 
  • One last doozy; during the campaign, trump rhetorically asked an editorial board, "why couldn't the Civil War have been worked out?" Well, I am sure you would have preferred the nation work out a compromise that would have prevented a Civil War, but which would have also maintained the system of slavery. There were, in fact, people prior to the Civil War, who were working to prevent a war while maintaining slavery. One name for them was racist slaveowners. 

But ineptitude among our leaders is not confined to just donald trump (he is just the most prominent). Just this week the spokesperson for the State Department, Heather Nauert (a former Fox News host), was talking about the long history of a strong relationship we have had with Germany. As an example, she mentioned that this week we celebrate the anniversary of the D-Day invasion. I guess someone forgot to tell her that D-Day was when the US and our allies invaded Germany. We were at war with Germany. We probably did not have a strong relationship with Germany when we were at war with them. 

Why is this important? I always find it intriguing that one of the most often-cited commands God gives us in Scripture is to remember; remember where we come from, remember God's calling on us, remember our history. Remembering our history shapes who we are and where we are going. History has always been for me a reminder of God's active engagement in the world, always working to protect the vulnerable, hold accountable those who oppress, and to bring justice to the world. That is why I love reading history more than theological books; more than any kind of book. 

History is important and being deficient in this realm is so easy to solve: read some books. 

For just as history roots us and gives us direction, a lack of historical understanding keeps us adrift and even valueless. And adrift and valueless can easily sum up this administration to this point. 

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