Why the left's war on history will fail

Monday was Constitution Day. This federal holiday commemorates the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, and the 39 Founding Fathers who brought forth the charter of the world’s greatest democracy.

This celebration has taken on new relevance, thanks to the left’s escalating war on history.  

The protests began last August, when demonstrators filled the streets of Charlottesville, demanding removal of a bronze statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Since then, as President Trump and others predicted, the madness has spread. The mob has since moved on from attacking Confederate statues to targeting symbols of our American democracy and traditions.

This week the city of Portland, Maine, became the latest city to do away with Columbus Day – it will be celebrating Indigenous People’s Day instead.  City residents called the discoverer of the New World a “murderer” and “enslaver” for his treatment of Native Americans. Los Angeles, Seattle, Albuquerque, San Francisco and Denver, as well as the states of Alaska and Vermont have also shed the holiday.

In 2016, anti-cop violence and other left-wing protests pushed many voters to pull the lever for Donald Trump. The escalating war on history may similarly help other candidates advocating public order.

Meanwhile, according to The New York Times, Confederate statues have now been removed or are under dispute in more than 40 cities. Monument bashers have also protested or defiled likenesses of, among others, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Christopher Columbus and Francis Scott Key, the composer of the national anthem.

In Chicago, they even defaced a statue of Abraham Lincoln, the president who ended slavery and who is a hero of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.

There may be a sane discussion to be had about whether certain historical figures should be immortalized in our public spaces. But right now the conversation—and official responses —are being largely driven by public hysteria.  It was reported this week that officials in the state of Texas are even considering removing Ben Franklin’s name from a middle school “because of his connection to the Confederacy.”  Franklin had owned slaves but eventually became an abolitionist.

Removing historical monuments and erasing national holidays will not change the past or make us a better nation. It will only promote historical ignorance. And to quote the famous aphorism, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As the Lincoln and Franklin examples suggest, the war on history is not really about race. Like their Antifa cousins who scream the r-word to shut down conservative speech on college campuses, monument bashers are using similar tactics to discredit the principles of personal and economic freedom that are the bedrock of our American traditions and identity.

The good news is they are likely to fail—for several reasons:

Activists are overplaying their hand.  A reality that many on the left has yet to fully appreciate: people of all political persuasions are instinctively repelled by political violence.  Regardless of the historical merits of Confederate statues, the violent actions of monument bashers, like the riots of Antifa and Black Lives Matter, offend ordinary Americans who believe in the democratic process and the rule of law. Individuals of all beliefs and ethnicities don’t want their public spaces defaced. They don’t like driving through crowds of angry protesters. They just want to go about their lives. The PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll showed a majority (including black Americans) believe the monuments should be left alone.  As Esther Lee, who heads the NAACP Chapter in Bethlehem Pennsylvania, told a local TV reporter after Charlottesville, “You know that’s history. That was in that point in time. You can’t eliminate what history is. So I disapprove with young people pulling down those statues."

In 2016, anti-cop violence and other left-wing protests pushed many voters to pull the lever for Donald Trump. The escalating war on history may similarly help other candidates advocating public order. A word of caution to officials acceding to the demands of monument protesters: They are enablers of a mob repellent to most Americans.

The war on history will increase momentum for education reform. Until now, the public has been mainly amused by media reports of students who could not name America’s first president or could not identify a picture of Ronald Reagan.  In 2017, such ignorance is no longer a laughing matter. Monument violence illustrates the dangers of a population untutored in the stories and traditions that bind us together as Americans.

The History Hysteria of 2017 should give new urgency to calls for reforming school curricula long dominated by progressive narratives.  Many monument protestors are acting on what they learned from texts like “A People’s History of the United States,” the “progressive” history by 60s radical Howard Zinn that retells America’s story as a saga of unrelenting oppression. The acting out of young, misguided radicals should spur concerned parents to lobby for programs to improve the quality of public education, like school choice. It will motivate citizens to press harder—and get—more balance in our nation’s classrooms.

The controversy is igniting interest in the “dead white men” of our history lessons.  Monument bashers seeking to erase history are in fact doing the opposite: They’re increasing curiosity about the real stories of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Christopher Columbus and other “dead white men” known mainly from the dry pages of history books.  People who previously thought little about history are going online and self-educating.   They’ll make discoveries that diverge from simplistic social justice narratives. For example, a subject of online discussion—on the part of both blacks on whites—is the number of freed black men who owned slaves.

This self-examination will lead to a more nuanced understanding of our past and who we are as a nation.  Even if the digital refresher course doesn’t extend far beyond Wikipedia, many self-educating Americans will recognize that the progressive take on history is as distorted as overly rosy versions taught in the 1950s and 60s.

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. He also penned the Declaration of Independence and the words in that are the mantra of both right and left — that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Founders were men of their time, and like all men they had flaws. But their creation, the U.S. Constitution, enshrined the principles that made it possible for slavery to be abolished. And it created our American democracy, the model and inspiration for freedom- loving people around the world.

Elizabeth Ames is a communications executive and author. She has collaborated with Steve Forbes on several books including, most recently, Reviving America: How Repealing Obamacare, Replacing the Tax Code and Reforming The Fed will Restore Hope and Prosperity (McGraw-Hill).