The planet is aflame with the killing of messengers. We can barely keep score of the assaults on memory: from Mosul to Moscow to Dresden to Dhaka, the destruction proceeds apace—of ancient monuments, scientific archives and schools, of journalists as well as journalism itself. We, the witnesses, expend a great deal of breath and ink promising to “never forget.” Yet both globally and locally, in ways large and small, there is huge resistance to even the smallest reminders of injury: no one wants to talk about trauma or privilege as the invisible distributors of public costs and private benefits today. No one wants to bring it home.
In the United States, there has emerged an alarming trend of officially sanctioned oblivion. The most jaw-dropping example was Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempted removal of the words “search for truth” from the 100-year-old mission statement of the state university system. Walker also made news when a BBC moderator asked him if he believed in evolution. “I’ll punt on that one,” he said. “I am going to leave that up to you.” Leaving it “up to you” is also what Rand Paul would do with public-health programs like measles vaccinations: “Parents own the children,” he un-reasoned. The board of governors of the University of North Carolina recently eliminated the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity; the Center for Biodiversity; and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change. (Also targeted, but hanging on for now, are the Carolina Women’s Center, the UNC Center for Civil Rights and the UNC Institute on Aging.) Legislators in Arizona have actually banned outright Latin American studies from public-school curriculums. And the Kansas Board of Regents has “reserved the right” to fire any employee in the system, including tenured professors, if they publish anything on social media that is “improper,” “impairs harmony….among co-workers” or is “contrary to the best interests of the employer.” In Oklahoma, State Representative Dan Fisher pushed a bill through the legislature to slash public funding for Advanced Placement history classes, fearing that they are neither “positive” nor Christian enough. His objection was not that the curriculum was inaccurate, but that the facts were such a drag. (He wants AP history to be inspiring—all about American exceptionalism! And the Ten Commandments! Or, as Rudolph Giuliani instructed President Obama: “I’m happy for him to give a speech where he talks about what’s good about America and doesn’t include all the criticism.”)
Recently, the Equal Justice Initiative issued a real downer of a report. The EJI has documented lynchings around the country from 1877 through the 1950s, revealing a higher number of these murders (nearly 4,000) than have been counted before now, even with the study limited to only twelve states. (The study focused on the Deep South, in other words, and did not extend to areas like Arizona, Ohio, New Mexico, Michigan and California, where African-Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, Jews and Indians were also lynched without consequence.)