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Return of the Empire, and of History

It’s not just the Star Wars franchise that’s been making a comeback lately

By Nelson L. Barrette

As the semester winds down and winter vacation tantalizingly approaches, so too does the release of a blast from the past: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” a reminder of childhood memories featuring light saber fights in the yard and attempts to blow up the Death Star from a high-flying cockpit on the swing set. Typically, events like the release of a long-awaited movie from a favorite franchise are the kind of historic moments that people pay attention to in their daily lives. After all, the last Star Wars film, “Revenge of the Sith” came out 10 years ago, and the very first was released 38 years ago when my parents were about my age. So, in a non-trivial sense, the release of the new Star Wars movie is a historic event, and it has been generating the attention one would expect.

Recently, however, movie history has not been the only kind of history holding the public imagination. In fact, as the author of a column whose main thesis is that looking to history is useful to glean ideas for present day problems, I have been pleasantly surprised by the past’s recent resurgence.

An obvious area in which the past has come back with a vengeance is in the ongoing debates at many universities over symbols and names. Here at Harvard, the Law School crest is currently the most hot-button issue, but other names will undoubtedly come next: Mather House for its namesake’s slave ownership, Lowell for that University President’s vicious treatment of Jews, blacks, and gay people. Even the first John Winthrop of “City upon a hill” fame had a role in establishing slavery in Harvard’s backyard. Yale continues to wrestle with having one of its residential colleges named after one of the most pro-slavery politicians in American history, John C. Calhoun. And, perhaps most extraordinarily, at Princeton, the usually inviolable Woodrow Wilson is coming under fire for his well-documented racism.

Historians are often wary about renaming campaigns, and they are for good reason. But just because the names of the buildings and institutions rattled off above should probably stay does not mean that the debates they are sparking are not worth having. On the contrary, these discussions illuminate portions of forgotten history that deserve better memorialization. One of the more intriguing proposals put forward in the Wilson debate at Princeton came from New York University visiting associate professor Nathan Connolly, who suggested keeping the name of the Wilson School but adding a monument to Wilson’s questionably conceived intervention in Haiti in a prominent location.

These kinds of dual remembrances are particularly appealing because they avoid the very mistakes that led certain histories to be remembered and others forgotten. People in the 1930s thought that naming a residential college after John Calhoun was an obvious decision because of a deliberately distorted historical memory. As University President Drew G. Faust paraphrased the brilliant historian John Hope Franklin in a recent essay on his life, “an understanding of history destroys innocence.” Remembering history well and seeing its aftershocks in present day violence and inequality is jarring; but forgetting it or creating false narratives of the kind that Franklin explored about the Civil War merely perpetuates injustices.

President Faust concludes her essay by posing several questions. One is aimed directly at her peers: “Are we as historians committed—and prepared—to seize this responsibility to extend history beyond the academy?” In a world where Donald Trump believes he can justify a policy of religious exclusion based on a passing reference to World War II era executive orders, a true engagement with the realities of America’s racial past, with scholarly rigor and an eye toward the future, seems long overdue.

In other areas of study, academics are already putting historical thinking to good use in a similar manner. The Kennedy School’s Graham T. Allison, for example, is conducting a project named after his famous concept of the Thucydides Trap. The central question of this venture is a pressing one: Will China’s challenge to the U.S.’s global dominance produce a war? To find the answer—or possible answers—Allison has studied 16 cases in which “a major rising power threatened to displace a major ruling power.” The results are sobering: in 12, war was the result. But in the remaining four, Allison sees hope for managing the inevitable frictions between Washington and Beijing.

This example from the world of international relations may not seem immediately applicable to discussions of race, but it underscores the way in which careful historical study can illuminate the full measure of present problems. Just as the worlds of 1945 and 1914 are far from being too distant to provide lessons for the conduct of today’s foreign affairs, the worlds of the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, the Jim Crow South, and the Civil Rights Era are crucial for understanding racial and economic injustice in the United States today. One need only look at the chaos in the Middle East or the protests on America’s streets, to paraphrase Tupac, to see the relevance of these disparate episodes to today’s world.

Which brings us back to Star Wars. When last we left Han Solo and Chewbacca, they had defeated the Galactic Empire and killed lots of stormtroopers. Judging by the trailers for “The Force Awakens,” it looks like at least the latter half of that equation is back. History, it seems, just won’t end in the galaxy far, far away, to the glee of moviegoers everywhere. For better or for worse, it won’t in this galaxy either—so we’d better do our best to understand it.

Nelson L. Barrette '17, a Crimson editorial executive, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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