How One Summer Month Changed America

Charleston, the Supreme Court and the Awakening of History

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

History never sleeps, but it has the childlike tendency to pull up the sheets and hide, flashlight in one hand, pencil in the other, scribbling upon the surface of our lives. It is a humble god, trying to pass off its paragraphs as the simple unfolding of days and nights, punctuated by human passion and error. On ordinary days, we regard history’s tales simply as “the news”; we read the story, and let it pass on by.

But in the past month, history was unable to hide, and the stories of our days and nights were unmasked as chapters in a national epic. After a young man named Dylann Roof opened fire in a South Carolina church, killing nine African-Americans at a Bible-study session, history forced us to recognize in the murderer no mere madman but the unsurprising heir to a bleak American patrimony. With eyes open to history, we understood that the errors of centuries can be present in a single moment of the here-and-now. Bondage leaves bruises, blood leaves stains, fires scorch the land. Nothing is purged; only clear memory and moral alertness can contain the furies of the there-and-then.

On June 25, history rose again, in the case of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, to remind our Supreme Court justices that there are still men who seek to exclude others from their neighborhoods because of the color of their skin, and that the excluded must not be denied the legal tools to fight back.

That same day, the Court confronted history in a case that challenged the Affordable Care Act’s health-insurance subsidies. The challenge was based on a single sloppy phrase in a vast and imperfect law, but the Court weighed the intent of the act as a whole—“to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” as Chief Justice John Roberts wrote—and rescued the ACA. The ruling was, in spirit, an acknowledgment that under the law, the federal government has the right to aid all Americans—even Americans in states that distrust the federal government. The Constitution was designed both to promote the general welfare and to secure the blessings of liberty. History tells us that these goals are not mutually exclusive.

One day later, history spoke again to remind us—as the great Hannah Arendt (herself both a journalist and a historian, who understood that news was never just new) once wrote—that the right of consenting adults to marry is a fundamental human right. Arendt was writing in another time, when the question at hand was the right of a person of one race to marry a person of another. The 1967 Supreme Court case that settled the matter was called Loving v. Virginia. Never has a plaintiff been more appropriately named. Loving carried the day. Almost 50 years later, in the same court, loving carried the day once more. But history, momentarily unshy, shouts again that wounds heal slowly, and that someone always comes along to pick at the scab. The presidential campaign awaits, ready with tweezers and salt.

In an age when STEM classes often shove the humanities aside in our public schools, June was a reminder of what historical awareness can mean to a democracy. This battered field of knowledge—trivialized by reality TV, cherry-picked by blockheaded politicians and distilled into inoffensive boredom for students—had become its best self: a source of insight, inspiration and informed debate.

The paradox of time—that yesterday is at once always present and always transformed—is usually lost on us. Each day, the past gathers its contradictions under the white heat of the present and emerges transformed. Beholding the transformation on Twitter and the evening news, we are too easily convinced that all is now, indeed, new. We are slow to realize that battles won are often merely battles begun.

But as we cope with such a permanent condition as the persistence of the past, perhaps “battle” is too acute a metaphor, and too readily romanticized. For the news consumer, the casual commentator and the Facebook cheerleader, it’s easy to forget that the intellectual and moral breakthroughs of the past month—from the forceful post-tragedy reevaluation of slavery’s long tail to the victory of marriage equality—resulted from the dogged work of real people (the Civil War scholar Eric Foner and the essayist Andrew Sullivan come to mind) who turned to history for context, outrage and wisdom.

If we are to build a just future in a world so profoundly composed of the past, the driving metaphor for our action may be not battle but containment—a policy of vigilance, principle, patience, firmness and humility before the many masks of history: The vigilant are not caught unaware. The principled do not fade into corruption. The patient understand that endurance and victory are not opposing concepts. The firm know when endurance must shift into more kinetic action.

And the humble know that history speaks in many tongues—and that it is always teaching.

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