Americans stand in a very peculiar relationship to their history. We are fond of evoking it with pride – as the inspiring story of the “City on the Hill,” or the “last best hope for democracy,” and as the “leader of the free world,” and so on. We Americans are also readily inspired by our liberty-avowing rhetoric and documents: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Franklin Roosevelt’s assertion of the Four Freedoms, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But we Americans are rather selective in our historical memory. Many Americans still blanch at public discussion of the less laudable aspects of our history: Indian removal, slavery and segregation, the long disfranchisement of women, the half-legal thievery of the Gilded Age, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the censorious scourge of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, the ugly backlash against the civil rights movement, the dark underside of arms-for-hostages deals, and the myriad actions of amorality and dubious legality that produced the twenty-first century banking bubble, just as examples.
Collective amnesia is every bit as dangerous as personal memory loss. And ignorance of our history is exactly that: a case of collective amnesia. History is, or least should be, our collective memory. We must try to understand History if we are to make informed choices about our society’s future. In this talk, I will suggest that History, when viewed with an ironic sensibility, is a way of understanding that re-enforces our need for a sense of public responsibility, civility, and humility that are too often lacking in our public and political culture today. I will make a case in favor of the ironic approach to history, and sketch briefly why I see an ironic understanding of history as so valuable to Americans as a people.