Looking Back: A 2017 Historical Retrospective

With 2017 behind us, the staff of Concerning History took some time to speculate what the events of this year might mean to people in the future. As the job of the historian is to consider the past, this task is naturally beyond our expertise and abilities. Nonetheless, we think that a preliminary consideration would be worthwhile for what it says about the experience of living through this year. Throughout our conversation, we’ll be guided by the following question: What will future historians talk about when they talk about 2017?

Kevin: So guys, what people, moments, and movements of 2017 do you think will captivate historians of future eras? There’s a five-letter name that can’t be avoided but I don’t want to be the first to say it. Especially since we’re stuck with it again in 2018.

Francis: I’ll start us off with a “big picture” idea: superstorms! One of the areas of history that I think is often ignored is that of environmental history. How have human societies viewed, used, and interacted with the environment? Well, 2017, with its many different weather-related crises, compels us to ask this question and take a look at the consequences. As leading meteorologists, climate scientists, and leading experts on energy-use have pointed out, the severity of storms such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria can be correlated to the rise of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and the Greenhouse Effect. Take into consideration that Superstorm Sandy in 2012 first raised the question of the link between our fossil-fuel loving way-of-life and the severity of the weather. It seems that 2017 is a starting point for some serious reflection on the unintended consequences and inconvenient truths that industrialization has brought to the global stage, even if it is two centuries after the use of steam power began in Great Britain. That’s my way of saying that historians will point to 2017 as the breaking point for our contemporary struggle to deal with severe weather events as the new normal.

Bryan: Something that I hope will become its own new normal is the trend of monument removal we saw begin in earnest this year. Now before I get lambasted for being a historically-ignorant iconoclast, hear me out. This string of Confederate monuments taken down throughout the US, and especially the South, is symbolic of a much deeper and more insidious ideology being (hopefully) rooted out of its long-standing home. The Lost Cause mythos has plagued and distorted our country’s history for too long, and I can only hope that 2017 will spell the beginning of its long-awaited end, whenever that might come in full. These events and debates have also spurred opportunities for historians to get involved in the public sphere like never before, and while the resulting discussions vary widely in quality and accuracy, we would be remiss if we don’t point out these unique opportunities to engage the public with elements of historical philosophy not readily talked about outside an Historical Methods classroom.

The National Park Service has assured the public that monuments like the Stonewall Jackson statue at Manassas will remain standing at historical sites in perpetuity. Earlier this year, this statue was vandalized by opponents of Confederate iconography. Photograph courtesy of Kevin Lavery.

Kevin: I agree, Bryan. While not surprising given the horrific events that took place there, I was pleased to hear mainstream news outlets talking to historians about the subtle nuances of Civil War memory. For people who still care about the mainstream media, I think it did some good. For anyone else, changing their minds may already be a lost cause if its own.

Francis: Bryan, I think your analysis of the removal of Confederate monuments stands on solid ground, but I have a couple caveats to make the movement to de-monumentalize less iconoclastic and more historical. Why don’t museums take these monuments (or some of them) and interpret them so that Americans can go to a myriad of historical places and learn about the Civil War and the implications of how it was remembered (especially in the South) through the USA? I think that would be a great way for local and state historical sites to show that the “Lost Cause” mentality of the post-war US was not just a footnote, but a real conversation that had real consequences for Union veterans, for African Americans, and for the politics of race and civil rights across the USA. On a second note, I also think it is important that historians fight to preserve statues of our Founding Fathers. Do these monuments, such as the Jefferson Memorial or the Washington Monument, need to be contextualized? Obviously! That’s just good history, but if we try to use our own attitudes to judge historical actors, we won’t have many monuments (see my historical pet-peeves post from earlier this year). So keep Jefferson’s monuments and memorials, but discuss him as a complicated (human) person who helped articulate the American ideals of liberty while at the same time acquiescing to slavery’s existence.  

Kevin: Agreed. As wrong as Jefferson was in so many ways, I don’t think we want to abandon him completely and allow white supremacists and actual Nazis to be the only people to lay claim to his legacy. On that note, I believe historians will start tracing the reassertion of mass overt racism to Charlottesville and the indifference our leaders showed towards it. Rightly or wrongly, that is, as we’ve never had a shortage of overt racial conflict in American history even if we’ve imagined otherwise for so long.

