On Wednesday, January 6th, 2021, I made the mistake of scheduling an eye exam for mid-afternoon. This meant that just as the rioters were breaking into the Capitol, I was having my eyes dilated, and subsequently lost my ability to see clearly for a few hours. Having heard just enough before I went in to know that something was going on, I tried to look at my phone anyway, before remembering, belatedly, that there are other ways of getting the news and turning on NPR for my walk home instead.

Oddly, the audio lent a special kind of weight to the whole experience that I think the headlines wouldn’t quite have given me. Radio had, after all, been the primary means of delivering breaking news for a long stretch of American history, which made me feel like I was following in some kind of long, miserable civic tradition, and none of the articles I read after my eyes recovered could capture the disbelief in the announcers’ voices, the chaos that carried straight through the radio waves. It also helped that radio did not provide images: I wanted to know what was happening, but I could not bear to see it.

I was grateful for those few blind hours because even without photographic evidence, it was one of the few times last year that I can remember being genuinely and terribly angry, and the pictures, when I saw them, just made it worse. Whether I was angry at the president, angry at my countrymen, or angry at my country was hard to say. Reasonably or unreasonably, I was angry at myself, too: angry that with all the time I spend thinking about American history I was still the tiniest bit surprised that this had actually happened, and angry, too, that there was nothing I could do. Here it was, another proof that my country was falling apart, and what was I supposed to do – read about it?

This nagging discomfort, almost shame, has been a recurring feature of the last few years. Every time something happens and I cannot respond directly, I think wearily about the long game and the role we all have to play in that instead. We can’t all be doctors or activists or Election Day volunteers; not all of us have money to donate or time to give to the innumerable causes that need our support. But as much as I believe that voting and wearing a mask and taking the chance to be decent when it is offered to you matter a great deal in our lives, it’s hard to watch larger crises unfold and know that there is, in fact, nothing that you can do in that moment to help.

As a historian-in-training, I am now tied firmly to the long game: not only have I chosen a profession that is nearly the exact opposite of a first responder, I now have what we might call a professional responsibility not to say anything about current events straight off the bat. When historians begin to write, they have a special power to name events as history: to, in the very act of writing about something, establish it as closed and finished, at least for the purposes of a historical narrative. Frustrating as it is, this authority must be used with caution. The events of January 6th have not ended yet, and there is a danger in writing their closure into being prematurely.

There are of course a myriad of problems with this approach. One is simply that it is a strange and confusing rule with no exact guidelines. How are we supposed to know when enough time has passed? Some people might say that we could begin historical work when five years have passed, others want to wait at least twenty, and still others prefer to stay away from the recent past altogether, just to be safe. Good and thorough historical work can take years, and it frequently requires access to documents that are not immediately available to researchers or the public, further limiting speedy responses. Historians are always faced with the knowledge that more information might emerge with time, even that more sources might be out there at this very moment. But the stakes are higher when you are the first to write a study, and when the events are still reverberating in the present. Our writing does not happen in a vacuum: others will use the work of historians to validate their interpretation of events. Even if someone could have pulled together a whole book on this in just a year, even if they felt that that was long enough to make it properly ‘history’ as opposed to ‘current events,’ their words would have power far beyond what they might have intended.

The rest of the world, however, can say what they want when they will, and as we know, the history of ‘what happened’ on January 6th is already being written and rewritten without historians’ help. What is our responsibility here, then? A whole year has now passed – ought we to step in and write our own narratives, make sure that the accounts that are circling are grounded in research and in fact? If someone is going to write a history of the insurrection that is blatantly false, don’t we have a professional responsibility to step in?

Not yet, it seems. Congress is still uncovering details, after all, and the picture of where exactly January 6th stands in the larger scale of recent events remains blurry. But more than that, the premise of our discipline requires us to wait. We cannot push the present into history – to do that would sacrifice the rigor of our research and carefulness of our thought, a price which might seem worth paying now but might ultimately spell a worse calamity down the line.

