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When I passed a man near the Harvard Square T stop yelling “Deport all Muslims,” all I could think about was the sturdy build of history, too powerful to waver despite the strongest attempts at human ingenuity.
That’s probably my favorite thing about history—how we think we’re smarter than it. Like dogs proudly strutting back to their owners, ball in mouth, only to chase after it again. Like 13-year olds entranced by the new glamour of teenhood, too cool to dwell on a youth that’s as dull as it is irrelevant.
So, I reject the idea that’s been gaining momentum that as a nation we suffer from collective memory loss. Rather it’s the far more insidious belief that history doesn’t matter—the arrogant tendency to trivialize the most immutable of human patterns, to think that circumstances can ever be exceptional.
When Donald Trump called to block all Muslim immigration, to prevent American Muslims abroad from re-entering the United States, and to create “systems” to track Muslims in the country, he recognized our smug conception of history, and exploited it. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this election cycle is that Donald Trump is the smartest candidate in the field. He places his imprimatur on repackaged incarnations of ugly human id, older than our country itself, and like any good capitalist or deity, he just sits back and gloats in his omniscience, watching the American people scramble like ants as they recycle old fears under new pretenses.
Equally as predictable is the justification that follows up: We’re at war (with Muslims?), the Muslim community hasn’t done enough to condemn radical Islam, and, my personal favorite, “things are different now.”
Things are different now. This is Trump’s lifeblood. Somewhere deep in his rhetorical excreta is a very deftly constructed manipulation of our blindness to history’s lessons. He doesn’t outright invoke Nazi propaganda or Japanese internment because of the blatant moral repulsion but instead dances around it until our obsession with the specious novelty of the present reconciles the cognitive dissonance for him. Trump says, on the subject of Japanese internment during World War II, “I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer. I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.” Echt-Trump: championing circumstances over concepts, presenting history as a series of pivotal and unprecedented crossroads.
This dangerous brand of moral relativism has a single end, though: Making America great again. Even this, despite appearances, does great disservice to history. Trump paints history as a perfect standard through which we measure the import of present problems rather than an imperfect one through which we diagnose mistakes and find solutions. How exactly will Trump’s solutions solve our problems? It doesn’t matter. At least he’s doing something to address issues we’ve never seen before.
Trump shares this anti-intellectual conception of history with an unlikely group—the Harvard Housemasters, who also trivialize the pedagogical function of the past in the relentless pursuit of betterment. It’s almost cruel that they announced their (unanimous!) decision to change the name of their title the day I first shared my thoughts on sanitizing history in my column two weeks ago, but I find consolation in the amusement of asking them the same questions as The Donald:
Isn’t there something scary about changing the record? Isn’t history about remembering the good, but also the bad? Unless you prescribe to Mr. Trump’s worldview, America wasn’t always great—slavery, Woodrow Wilson’s racism, and the myriad times we discriminated against ethnic and religious groups of immigrants or even citizens come to mind as compelling examples.
I find value in the connection I feel between the title of House master and the institution of American slavery—it keeps me honest; it keeps me hungry. Rather than papering over this history, I challenge the House masters to learn from it to address real racial problems that exist today. I also find value in someone like Donald Trump to the end that he shows us that his isn’t a society we want to be in. In the words of Robert Fisk, “The only lesson we ever learn is that we never learn.” Hopefully Donald Trump will teach us a thing or two.
Most likely though, he won’t. Our fear of Muslims and residential titles will run its course until it reaches the irretrievable depths of the past: static, harmless, barely a speck in the wistful past. We will move on. History will turn back her clock, but we won’t notice. We’ll be too distracted by the enchantments of a timeworn present.
Shubhankar Chhokra ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House.
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