Symbolism Instead of History

The real motivation behind replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill is likely to be Barack Obama’s only lasting achievement. He certainly won’t be remembered for tangible benefits he has brought to black people. But like most progressives, useful political symbolism trumps reality.

In fact, Obama has done little for black people. Larry Elder lays out the cold hard facts: “The net worth of all non-white families has fallen almost 20 percent since Obama took office. For blacks, it’s even worse. The so-called black/white wealth gap is at a 25-year high––with black income down, homeownership down and equity down. From 2007 to 2010, blacks’ net worth declined 13.5 percent. But over the next three years––from 2010 through 2013––it plummeted another 34 percent.” And the black unemployment rate is 9.2 percent, twice that of whites. Black pundits, professors, and race-baiters have cleaned up on white guilt and vote-trolling Democrats, but blacks most in need have been abandoned.

Having done little for a majority of blacks, Obama instead has peddled the symbolic racial politics of outfits like Black Lives Matter, which claims that there is an epidemic of policemen wantonly gunning down innocent black men in the streets. Once again, fact is irrelevant to a movement whose goal is to leverage social and political power from the misery of black social dysfunctions. As The New York Post’s Michael Walsh points out,  “Since the population of the US is about 318 million people, a thousand deaths at the hands of police works out to 1 in 318,000. You have a better chance of being killed in a violent storm (1 in 68,000) or slipping in the tub (1 in 11,500) than being shot by a cop, no matter what color you are. But even these figures are deceptive. Of those 965 killed, only 90 were unarmed, and the majority of those were white.”  Meanwhile, about 5,000 blacks a year are murdered, the vast majority by other blacks. All we get in response from Obama are crickets and tumbleweeds. Once again, symbols are more useful than reality.

Ignoring facts kills legitimate history. That’s why symbolic history is about all the history anybody learns these days. We have regressed to the chronicles of Pharaohs and Great Kings, who didn’t write history but instead left behind the boastful records of their exaggerated triumphs and deeds in order to celebrate and justify their power. The centuries of efforts to attempt to separate what actually happened from such self-serving narratives of power have failed.  Now we have politically useful lies, while genuine history increasingly retreats from the public square. Myth-histories and identity-politics melodramas have displaced historical fact, and history is now a political weapon important not for truth but for advancing some ideological agenda.

This brings us to Harriet Tubman. There is no question she was a remarkable, brave woman. She deserves her place in the history books, and everyone should learn about her. The problem is that the purveyors of identity politics aren’t satisfied with that recognition. They have to exclude their ideological enemies as much as include their friends, inflate their chosen heroes as much as diminish their enemies’. As a result, they create a selective, incomplete history. 

The simple fact is that as brave as Harriet Tubman was, she was not the main story in the Civil War or the abolition of slavery. That story should include the beginnings of emancipation among the ancient Greeks, when Acidimas said, “The god gave freedom to all men, and nature made no one a slave.” It would talk about the universal salvation preached by Christianity, in which “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It would talk about the Abolitionist movement led by William Wilberforce eventually enforced by the power of the British Navy. And it would remind everyone that during the Civil War hundreds of thousands of Americans died in part because they believed that slavery was morally wrong. Even slave-owner Thomas Jefferson said of slavery, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

In other words, the abolition of slavery is an achievement of Western civilization, in which Harriet Tubman played a brave but minor role. It was a long hard fight against human nature and the ubiquity of human bondage, an institution for most of history as natural to most people as the domestication of animals. That complete history of emancipation should be taught as part of our heritage, for it does honor to our way of life and the principles by which we should live. 

But history today, hijacked by zombie Marxism and grievance politics, sees Western civilization as the sum of all evils. Such history is founded on Lenin’s famous “Who, whom”––who is the oppressor, who is the victim. History now is a melodrama of unmitigated Western evil, with innocent victims owed various sorts of reparations, and their ancestors’ sufferings publicly and serially recognized and validated by the larger culture. It’s not about facts or the larger contexts of human actions over time, or the permanent flaws of all humans, or the cultural principles and goods like human rights or representative democracy, innovations that distinguished the West and by which its ungrateful critics live today. Instead we get what Thomas Sowell calls “mascots”: those innocent victims who daily remind us of Western crimes and sins, and who for liberals represent their own superior morality and righteousness.

What’s lost with this cartoon history is the uniqueness of the West. The sins of the West obsessed over by the left are the sins of humanity everywhere, and can be found among every human community from tribal bands to great civilizations. Slaving, torture, conquest, violent appropriation of the land of others, and the occupation of their territory have all been practiced across the globe, from the Aztecs to the Mongols, the Zulus to the Sioux. But the goods of the West have been unique. 

The idea, for example, that ordinary people could be citizens who speak and deliberate freely, and who vote publicly on the policies of their state, existed only in the city-states of ancient Greece. Today every regime on the planet, no matter how tyrannical or brutal, pays homage to the tradition of representative government by calling their thug-regimes names like “The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea” or the “Islamic Republic of Iran.” So too with all the other goods most of the world professes, if not practices, today: The consciousness of freedom as an ideal to fight and die for, the notion of natural rights humans possess simply by virtue of being human, the equality of all humans before the law––these are just a few of the goods that took seed and grew in the West, and managed to survive their serial betrayal by Westerners who should have known better.

But now that we’ve abandoned real history, we substitute symbolic histories useful mainly for their transient political value and easy but superficial affirmation of politically selected victims. What’s lost is the memory of how the richest, freest people in history got that way. And that amnesia may lead to the loss not just of that wealth and freedom, but of all the other goods that define who we are.


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