This month’s events in Charlottesville have shown how vital history is to our identity and how we make sense of our world. How do we understand such moments of violence, confrontation and anger? Where do these movements and sentiments originate? What type of nation are we, where acts of bigotry and hate can happen?
History helps us answer these questions. It is complicated. It is messy. It can be difficult to unpack. It requires deep knowledge and real expertise. Luckily, we have that expertise at the ready. They’re called “historians,” and there are thousands of them across the nation.
You wouldn’t know if you turned on the television, however. In the wake of dramatic events over the weekend, as impassioned memes, quotations and opinions circulated on social media, panels of television commentators fumbled through historical explanations trying to make sense of what we had just experienced.
These commentators tried, but they came up short. It’s not their fault; they are experts on politics, not the past. They are paid to dissect political strategy, rivalries between parties and how elected officials conduct their business and communicate with the public. They do that job well. They should call on historians to do theirs.
Historians unpack the complicated narratives of our past and communicate it to all of us: in high schools and colleges, in museums and national parks, and through the media. They spend years researching, reading, and analyzing the past to acquire that expertise and skill set. The media should utilize it, and not outsource historical analysis.
In the hours and days following the violence in Charlottesville, I witnessed as countless primetime national newscasts assembled panels of top reporters and political operatives to dissect the consequences of President Trump’s statements and eloquently recited their respective talking points regarding “too little, too late,” “initial response,” “credibility on the issue,” the “responsibility” of the Republican party to distance itself from hate groups, and the optics of the President’s actions.
However, when the conversation veered to historical topics and the removal of Confederate statues, these eloquent panelists fumbled. Each struggled to meaningfully contextualize what we had just seen and the larger issues at hand. Many had clearly done some research on the issues in preparation for the discussion. But the conversation lacked any real depth, substance, or understanding.
A prominent national newscast invited “presidential historian” Douglas Brinkley (a term the media uses but that Brinkley himself does not) onto the program, along with law professor F. Michael Higginbotham, to respond to the timing and substance of President Trump’s remarks post-Charlottesville. The historian was asked not to analyze how the past helps us to make sense of the present, but to comment on the President’s political calculations in the future.
The media plays a critical role in shaping our conversations in the wake of seismic events. For hours, national TV news directed us away from understanding this moment of violence in its context, and rather focused on dissecting the mind of our current President and the political calculations for the Republican party moving forward. So many difficult and pressing questions of social history, cultural history, public memory, public memorialization, heritage, legacy, social protest, hate, violence, standards of policing and more were left unexplored.
Historians have spoken and written eloquently about all, yet do not have the megaphone that major broadcasters do to bring these issues to the forefront of public discourse. These thoughtful conversations are ones we should be having, and the media, by inviting historians to the table and asking the right questions, can do a great service to our country by helping to promote them.
We are fortunate to have a strong media, protected by the First Amendment, with political commentators who offer insight into how our elected officials think and behave. But when matters of history come before us, the media needs to call in the experts to get it right.
Jason Steinhauer is the director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University. On Twitter: @JasonSteinhauer