I also think that 2017 will be remembered as a year in which geopolitics took an increasingly competitive turn. Since the end of the Cold War, we seem to have hoped that national barriers could be surmounted in the interest of cooperation. International relations based on realpolitik never exactly went away, but it seemed that the general public at least had settled into a comfortable consensus in which non-state actors and rogue states played the major baddies on the world stage. Now, between China’s expanding power, Russia’s electoral interference, and the ‘America First’ policies of the Trump administration, zero-sum attitudes toward international affairs seem to be on the rise. I’m not sure that the domestic picture is much rosier.

Francis: I think you are right that geopolitics is much more competitive in 2016 than it was in, let’s say, 2006. To me, there are two reasons for this: first, the rising power of authoritarian governments in quasi-capitalist states (Russia & China), and second, the challenges of dealing with global threats presented by non-state actors (Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS etc.) Think back to 1991. When faced with the threat of an aggressive state, Iraq, the USA led a coalition to curb its aggression. Nations subdued the threat of another nation to maintain the international order. The War on Terror everything changed. You’re a superpower and this is what has happened with your decisions: Chase al-Qaeda and the Taliban out of Afghanistan, they take root in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Knock out an aggressive state in Iraq and the vacuum is filled by even more terrifying terrorist organizations. Seek to support uprisings against the  authoritarian regimes in the Arab world and find yourself stuck trying to negotiate the end of deadly civil wars that have become proxy conflicts between regional and global powers. That certainly makes the stakes of international game seem a lot higher and a lot less friendly.

However, while the trend to competitive foreign relations is certainly dominant in Russia and China, I think the question of its dominance in the USA and Europe is still in the balance. The West certainly is dealing with a rise in nationalism (Brexit, France’s National Front, Germany’s AfD, MAGA), but I don’t think we are at the point where a shift in this direction is institutionally irreversible. The West still has elections and, if the electorates of the West tire of the furor that such competitiveness brings to international relations, then there may be a shift to a more neutral position. I think federal elections in the West throughout the next 6 years (USA in 2020, Germany in 2021, and France in 2022) will likely provide a referendum, in a broad sense, on the direction of the electorate and how leaders will arbitrate national interests on the international stage.

Ryan: Hi — apologies for coming into the conversation late! I’m in agreement with all that’s been said so far, though if I can add in another thought on the subject of politics, I’d bring up social media. While I think the trend was definitely beginning in 2016, 2017 is definitely the year social media went “bad,” and the shiny coat of paint it’s been wearing for the entirety of its rise really started to dull. This is the year where use of the term “fake news” really exploded, and concern regarding how it could spread through the sort of compartmentalized spaces people create for themselves through their liked pages and like-minded networks really began to be discussed. Furthermore, it was revealed this year how foreign agents (such as Russia hackers) meddle in US politics by creating fake, intentional divisive social media accounts to stir up controversy among the electorate, intentionally exacerbating political divides. Top these issues off with ongoing concern regarding Facebook’s privacy policies, Twitter’s troubles with defining free speech and censorship, and, of course, the President’s ongoing love affair with tweeting, and I think it’s fair to say that none of us are quite as fond of any of this as we were even a year ago. Social media has already unquestionable changed history, and has been widely lauded as a tool for revolution against repressive regimes — but over the past year, we’ve seen the multitude of troubles it can cause as well. That said, it’s almost certainly here to stay — but the honeymoon is definitely over.

Kevin: And with that, we consign 2017 to the dustbin of history and hope (but remain agnostic) that 2018 will be a better year for everyone. From all of us at Concerning History, we wish you and yours a very Happy New Year.

One thought on “Looking Back: A 2017 Historical Retrospective

  1. On a geopolitical note, I think that the continued fallout regarding Brexit definitely counts as an ongoing history landmark. And, speaking domestically, the revolution that was sparked in Hollywood regarding sexual predators that almost undoubtedly led in some ways to Alabama voting blue should probably be noted too!

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