On Using Historical Analogies Responsibly

Is President Donald Trump like Andrew Jackson?

Wait, maybe he’s more like Andrew Johnson.

Or King George III.

Or the Founding Fathers.

Or Aaron Burr.

Or John Quincy Adams.

Or Abraham Lincoln.

Or Jefferson Davis.

Or Horace Greeley.

Or Ulysses S. Grant.

Or James K. Vardaman.

Or Theodore Roosevelt.

Or Huey Long.

Or Benito Mussolini.

Or George Patton.

Or Franklin Roosevelt.

Or George Wallace.

Or Barry Goldwater.

Or Richard Nixon.

Or Ronald Reagan.

Or Hugo Chavez.

Over the past week historians have been debating the merits of using historical analogy to educate lay audiences about the messy circumstances of our current political moment. Moshik Temkin started the discussion with an op-ed in the New York Times decrying the “historian as pundit” persona that, as can be seen above, has gotten attention within the online realm (not all of those essays were written by historians, but you get the point). Temkin expresses worries about “the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies,” which in turn simplifies, trivializes, and downplays the significance of both past and present-day events. Conversely, many historians on my Twitter feed reacted negatively to Temkin’s piece, arguing that we must meet people where they are and that analogy provides opportunities for historians to demonstrate changes and continuities in American history.

Is there room to argue that both sides of this argument are a little bit right and a little bit wrong? I think so.

I do not agree with Temkin when he suggests historians should avoid appearances on TV and “quick-take notes” in a news article. Nor do I agree with the argument that we should leave analogy solely to the non-historian pundits. There are limitations to both TV and newspaper articles since they offer only small tidbits and soundbites for expressing a particular viewpoint, but they do offer historians an opportunity to demonstrate the value of the past in shaping the present. For example, my friend and fellow public historian Will Stoutamire contributed some wonderful insights into this article on the history of Arizona’s Confederate monuments. Last I heard that particular article had been viewed something like 70,000 times over the past month. Not bad! Likewise, I agree with Julian Zelizer when he argues that:

Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture.

At the same time, however, is Temkin incorrect when he suggests that we should be wary of poor historical analogies? Is he wrong when he asserts that we should remind our audiences that a similar event or person from the past does not lead to a similar outcome in the present? Can we conclude that some of the above historical analogies are trite and unhelpful? Are there better questions we can ask about the past and how it has shaped the present? Is their room to sometimes discuss the past on its own terms without resorting to comparisons with the present? I was struck by a recent article from a senior English major who, in discussing national politics in the classroom, warned that “if authors are only worth reading insofar as they inform modern phenomena, then the entire English canon is of mere antiquarian interest and can be summarily dismissed.” If you insert ‘history’ for the word ‘English,’ do we run into the same problem by downplaying huge swaths of history that don’t have an explicit relevance to current politics?

A huge shortcoming of this entire discussion, of course, is that public historians and the work they do are completely left out of the conversation. Here’s the thing. Public historians work in small spaces all the time; spaces that are more often then not much smaller than the ones academics use. We don’t get sixty minutes for lecture, 400 pages to write a book, or even a New York Times opinion piece. We get ten minute introductions, tweets, short Facebook posts, museum exhibits that are often viewed for ten seconds or less, and other educational programming of short duration. Both Temkin and his critics leave this important work out of their discussion.

So here’s a strong middle ground from which to argue. Historians should always strive to meet people where they are in their learning journey. They ought to embrace opportunities to give talks, speak on news shows, be quoted in a newspaper article, or write op-eds for a media outlet with a large platform. At the same time, they ought to use historical analogies responsibly and within the context of highlighting the importance of studying history. The past itself is interesting on its own terms, and sometimes it’s okay to discuss it without resorting to a comparison with Donald Trump. And perhaps academic historians can learn a thing or two from public historians about conveying complex historical subjects into clear, accessible interpretations of the past to a wide range of audiences.

Cheers

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5 responses

  1. I’m all for meeting people where they are and offering accessibnle interpreations, as you said, of history and politics to people who might otherwise find these subjects dry. It’s what I try to do–though, what I do is no where near as noble as what historians do. In the end, I don’t see a problem with giving historians more mediums through which to share their knowledge and understanding.

  2. I think WordPress ate my original comment so here’s take two: I completely agree that we ought to meet people where they stand and offer them accessible interpretations of history. I try to do that with politics, though what I do is nowhere near as noble as what historians do. In my opinion, giving historians more mediums through which to share their knowledge and understanding is a good thing.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sarah. I agree that having more mediums to share historical knowledge is extremely important.

  3. One thing that occurs to me is that humans think comparatively. We don’t “know” anything until we have things to compare it to. Metaphors and intertextuality enable understanding and memory. So, it’s only natural for people to compare Trump with past presidents.

    I for sure agree that historians SHOULD make public/media appearances. And until your comments, never exactly “processed” the time constraints people in Public History face.

    Great post, as always!

    1. Thanks, Andrew!

      Yes, it is natural to compare present-day circumstances with past events as a way to make sense of the present. All I’m arguing is that historians should use analogy responsibly and reinforce the fact that just because event A from the past worked out a certain way does not mean that a somewhat similar circumstance today will not automatically lead to a similar result today.

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