Entry from August 20, 2015

According to The New York Times, "State by State, [the] Democratic Party Is Erasing Ties to Jefferson and Jackson." I’d have thought that "ties" were things to be "cut" rather than "erased," but it turns out that "erased" in the once-favored etymological sense of "rooted up" is what the headline writer meant.

For nearly a century, Democrats have honored two men as the founders of their party: Thomas Jefferson, for his visionary expression of the concept of equality, and Andrew Jackson, for his populist spirit and elevation of the common man. Political candidates and activists across the country have flocked to annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners, where speeches are given, money is raised, and the party celebrates its past and its future. But these time-honored rituals are colliding with a modern Democratic Party more energized by a desire for racial and gender inclusion than reverence for history. And state by state, Democratic activists are removing the names of Jefferson and Jackson from party gatherings, saying the two men no longer represent what it means to be a Democrat.

On the face of it, this exercise in forgetting is absurd. Because your ex-heroes didn’t do a couple of centuries ago everything that’s on your agenda today are they not only to be demoted from hero-status but treated as if they had done nothing? They didn’t know and could not have foreseen what your agenda today would be! Can you get more blinkered and arrogant than this in your attitude to the past?

But when you come to think about it a little, such an erasure makes a bit more sense. For the true progressive, the past is always going to be an embarrassment. Once you have chosen incrementalism as your path to a utopian future, you have committed yourself to a political process and therefore to compromises of one sort or another with the forces of reaction. And once those forces have been weakened to the point where they can no longer demand compromise, or so many compromises as they formerly demanded, you won’t want to be reminded of your past accommodations with those whom it has become more and more safe to regard as simply evil-doers in the lurid melodrama you have made of history.

Indeed the compromisers themselves may come to be regarded as evil, as Jefferson and Jackson now are by many if not most in the Democratic party on account of their having owned slaves and, in Jackson’s case, mistreated American Indians. Ideally, the progressive will end up in the same place as the revolutionaries who regarded the reactionaries as evil-doers from the beginning and who need to re-start history’s clock at Year Zero on assuming power — it just takes him a little longer to get there.

But the revolutionaries, too, because they must live in the real world rather than the utopian one of their imagination, are frequently embarrassed by the past and find that the evil ones have a bad habit of cropping up in unexpected places. That’s why Orwell’s Big Brother needed the Ministry of Truth to make sure that inconvenient memories of his own past found their way to the memory holes. Scrubbing Jefferson and Jackson from the once proud history of the Democratic party suggests that that party’s progressives are already becoming comfortable with their Orwellian future.

One Stacey Abrams, the minority leader of the Georgia House, is quoted in the Times article as saying "that the state party stripped Jefferson and Jackson from the name of the dinner to tell ‘the entire story of our party’" — by which of course she means the entire story as amended by dumping all memory of everything that it did and everyone who was in it up until the day before yesterday. The logic by which, insofar as possible, all memory of the party’s support for slavery and segregation has been eliminated from its "entire story" is only being carried to its logical conclusion in getting rid of Jefferson and Jackson.

Ironically, as the Times article points out, "President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the father of modern economic liberalism, was particularly devoted to elevating the two men, rushing to complete the Jefferson Memorial so his party could have a monument to compete with the Republicans’ Lincoln Memorial." In other words, by calling attention to Jefferson’s achievements, FDR hoped to gloss over his party’s past association with slavery.

How long before Roosevelt, too, four times elected president with the help of segregationist voters, will have to be wiped from the party’s memory? How long, indeed, before those who are now denouncing Jefferson and Jackson as un-persons are themselves reduced to the same status because of some unforeseen and unforeseeable accommodation of their own with the forces of evil? At least we evil ones stand by our own.

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