Minnesota 2020 Journal: Dressed to Distract
A conservative public policy protest is incomplete without at least one participant dressed as an 18th century British North American colonist, resplendent in knee breeches, waist coat and tri-cornered hat. Sometimes, they carry a Don’t-Tread-On-Me snake flag. Their point, as I understand it, is that Minnesota should closely adhere to our nation’s founding values and intentions, boldly acting for liberty.
As much as I appreciate good political street theater, conservative policy advocates miss the point. Mostly, I think that they’re misreading history even as they’re making a public policy advocacy claim. What actually happened in the past and what people would like to believe happened is entirely a question of the present.
Studying history is profoundly important. Setting aside the too-easy cliché, “those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it,” history study is a means for contemplating our present and future. Contemporary questions frame history. We study the past because of what we encounter today. Studying history, for me, is not a neutral act but one of political engagement and activism.
Growing up on a farm in rural southwestern Minnesota and coming of age during the 80s farm crisis focused my interest in the past. Collapsing land and commodity prices weren’t invented in 1985. Economic contraction is a regular part of the economic cycle. At the time I didn’t understand that the farm crisis was linked to the Great Depression and earlier 19th century rural recessions and depressions. Watching farmers protest, demanding public policy assistance, I experienced historical resonance. I kept thinking that this rally must have happened before. Turns out, it had. The 1985 farmers rally at the Minnesota State Capitol looked a lot like the 1933 State Capitol protests.
History helps me understand today’s challenges but I’m equally fascinated by how people embrace, ignore and interpret historical events. The Civil War casts an extraordinarily long shadow across our nation. That 1861-1865 period resonates as evidenced by the regular book publishing, movies, television shows, and battle re-enactments. People want to better understand this defining American moment. Some of them dress up in Civil War era uniforms and trudge the ground crossed by their forbearers but without the death, disease and social disruption.
Costumed historical re-enactment is a purposefully selective activity. The term “authentic” gets bandied about, especially within the re-enactment community. Are my reproduction 1860s soldier boots, made in China, more authentic than wearing beat up, 30-year-old farm boots? Is my bedroll better or worse because I drape it over an inflated air mattress? This debate is endless and, in my view, ultimately pointless. Don’t focus on the minutiae but on the larger desire to understand what people experienced during the Civil War. And, short answer, it was simultaneously awesome and horrendous.
We are not the people who marched, attacked and retreated at Gettysburg. Minnesota was barely a state in 1861, much less in 1863's Battle of Gettysburg. Most contemporary Minnesotans’ ancestors hadn’t arrived, not even by a long shot. Today, Minnesota is a state of 5.3 million but in 1860 there were fewer than 175,000.
The Civil War, including Minnesota’s slice, serves to draw us in to our shared past. The really important questions, interpreting re-enactors’ choices, should cause everyone to ask why re-enact this battle and not other moments? You’ll notice that no one is keen to re-enact battles of the 1862 US-Dakota War. The conflict between native people and European immigrants represents a very real, unhealed scab in Minnesota history. Re-staging the Battle of Birch Coulee, which occurred contemporaneously with the first Civil War battles, would be viewed as disrespectfully diminishing the historical moment rather than drawing people into considering the past.
What, then, do we make of the costumed conservative policy advocate? It’s not about the past but the present. Costume can’t disguise tax policy that concentrates public investment’s rewards into fewer, wealthier hands. Fife and drums can’t obscure attacks on public schools. Tri-corner hats don’t substitute for affordable healthcare. Don’t be distracted by the outfit. Focus, as history study teaches, on what actually happened and apply the lessons accordingly. We measure public policy success by its outcomes, not by its process.