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Historical Memory As Culture War Weapon

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield

Take a look at this:

Listen to the clip. She talks about how her ancestors were enslaved, and how she grew up under segregation (also true: she was born in 1952, and grew up in a northern suburb of Baton Rouge). But she goes from that awful true history to the “1619 Project” slander. This is important stuff. If white supremacy really is “weaved into our founding documents and principles,” then the US founding is fatally compromised. You may have been under the impression that slavery and Jim Crow were failures of the US to live up to the promises of liberty in the founding documents — and you would have been right! We fought a civil war over this. The Civil Rights Movement was launched as a great moral crusade to make those promises real for black Americans.

Now, though, history is being rewritten before our eyes by the Left.

This is going to have major repercussions. Please read historian Stanley Payne’s essay on how the Spanish Left has revisited the historical settlement that allowed that civil war-wracked nation to live in peace and democracy, and is weaponizing it. Payne is one of the leading Anglophone historians of the Spanish Civil War. Excerpts:

In January 2020, the Socialist government of Spain, led by Pedro Sánchez, proposed a bill of profound cultural and political significance: a “Law of Historical and Democratic Memory.” If adopted, this law will bring to completion a twenty-year effort on the part of the Spanish left to limit speech and reshape civic life. It would establish a national “Council of Memory,” an organ of state comprising public officials as well as professional “experts” and representatives of nongovernmental but politically reliable organizations. It would elaborate a comprehensive state policy to promote a left view of Spain’s early and mid-twentieth century. The bill mandates a search for the remains of a number of the “disappeared” on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39 and the creation of a “National DNA Bank” to help identify them. It prescribes the placement of “memory plaques” throughout the country to identify sites and personalities associated with “democratic memory”—the memory of radical opponents of the Franco regime, comparatively few of whom favored democracy. The “Law of Historical and Democratic Memory” calls on the Spanish government to identify and honor alleged “victims,” without regard to the fact that many were likely involved in mass killings and extra-­judicial executions.

The proposed law is highly punitive. Symbols, meetings, or statements judged to approve of the Franco regime and the victors in the civil war are deemed infractions against “historical and democratic memory.” Proposed penalties include an elaborate schedule of fines ranging from two hundred to a hundred thousand euros, the closing for a period of six months to two years of any entity found in violation, and the confiscation of the means or goods involved in any such activities. That this law will dramatically restrict freedom of expression and thus violate the Spanish Constitution is apparently irrelevant to the Sánchez government.

The Law of Historical and Democratic Memory is the most dramatic, arbitrary, and punitive proposal concerning discussions of history anywhere in the Western world. Yet the attitude it reflects is fairly common on the left, which increasingly uses governmental or nongovernmental means to restrict and punish speech that defends rightwing views, movements, and figures past or present. Politicized interpretations of history are, of course, not new. But Spain’s proposed law is a stark sign of the way the contemporary left seeks to weaponize history to achieve its goals and silence all dissent.

If you think some version of this is not coming here, you are dreaming. We may not have a law — which would violate the First Amendment — but the complete hegemony the Left enjoys within the academy, publishing, and media will create a situation within a decade, perhaps less, in which historical opinions that run contrary to the 1619 Project claim will be seen as “problematic,” and suppressed. More Payne:

The proposed law in Spain, however, marks a new tendency to weaponize history on behalf of demonstrably distorted and falsified interpretations that are politically useful rather than intellectually credible. This tendency is the product not of ignorance but of intense partisanship. It reflects a millenarian mentality that seeks to purge society of influences and attitudes stemming from the past in order to achieve a kind of purified utopia. Fundamental to this quest is the unrecognized search for a substitute to religious faith. This new political faith seeks to build a world of perfect equality and harmonized values. It imagines that progress can be made toward this immaculate world by presenting politically correct figures as martyrs who died for the coming utopia. This requires, in turn, scapegoating and driving out their supposed victimizers, who are alleged to be authors of the evils that assail society in its present, unredeemed state.

The tendency to weaponize history has always been strong in ultranationalist movements and is prominent as well among neo-traditional forces in the non-Western world. In the past, it has been employed by revolutionary movements of diverse stripes. Only recently has it been adopted by important sectors of major Western political parties—a sign of their radicalization and their turn toward repressive measures of social control, even mind control.

