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It’s time to cancel Presidents’ Day, according to one columnist.
Writing in Politico magazine, John F. Harris said that the federal holiday mythologizes American history, and in the context of racial justice movements around the country reawakening fraught chapters of the nation’s past, it is time to prioritize “a brand of history that embraces reality over myth.”
“The fracturing of society in recent years under the strain of Donald Trump’s presidency and the racial reckoning spurred by George Floyd’s murder has had one positive consequence: A widespread awakening of interest in the American past,” Harris began, adding that the current political environment has put “long-forgotten lives” like the victims of the 1921 Tulsa massacre back into the public consciousness, while at the same time dethroning “national heroes,” bringing down “people who long enjoyed revered status in the national story.”
“Historical reappraisal has been especially vigorous in a particular arena: the U.S. presidency,” Harris wrote, citing the example of Woodrow Wilson, who was long considered one of the “‘near-great’ leaders,” but has come under fire in in recent years for his history of racial prejudice. However, challenging the narrative around “presidents of Rushmore-sized stature,” was more difficult because of the inevitable backlash, he added, citing the recent recall of three San Francisco school board members for prioritizing progressive issues, like renaming schools named after George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, over putting students back in the classroom.
“The presidency itself, like so many aspects of American culture, is now in the middle of ideological crossfire between left and right. Is there a way that the center can find its voice in arguments about the presidency?” Harris asked. “Yes, there is. A good way to start would be to cancel the day we mark today: ‘Presidents Day.’” Harris was quick to hedge his argument, writing that it was not his intent to “cancel” any particular President- his target was instead the holiday itself, which he called “an inane name for a dubious concept that is less a show of genuine respect for American history than an insult to it.”
The holiday, Harris contended, was the product first and foremost of a kind of “civic religion,” a type of history that attempts to “highlight virtuous dimensions of national character.” “The story can feature setbacks and bad guys, but the good guys should win in the end — with a patriotic lesson for the audience to carry away. The characters in this kind of history are marble statutes,” Harris wrote. “The other conception of history is something quite different — a disciplined effort to reconstruct the past as it actually happened. This enterprise relies on evidence that is always fragmentary and on interpretive arguments that are never settled with finality. This brand of history aims to liberate its audience from national mythologies, and its characters are not marble heroes.”
“A brand of history that embraces reality over myth, and ambiguity over sharp moral judgments over heroes and villains, ultimately offers far more useful lessons for a democracy,” Harris argued.
Going back to the issue of the holiday, Harris took issue with the fact that Presidents’ Day is a “confection,” created by a mere coincidence of the fact that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays are 10 calendar days apart. This coincidence, combined with commercial interests, led to the third Monday in February being declared the all-purpose Presidents’ Day. “The name suggests we honor Lincoln and Washington no less than Richard Nixon or Warren G. Harding or Donald Trump,” Harris wrote.
“This hints at the more profound problem. A democracy really shouldn’t be mythologizing presidents at all,” Harris argued, adding that the Progressive Left should not want to honor all 46 Presidents, since they were all men, while the right should not want to aggrandize political figures.
“[By] all means let’s keep a day off to reflect on lessons of the American past,” Harris concluded. “But let’s make this about real history — an invitation to humility and renewed commitment to national purpose — rather than mythological history, an invitation to arrogance and complacency.”
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