In the meantime, though, what are we to do? Just because we cannot write about the event directly yet does not mean we are to sit on the sidelines. Some historians have begun to look not at the events of January 6th itself but how other events in our history got us here. One can tell a story about other attempts to resist or overthrow the government in American history, about other moments of conflict over the Electoral College, even about the history of the Capitol as a physical building, particularly in other moments of turmoil. Looking at the photos of the National Guard sleeping in the Capitol building in the days after the insurrection, my first thought was of 1862, when the building was used as a hospital for wounded troops following the Second Battle of Bull Run. Though none were as wide-scale and extreme, we know the Capitol has seen other moments of violence – Senator Preston Brook’s vicious beating of Senator Charles Sumner in 1856 is the most famous, of course, but fistfights erupt not irregularly among members of Congress across our nation’s history. History reminds us, too, that there are other kinds of violence beyond the physical – one could argue that the Capitol is more stained by legislation that has stripped citizens of their rights and words that have robbed people of their humanity than it is by direct acts of violence. When we play the long game, we see that it is perhaps our legislators who have done the most damage within the Capitol’s walls, not everyday citizens.

On the flip side, despite its often ugly history, we can also point to the Capitol as one of the symbols of American potential: a place where, regardless of which laws actually get passed, we bring groups of children daily to teach them that they, too, can lobby their government directly and aspire to walk its halls. Today, thanks to the popularity of American media, the US Capitol is a building recognizable around the world, whether it’s from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or the beloved “on your left” scene in one of Marvel’s ninety-nine Captain America sequels. Historians can help situate this evolution of the Capitol as a place in both national and international memory, and add context for why the attack shook many of us so deeply.

Is that helpful? I have to believe it is, on some level, but it may be that what is most telling about historical context in this moment was that in some respects there wasn’t any: this had never happened before. Pay attention, we can say, this is not normal; you should be worried.

But listening to NPR that afternoon, I thought distantly that all that context would help make this broadcast a useful primary source someday, but it didn’t make me feel any less helpless. We are private citizens as well as public ones, after all, and beyond my anger I was hurt and frightened, for I didn’t know how to how to heal this country that, for better or worse, I have loved fiercely all my life.

I learned to love my country from my family and my countrymen, but I also learned it from American history. American children my age were taught that history was over. When I took US history classes, whether I was in elementary school or AP US history or somewhere in between, we touched on the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam in late May, leaving just enough time to address 9/11 before the school year finished. I learned what the Gulf War was when I was 17, not because it was taught in class, but because I read the last few chapters of my textbook on my own. Unlike my parents’ generation, who, growing up under the shadow of the Cold War, were taught that history could literally come to an end at any second, the outlook I received was more triumphalist, and for a brief, shining moment, it seemed to hold: history was over, and we were the victors.

We conquered racism in the 1960s, my textbook said, and when I was 13, Barack Obama was elected president. We went to war for a righteous cause in 1941 and defeated fascism the world over, Steven Spielberg and others said, and no one ever showed me a movie about Vietnam or Korea or Iraq. There were little blips in the radar, of course – 9/11 is the most prominent, but I remember being absolutely terrified when I first learned about climate change, too, reading about the heat waves in Paris in the summer of 2003. Too, my race, neighborhood, class, and the rest of it shielded me from lessons others learned far earlier. All the same, for those of us born in the years right after the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, there was a sense in the classroom that we had missed the best of it, that history was something that happened to other people. The shockwaves of 2016 destabilized this notion, but the last two years have exploded it entirely. It might be a little late, but history has found us at last.

It strikes me, then, that this is the real work of historians in the months and years ahead. While we begin our research into what happened, while we wait for the five- or ten- or twenty-five-year mark to pass and publish peer-reviewed reports, we have a simpler message to deliver: history is not over. History is still going, and we are not bystanders in this moment but actors. This is the difference between history as a discipline and history as a lived experience: as a historian I will wait to write about the event itself, about the chain of events that led us to that precise moment and the broader implications of what it meant, but as individuals we are actors in a historical moment very much still in motion.

I still don’t know what work it will take to heal this country, or even if there is a future where healing is possible. We will not find answers to those questions in history. But the past can teach us other things. It teaches us to see the choices of people in other times and places with understanding for their circumstances, and in doing so, it sheds a light on our own choices in the present. It asks us to imagine, while grounded in evidence, a world different than our own. That is a skill that we might consider applying forwards as well as backwards.

One thought on “Fidelity”

  1. Your essay is very informative and interesting. My intuition tells me that the wound may not heal. History tells us that all countries suffer from internal disagreements. The inability to resolve them peacefully leads to internal decay and eventual disunion (see the Byzantine, Joseon Dynasty of Korea, Northern Song dynasty, late Roman Republic, Late Roman Empire, the English Cromwell Commonwealth and the 1st French Republic).


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