The pandemic has stalled further consideration of the “Law of Historical and Democratic Memory.” Spain has suffered proportionately the greatest devastation of any Western country, due in part to the incompetence and irresponsibility of its government. For the moment, the extreme left seems more fixated on delegitimizing the parliamentary monarchy established by the 1978 constitution, hoping to replace it with a Latin-American-style radical republic. The proposal to institutionalize “democratic memory” nonetheless remains. It is the most elaborate project in the Western world for the systematic weaponization of history. It confirms the penchant of the Spanish left, first expressed two centuries ago, for adopting the most extreme versions of leftwing ideas. It is a sign of where leftwing movements across the developed world will head if they are allowed to ­advance unopposed.

Read it all. It’s important.

Establishing control of the historical narrative — as opposed to allowing various competing narratives to flourish — is a hallmark of a totalitarian regime. From Live Not By Lies:

No culture, and no person, can remember everything. A culture’s memory is the result of its collective sifting of facts to produce a story—a story that society tells itself to remember who it is. Without collective memory, you have no culture, and without a culture, you have no identity.

The more totalitarian a regime’s nature, the more it will try to force people to forget their cultural memories. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the role of Winston Smith within the Ministry of Information is to erase all newspaper records of past events to reflect the current political priorities of the Party. This, said the ex-communist Polish intellectual Leszek Kołakowski, reflects “the great ambition of totalitarianism—the total possession and control of human memory.”

“Let us consider what happens when the ideal has been effectively achieved,” says Kołakowski. “People remember only what they are taught to remember today and the content of their memory changes overnight, if needed.”

We know from the history of communist totalitarianism how this can be achieved through a total state monopoly on information, including ideological control of education and media. Laura Nicolae’s experience at Harvard, where the next generation of American and global elites are trained, suggests how this can be accomplished even in free countries: by teaching those who aspire to leadership positions what it is important for them to remember, and what does not matter.

Again, a law like the one proposed in Spain is not really possible in the US, because of our Constitution. But the unwritten law of the culture, and the gatekeepers of culture, can achieve much the same thing. Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a black professor of Classics at Princeton and a leading revolutionary voice in the discipline, has called for considering “the demolition of the discipline itself” to achieve “reparative intellectual justice.” You do not have to have a single law passed by any legislature for the radical Left to achieve the capture of cultural memory.

Oprah Winfrey and Lionsgate studios optioned the 1619 Project for film and television projects. Get used to the narrative that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield puts forth in her address to Al Sharpton’s group. It’s going to become standard soon enough. Still, I would like to know if the President agrees with his UN Ambassador that the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution are embodiments of white supremacy.

UPDATE: A reader e-mails:

You mentioned the Spanish Civil War in your latest blog entry. Gray Connolly had an interesting thread about the war today on Twitter. It’s all worth reading, but I want to bring your attention to this specific tweet:

Like most revolutions, there was nothing “grassroots” about the Spanish Left’s revolution. The Republican government aided and abetted their efforts. Connolly quotes British Army officer George Hills, who wrote a book about Francoist Spain:

Had the Assembly then turned to legislation to improve the miserable lot of the urban masses of Spain and to make Spanish agriculture especially in the South more productive, the Republic might have lived; but its directors were obsessed with the Catholic Church. Azana [President of Spain when war broke out] in particular wanted to make true his dogma “Spain is no longer Catholic.”

Hills goes onto say a very concerted attempt was made to target the Catholic Church and its adherents, an effective culture war in which the objective was to not at all live and let live. This is similar to what we’re seeing today, where the Left, aided and abetted by businesses, government, and the media, won’t let anything stand associated with conservatives, Christianity, Whites, males, etc. Meanwhile, there’s tremendous gaslighting and outright lying going on – I read an article last week that accused Republicans of trying to cancel the MLB in response to the All-Star game being moved from Atlanta.

A specific tactic appears to have emerged, in fact. The Left will make something a culture war battleground, effectively daring the Right to respond. When they do, the Left will leverage all its power and paint the Right into a corner. The Left chose to pick a fight over Dr. Seuss, for example. But when the Right pushed back, you had a Democratic Congressman screaming at the top of his lungs while in session for Republicans to quit talking about Dr. Seuss and focus on helping the American people.

Has the frustration mounted yet? It certainly has for me.

If Franco was the counter-revolution in Spain, I shudder to think what our own counter-revolution in the U.S. will look like.

UPDATE.2: A reader in Spain e-mails this tweet with an image of a march in Madrid. In 2021. In addition to the images of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and others, they are flying the Soviet flag, and the flag of the Spanish Second Republic.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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