Public Historians, Impeachment, and Heroes

“Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero,” said Andrea, with resignation.

Galileo sternly replied, “No. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

Bertolt Brecht’s extraordinary biographical play Galileo was first drafted at a time when heroes were desperately needed by the world: 1938. It was a kind of plea for men and women of rationality to stand up against the supermen who were then attempting to sink the world into a sea of cynicism and destruction. He wrote the English version seven years later when, just as those forces were about to be vanquished, they seemingly found a new home when Harry Truman ordered nuclear bombs dropped on Japan. It was the story of a man, the eponymous astronomer, who fought for truth, science, and reason. And it’s about what heroes really are.

Public Historians need no reminder that their role in an increasingly problematic global community appears to become more central to its civic health every day. As people — the ever-shifting “public” that we serve, whether we work in a museum, give heritage tours, make movies, or create podcasts — feel more and more disconnected from their governments and each other, our publics are reaching for the one thing that has always bound individuals together, providing common identity and shared purpose: our stories. Today, those frequently involve superheroes, or wizards, or creative mythologies from a galaxy far, far away, as if we are collectively reaching out for someone or something beyond us upon whom we can place our hope that things can be made right by extraordinary figures from elsewhere, for what are certainly extraordinary times here.

fullsizeoutput_755bBut, for the most part, we know that won’t happen, and no amount of committed cosplay can change that. Mjølnir will forever be out of reach. So, instead, we grasp for the seemingly extraordinary among us, the people of the past who achieved things apparently as bold and unbelievable, even miraculous, as anything accomplished by Captain America or Harry Potter. These are, some would say, the most important of our stories, the ones that make — and unmake — nations. And their names are as familiar to us as those of our dearest friends: Washington, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, Adams. These are the men who supposedly made America, creating, so the master narrative goes, an exceptional country based on the noblest of principles, shaped for the highest purposes and destiny. The City on a Hill, a beacon to all others. Or so we’ve been told.

And who are the keepers of those legends, the ones that, ostensibly, tie our country together in the here and now, constantly straddling the distance between yesterday and today as we, with every tick of the clock, get farther away from what really happened? Public Historians. In the war that’s coming for the hearts and minds of a rapidly disintegrating body politic, in which history has been weaponized by all sides, Public Historians are on the front lines, speaking for the dead, for all who cannot speak for themselves, even as their spirits are invoked all around us. Many of my colleagues would say that the war is already here, and has been raging since at least 2016, if not longer. And they wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

But when it comes to impeachment of a divisive president, in a fractious, dangerous era   characterized by alternative facts and “information wars”, in which the enemies line up on social media to hurl fiction at the uninformed, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Before I became a public historian at Colonial Williamsburg, I went to law school and then spent what felt like a lifetime in politics in Washington. I worked in the Senate and House, on campaigns for both, on special projects for the White House, as Communications Director for a national political organization, and far too much time as a talking head on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and CSPAN. I saw, firsthand, the effects of the last impeachment battle over President Clinton, the incredulity that followed the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, and lived through the September 11th attacks, watching as smoke rose over the Pentagon and swirled with rumors of a strike at the Capitol, just four blocks from my home. It is there that I learned the real power of stories to influence behavior, and the responsibility of skilled tellers entrusted with it. I learned how people consume those stories, with their eyes and ears, through words and music and images — and in only 30 seconds. And I learned how fear can be more powerful than hope when that power is in the wrong hands. These lessons have never left me, as I now try to impart them to my students at Johns Hopkins Museum Studies and to audiences through digital storytelling at Størmerlige Films.

Impeachment this time will, I strongly suspect, require even more from America’s Public Historians, as the means of telling our stories, of recreating or twisting our national myths, can be distributed wider and faster than fallacious, feckless memes about Black Confederates or Irish Slaves.

That’s why Public Historians must put aside political partisanship, of whatever sort, and pick up a more important — and heroic — banner: that of truth and, more importantly, the means for others to find it.

Such a call to action might seem fatuous, at best, but consider how this war will be waged against our publics — by using names such as Madison, sources such as The Federalist Papers, and words like “High Crimes and Misdemeanors”.  Politicians and their operatives will wantonly and recklessly “interpret” the past for others in order to shape the political opinion and, what’s worse, behavior of millions. They already are assuming the role of the Public Historian, without any regard for the ethics required to do it right and well, to be a good Public Historian, as well as a great one.

Of course, those Public Historians whose work directly involves the mythology of the American Founding will bear the heaviest burdens. They will be called on daily to refute, parry, and then project the knowable truth about a constitutional past that will be brought back to life in ways that the people who lived through it would hardly recognize.   The Federalist Papers were not civic scripture, but just polemic letters to the editor written during the struggle in New York to ratify the Constitution. Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were deeply flawed men (even fatally so), neither heroic nor terribly extraordinary (sorry, Lin-Manuel), except in ways that their sex, race, and situation made them the rulers, and owners, of others. The American Revolution did not create one nation founded on liberty and freedom, but two — and the United States was the less committed to those principles of them. These are antidotes to the myths about a flawed constitutional system that American jurisprudence has reinforced with 200 years of decisions that strengthened an Executive Branch already well beyond the authority wielded by a British monarch in 1776 and not connected even remotely to the concept of democracy, except in the rhetoric of the most detached from reality of its supporters.

But that is a counter-narrative, one weapon in the war that Public Historians are about to fight, and not even the most powerful. That weapon, the one that every Public Historian, at every level and every location, can and should wield, is our ability as storytellers to educate others about what makes a story true and reliable. To help our publics look beyond the images flashed at them on a screen in order to understand the nature of courses and believe in their own capacity to understand and interpret them, with our help. Encourage your audiences to closely read the work of journalists, to examine the credentials of those writers of the first draft of history, to examine the primary sources of today, and yesterday, for themselves, whether that’s the text of President Trump’s memo of his phone discussion with Ukraine’s president or the wonderful materials on ConSource, in order to engage in a conversation about checks and balances. Just as technological innovation has given our enemies — those who would twist history to accomplish dark goals — a powerful means to achieve their ends, so it has given us the same weapons to fight them, and on the best of all chosen battlefields: our own. And you don’t have to be a guide at Mount Vernon or a historian at the Museum of the American Revolution to do that.

A critic for The New Yorker emptily claimed, in a review for THE FAVOURITE last November, that “all historical reconstruction is a game and to pretend otherwise — to nourish the illusion that we can know another epoch as intimately as we do our own — is merest folly.” But that’s not true at all. It’s much more than a game, as the stakes are much higher. Leaving aside the fact that we barely know our own “epoch,” we must engage in that “folly” because others will. And to leave the field to them is to abandon our publics, allowing them to become pawns in perhaps the most important modern game of all.

But that’s not what real heroes do. Avengers, assemble.