The past is often a battleground, where claims about the proper way to understand history become proxies for contentions about what America is, who belongs here and what we should become. Inevitably, as we imbue these historical reference points with shared meaning, we end up deploying them as analogies in more contemporary debates, using them to insist that what’s happening right now is exactly like what happened back then. It’s not that comparisons to the past are off-limits, but that the work of history is never done, pushing us to shift our attention from what happened (the sequence of events) to why those events matter.

Those on the right routinely compare anti-racism efforts to McCarthyism, suggesting that their “free speech” is being infringed upon when others ask them to reflect on their words and actions. On the left, an active debate continues about whether to label the former Trump administration and its supporters as fascist, with some arguing against it because of the historical specificity in which the regimes of the early 20th century arose. More dramatically, coronavirus skeptics have compared mask mandates and proof of covid-19 vaccination to the yellow stars that Nazis forced Jews to wear in the 1930s and 1940s, pretending that they are a new persecuted minority.

But these arguments are only very rarely about the actual past. No one in the examples above is debating whether the Nazis did violence to the Jews, whether McCarthy led a witch hunt or whether Mussolini and Hitler were fascist leaders. Instead, it’s a process that makes a rhetorical end run around the real issue, and hence around real debate: If we all agree that a given development in the past was bad, then this more recent event that is supposedly like that earlier one must be bad, too.

When historical analogies are used to foreclose arguments, those analogies aren’t actually historical — they are attempts to leverage one contemporary group’s feelings to sell something. In what ways, really, is a mask mandate to help slow the spread of a deadly pandemic like a formal program of exclusion and, eventually, extermination waged against a group of people? (It’s not at all.) But preventing people from asking too many questions is the goal of those making the analogy in the first place. It’s an argumentative trick, in which the implicit logic is syllogistic rather than analogical: Nazis were bad. If we can liken something else to Nazism, it must therefore be bad, too.

This doesn’t mean historical analogies are necessarily bad. To the contrary, useful historical analogies lead to further questions, pushing us toward deeper analysis. For example, there was a lot of conversation in 2019 about using the phrase “concentration camps” to characterize detention facilities on the southern border under the Trump administration. Similarly, there has been theatrical outrage over labeling as a new Jim Crow the new voter suppression laws that were just passed in Georgia (and are being considered in several other states, as well).

Obviously, both comparisons rely on a logic wherein a current thing is bad because it is like a bad thing in the past, but both comparisons also reveal vital truths. In the case of the “concentration camps,” the comparison holds up because as one moves past the initial, visceral, comparison to the Holocaust, it pushes the reader to think about the long, very American history of this practice. In episodes of native genocide — the incarceration of Germans in World War I and the incarceration of Japanese during World War II, for example — the U.S. government created camps for arbitrary detentions without trials based on group identity. The historical analogy does work to both clarify what’s happening in the present and place it in a long specific history, making it more difficult to regard today’s camps as an aberration.

And, as Jamelle Bouie has explained, describing voter suppression laws as a new Jim Crow correctly communicates the stakes of the situation, as the new and old laws share a similar formulation and intent, and will almost certainly have a similar effect. In both cases, in other words, the “how” and “why” behind the analogy force us to consider “what if?” What if laws like those recently passed in Georgia become common once more? What if Republican-controlled states intentionally disenfranchise segments of the population based on race? We know from history the violence that accompanied Jim Crow; is that violence coming again? These types of questions invite us to chart a different way forward instead of encouraging us to assume that we already know how things will turn out in the future.

Consider the example of McCarthyism. Is it useful to compare the prosecution and persecution of American leftists during the early 1950s to having to attend a diversity seminar in 2021? McCarthyism in its original form attempted to leverage the power of the state, via the House Un-American Activities Committee, to make people inform on one another, to instill fear and to thereby silence dissent. That’s different from a White professor not being able to say the n-word in a classroom or a librarian not being allowed to perform a rap. But what’s more important is how the claim of McCarthyism works to either foreclose or push open different futures. Analogies to McCarthyism in relation to diversity seminars and the like aren’t useful because, at their core, they are arguments for the status quo — that the world is what it is and should remain so. These arguments are made by people in power who wish to remain in power.

Despite that, it might nevertheless be useful — and accurate — to evoke McCarthyism when speaking of legislatures asking students to record their professors and report them for bias, or concerted harassment campaigns waged against faculty and students. Here, we have examples of state-exercised power that attempt to chill speech. This kind of evocation of the past reminds us that we’ve been down something like this road before and shouldn’t make the same mistakes again. But to get there, we have to encourage people to think about the past, understanding why things played out in the way they did. We need to understand how we arrived at the bad outcome and not just simply say that the outcome was bad. In other words, it’s the details of the comparison that matter, not just the broad contours of the past event and its echoes in the present. Comparisons don’t speak for themselves; that’s the work of history, of those who study the past.

It has been said that bad history does violence to the past. Allow us to gently disagree. The long dead can no longer be harmed. The real danger of bad history is that it does violence to the future. The study of the past, at its best, is filled with the potential of prophecy. History, at its best, opens up possible worlds.

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