We are living in the age of reimagination. We are not reducing police, we are “reimagining policing” … not “packing” the Supreme Court but “reimagining justice” … not embracing media bias but “reimagining journalism” … not embracing censorship but “reimagining free speech.”
Conversely, the lack of such imagination can be a career-ending flaw. As a result, many remain silent rather than question the need for the revisions that come with “reimagination.”
That dilemma was evident as a federal task force recently issued a call to “reimagine history” at the National Archives, including adding warnings to protect unsuspecting visitors before they read our founding documents. We are reimagining ourselves out of the very founding concepts that once defined us. Reimagining the founding documents comes at a time when many are calling to “reimagine the First Amendment” and other constitutional guarantees.
National Archivist David Ferriero created a racism task force for the National Archives after last summer’s protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Such task forces are created with the expectation that they will find problems, and — once recommendations are made — objecting to “anti-racist” reforms can easily be misconstrued as being insensitive or even racist.
Obviously, documents and spaces can be viewed differently from different backgrounds. There is also a need to contextualize our history to deal honestly with our past. However, the “reimagination” line should not divide the woke from the wicked. Yet that is the fear for many academics who do not want to risk their careers after campaigns against dissenting voices on campuses around the country.
For example, for many of us, the National Archives’ Rotunda – containing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – is a moving, reverential place celebrating common articles of constitutional faith. That is not what the task force members saw.
Instead, they declared that the iconic Rotunda is one of three examples of structural racism: “a Rotunda in our flagship building that lauds wealthy White men in the nation’s founding while marginalizing BIPOC, women, and other communities.” They called for “reimagining” the space to be more inclusive, including possible dance and performance art. Even the famous murals in the Rotunda might have to go: The task force noted that some view the murals as “an homage to White America.”
The report objected to the laudatory attention given white Framers and Founders, particularly figures like Thomas Jefferson. It encouraged the placement of “trigger warnings” to “forewarn audiences of content that may cause intense physiological and psychological symptoms.”
The task force report called for “reimagining” the portrayal of founding documents on OurDocuments.gov, the website for America’s “milestone documents.” The task force objected that the “100 milestone documents of American history” included “adulatory and excessive language to document the historical contributions of White, wealthy men.”
The task force called for warnings and revision of racist language but stressed that such language “means not only explicitly harmful terms, such as racial slurs, but also information that implies and reinforces damaging stereotypes of BIPOC individuals and communities while valorizing and protecting White people.” It also called for “the creation of safe spaces” in every facility run by the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA).