Harvey J Kaye Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
One thing you have to say for Governor Paul LePage of Maine is that he’s an honest guy. Right-wing Republicans incessantly proclaim their reverence for the American past. But the Governor has made it quite clear that, contrary to their repeated claims, conservatives do not revere the nation’s history but actually fear it and believe they must act to control what people remember and know of it.
Determined to make Maine ever more inviting to business executives and their investments, LePage not only has set out — like many another Republican governors, such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin — to weaken, if not destroy, public employee unions and workers’ rights. LePage also has taken steps to “neutral[ize]” American history. He has ordered both the removal of a labor history mural from the walls of the state’s Department of Labor Building and the renaming of its conference rooms so that they no longer bear those of 1960s farm-worker leader César Chavez, 1920s labor activist Rose Schneiderman, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins (the first woman ever to hold a Cabinet-level appointment).
Three cheers for Governor LePage! Instead of denying what he’s up to, he reveals all. He wants to wipe the walls of government clean of the progressive story of what has made America prosperous and ever more free, equal, and democratic. He wants a history that makes the rich and the right comfortable, happy, and ready to roll.
Forget the blissful ignorance of Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann. History, historical memory, and imagination matter and the folks on the right know it. Pursuing class war from above for more than thirty years now, conservative and corporate leaders have persistently sought to harness the past — or their strange renditions of it — to bolster their own pro-corporate and reactionary ambitions and schemes. Following the lead of their champion, actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan, the unrivaled master of using and abusing history, Republicans and their ilk continue to conjure up their marble images of the Founders, wrap themselves in the American flag (if not the Stars & Bars on occasion), and talk of bygone eras and their desire to restore “the America we have lost.” You can find them doing so from the halls of Congress and many a statehouse, from the studios of FOX News and many an AM radio station, and from the pages of innumerable books and periodicals.
But they really do not seek to redeem the past. Rather, they want to hijack it by variously and variably fabricating it, obscuring it, and burying it in favor of a tale that denies the power of “We the people” past and present and enhances their own power and wealth forever after.
We progressives have so much to do today. But in doing it we must not fail to challenge the right regarding American experience and greatness. We must do a better job of cultivating and speaking to American historical memory and imagination. We must re-engage America’s past — to defend it, to redeem it, to make it our own.
In 1939, when the Great Depression still stalked the United States and fascism and imperialism were threatening to rule the world, Max Lerner wrote in It Is Later Than You Think: The Need for a Militant Democracy, “The basic story in the American past, the only story ultimately worth the telling, is the story of the struggle between the creative and the frustrating elements in the American democratic adventure.”
In that spirit, we must never forget the exploitation and oppression, the tragedies and injustices, and the struggles and defeats that have marked our history. But we must also remember the victories of 1776, 1865, 1920, 1935, 1945, 1965. We must hear the encouraging words and inspiring ideals: All men are created equal… Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… We the People… A new birth of freedom… Government of the people, by the people, for the people… Freedom of speech, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear… We shall overcome. And we must honor those men and women — in all their American diversity — who fought those battles, spoke those words, and progressively advanced America’s historic purpose and promise.
Three cheers for Governor LePage — not just for revealing all, but also for reminding us of what we need to do, especially now with the resurgence of America’s democratic impulse emanating from Wisconsin!
Propelled by the memory and legacy of those who came before us, the yearnings and aspirations we ourselves feel, and the responsibility we have to those yet to come, we can pursue not only the imperatives of recovery and reconstruction, but also that of making a freer, more equal, and more democratic America. We too can both secure the past and make history. And perhaps one day our children will recall 2011, recite the words “This is what democracy looks like,” and not only return the labor mural to the walls of the state office building in Maine, but also add their own historical panels to that work.
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