Grab 'Em By The Memory Hole

Erasing Trump's role in recent history is an in-kind contribution to his campaign.

One of the stories making the Twitter rounds today is that the National Archives has altered a photo from the women's march of 2017 as part of a then-vs.-now retrospective display on feminism. The modern photo is paired with a historical photo of a suffragist march from 1913, but the modern photo has been doctored so that references to Trump and to anatomy (which is in many cases still a reference to Trump) are visibly blurred out.

First, let's get a little context. This is not a defense of the National Archives but the groundwork in laying out exactly what they're doing wrong, and why it is so.

They have not altered "the official record" of the photo. Copies kept in archive are unaltered. Their management has explained that they only edit photos for display purposes, which certainly has legitimate uses. A black and white photo might have portions highlighted in color to call attention to specific details. A photo might have numbers overlaid on people to help identify them on placards. A picture or document might be remixed into an interactive experience. A "then/now" photo display like the one under discussion could be made by blending portions of two different photos together.

There's nothing chilling about the idea that displays may contain copies of pictures that have been altered. This does not defeat the purpose of the archive or go against its mission.

Where this particular instance goes wrong is that it changes the meaning of a photo being displayed. It erases recent history leading into current events. Sure, they have an unblemished copy of it in the archives and that is the one that will be given to anyone who requests it, but the one that's on display is on display. How many visitors are going to see it, as opposed to the original in the actual archive?

Erasing Donald from the narrative of the 2017 picture is like erasing all mentions of suffrage or voting from the 1913 display. At that time and in that place, he was the reason women marched! The archive describes its decision as one of "avoiding controversy" by being "non-partisan" but just as the FBI and the New York Times firmly did Donald a favor by downplaying and denying the election-year investigations into him, the National Archives is heavily favoring the Republican Party by erasing the fact that the march they're showing was a popular protest against their leader. That's as partisan as it gets.

There might seem to be very little risk that one photo display in one building will change the narrative all on its own, but we already have Trump and his proxies occasionally trying out the tactic of claiming that protesters are people who have come out in support of him. The National Archive is as official a source as one could hope for, and while they may have an internal policy of promotional exhibits being For Display Purposes Only that doesn't mean that everyone who passes through their doors on day trip or field trip is parsing it that way. I daresay that to the average person operating on a subconscious level, the assumption would be that the things they put front and center before the public would be the things they stand by the most.

We talk a lot about how archives aren't neutral, reporting isn't neutral, and how the concept of neutrality is itself a fallacy when the conflict is between those with the power to oppress and those oppressed by that power, but this isn't even that. This is on its face not neutral but biased in Trump's favor. They're erasing his role, erasing his liabilities. And they're doing it in an election year. 

Oh, you can't mention recent events in the struggle for women's rights without reminding the electorate that the Republican incumbent candidate for the office of the president is an enemy of women's rights and a serial sexual assaulter who bragged about it? Too bad. That's the truth, and showing it — not even saying it but just showing it in living color the way it happened — is as close to neutrality as you can get. Erasing it is tantamount to contributing to his campaign, something the National Archives shouldn't be doing.

Now, more context: I have a hard time believing that the person who did this is actually a Trump partisan. I don't believe they did it with the intention of helping Donald out. I think they did it out of fear that not doing it would be seen as campaigning against him. Fear of the right-wing's perpetual motion outrage-manufacturing machine, fear of the well-rehearsed cries of liberal bias, fear of Hair Furor's angry Twitter denunciations...

I think the calculus here was that presenting the actual unvarnished truth was not worth the headache.

It's the same decision a number of GOP figures who are now firmly and deeply in the bag for Trump made, once upon a time, when they thought they could control him or outlast him if they just managed him well enough. It's a decision that becomes easier to make each time you make it, and harder to go against the more compromises you have made in the name of peace. 

Today it's a display piece. 

What will it be tomorrow?

Any way you look at it, the future of our past is getting pretty blurry.

Thanks for reading!

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