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A Not So Historical Moment

Posted by Steve Turley ● Jul 27, 2016 9:56:00 AM

“Hillary Clinton Officially Becomes First Woman to Win Major Party Nomination.” “Democrats Make Hillary Clinton a Historic Nominee.” “History Takes the Stage: Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman to lead a major-party ticket.”

So read the headlines the day after Hillary Clinton received the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.

But was this really such a historical moment? In fact, was this even really history?

Anthropologists generally see what we call “history” as a process of cultural memory, which involves enshrining past events as incidents of dominant myths and meta-narratives that define the identity of a population. There is also what is called communicative memory, which is constituted by current events as represented, for example, by our modern news media. Cultural memory provides the dominant narrative by which events constitutive of communicative memory are selected and interpreted.

Being the first in something certainly has its historical appeal. It could be seen as integral to a distinctively American culture that sees itself on the vanguard of boldly going where no man has gone before. Primacy even has marketing appeal.

However, being “the first” has been caught up of late in what is termed emancipatory politics, which uses the power of the state to liberate people from traditional social structures and arrangements that are deemed “unjust.” The injustice involves the arbitrary impediments traditional societies impose on the individual who wants to exercise social control over his or her own life circumstances.[1] Because traditional societies tend to impose arbitrarily key identity markers such as gender, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation on their populations, the extent to which these impositions are overcome and corrected is the measure of what is labeled “justice,” “liberty,” and “equality.”

Emancipatory politics is important for two reasons. First, it provides the cultural memory of a new secular modernist culture bent on freeing itself from the superstitions and discriminations of the past. Secondly, emancipatory politics provides the myth that designates certain current events as worthy of a culture’s historical memory.

Thus, so-called minority demographics have “priority” in our media-driven history-making mythology. Perhaps you remember Ireen Wust, the first openly gay athlete competing in the Olympic Games at Sochi to win gold. Or you may know Moses Fleetwood Walker, who overcame dominant bigotries to become the first African-American Major League Baseball player; or Marie Curie, who pushed back centuries of misogynistic mores to be the first woman to win a Nobel Prize; or when Lego unveiled its first ever mini-figure in a wheelchair … You get it.

To be clear, I’m all for every person fulfilling their God-given vocations, and I am well aware of the wickedness that can be culturally instituted. What concerns me here are the ways in which these “firsts” emblemize a new historical myth of political emancipation that supposedly replaces our previous historical meta-narratives of American exceptionalism and Christendom.

Thus, you will notice that representatives of traditional society are no longer remembered in this new mythology. For example, in a recently published Aesthetics reader, the Christian contribution to art and beauty is entirely ignored, as the anthology jumps from classical philosophers to modern theorists. And today, the “first Christian ever to …” means nothing unless it involves the ordination of a homosexual bishop.

Much of what the media represents as epic or history making is actually nothing more than celebrations of a myth of political emancipation. Last night’s nomination may turn out to have been historic, but not for the reasons so prevalently presumed.


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[1] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 211.

Featured image credit: © 2007 Marc Nozell, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Topics: Hillary Clinton, blog, Media, Emancipatory Politics, secularism

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