Over the past few days a good number of historians have been sharing an article from the Washington Post that ostensibly confirms what many of us in the field already know: history is relevant, important, and worth studying. The article, “In Divided America, History is Weaponized to Praise or Condemn Trump,” points out that thousands upon thousands of Americans on social media are using history–or, more appropriately, their understanding of history–to make arguments to “support or oppose” the current administration’s actions. Moreover, the article provocatively claims that the President’s election has “certainly revived interest in U.S. history.” Many historians on social media are applauding these developments.
I don’t buy it.
While I agree that in our current moment we are seeing more online conversations that invoke historical figures and events, it’s worth asking a number of questions about this development. History is a tool that can be used to better understand where we came from and how we got to where we are now. Are we really engaging in conversations that actually strive to utilize historical thinking to understand what happened in the past, or have we simply turned basic historical facts into superficial rhetorical weapons to make political arguments about today? How productive is it to use history to debate government policy or predict how current policy will work in the long run? How useful is it to cite historical examples when the record is so vast as to justify any sort of political ideology or belief?
If there’s so much interest in history, why is the National Endowment for the Humanities facing the possibility of being cut completely from the federal budget? Why do colleges and universities continually trim down the budgets and staffing of history departments? Why is there a decline in students majoring in history? Why do high schools so frequently hire history teachers based on a candidate’s ability to coach a sports team and not because of their ability to educate students about the discipline? Why is visitor attendance to historic sites in a state of decline? Why do I have friends on Facebook who will simultaneously tell me that they enjoy reading history but that pursuing a liberal arts degree is “stupid” because such degrees are “fake” and “useless” on the job market?
Senator Ted Cruz recently argued that “The Democrats are the party of the Ku Klux Klan . . . The Klan was founded by a great many Democrats.” While it’s factually true that the KKK was founded by Southern Democrats after the Civil War, anyone who has even a cursory understanding of U.S. history knows that the Republican and Democrat party platforms have changed, evolved, and in some cases flipped from what they were in 140 years ago. But then again, Senator Cruz isn’t making this statement in the interest of understanding the context and complexity of history, in this case the Reconstruction era. He doesn’t care that the second wave of the KKK that emerged following the theatrical release of The Birth of a Nation in 1915 recruited many of its members from the Republican party, so much so that in Indiana the KKK essentially took over the state Republican party and the State House in the 1924 state election. He doesn’t care that in 1890, amid a growing wave of black voting disenfranchisement initiatives throughout the South, the Republican party sold out its black constituents by giving up on the Lodge Bill, which would have allowed for federal oversight of federal elections and given circuit courts the ability to investigate voter fraud, disenfranchisement, and ensure fair elections. The Republican Party gave up on this bill so that it could get Southern support for a different bill that would raise tariffs rates, the party’s primary concern at the time. He doesn’t care that racism has been a staple of U.S. history and something widely supported by Americans of all political persuasions.
Senator Cruz doesn’t care about any of this because he is only concerned about using history as a weapon to praise his buddies and condemn his enemies. He wants to portray contemporary Democrats as bigots, racists, and ideological descendants of the KKK Democrats of the 1870s. He doesn’t care about the history.
It’s a shame that so many politicians on all sides of the political spectrum so often resort to weaponizing history.
A few days before the Washington Post article was published, Northwestern University history professor Cameron Belvins wrote what is in my mind the best essay of 2017 so far. He warns of the dangers of using history to predict the future and calls upon historians to consider the ways history might be counter-productive to understanding the complexities of today’s politics. You must read this essay – it is fantastic.
In sum, I think we historians still have a long way to go before we can declare victory in our effort to expose our students and the public more broadly to the joys and benefits of studying history. And I would argue that the value of studying history is not that it provides “answers” to contemporary problems or a solid blueprint for effective government policy in the future, but that it trains us how to interpret source material, appreciate change over time, and ask better questions about our world, both then and now.
In looking back at this recent and torturous U.S. Presidential election, I believe the blatant and irresponsible sharing of fake news, inaccurate memes, and outright propaganda, combined with a general lack of civility and informed online conversation, contributed in some way to Donald Trump’s electoral victory. I do not mean to suggest that there were no other factors that contributed to this particular outcome or that people on the left side of the political spectrum don’t also share fake news and stupid memes – they do. But evidence is mounting that fake and inaccurate news–particularly Pro-Trump news–is widespread on social media and that many people regardless of political preference take misinformation seriously if it lines up with their own personal and political views. Facebook is especially bad in this regard. The chances are good that many voters who are also Facebook users went to the polls and made their respective decision based partly on false information gleaned from articles shared on their news feed.
Professor Mike Caulfield’s particularly sobering analysis of fake articles created by a fake paper, the “Denver Guardian,” that spread like wildfire across Facebook demonstrate how easy it is to get duped by someone with an agenda and basic computing skills. Friends and family that I care about have also engaged in this sharing of fake news on Facebook, which I find deeply troubling. Facebook has evolved into a news-sharing website without creating a mechanism for effectively moderating fact from fiction, and at the end of the day the site isn’t fun anymore. I haven’t checked my account since the election.
As a historian and educator I have stressed on this website the importance of teaching not just historical content in the classroom but also historical methods. When we teach both content and methods, we convey to students the idea that history is not just a mess of names, dates, and dead people, but also a process that enables students to conduct research, interpret reliable primary and secondary source documents, and ultimately become better writers, readers, and thinkers in their own lives. I think that now more than ever these skills need to be taught not just for their utility in understanding the past but for also parsing through the vast multitudes of information that bombard our social media feeds on a daily basis. Historians have much to contribute to contemporary society and they should lead the way in accomplishing this important work. When we learn to think historically, we enable ourselves to become more informed citizens who have the ability to participate in electoral politics with an understanding of the issues at hand and how our system of government operates.
I am interested in hearing from history teachers about what methods, tools, and practices they employ when teaching students how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources and how to interpret these sources to construct informed arguments and narratives. Sam Wineburg’s scholarship has been instrumental in my own thinking about these topics, and I believe everyone should listen to or read his keynote address at the 2015 meeting of the American Association for State and Local History. I have also utilized historian Kalani Craig’s guide on the 5 “Ps” of reading primary sources, which is equally relevant when assessing sources on contemporary topics.
What has worked for you when teaching others how to assess and interpret documentary sources? Please let me know in the comments.
I read a really interesting article today on Aeon from Stanford University history professor Caroline Winterer about the American Revolution, the creation of the U.S. Constitution, and enlightenment ideals. The underlying thesis of the article is partly rooted in the idea that Americans today have mythologized and flattened the legacies of the country’s various constitutional framers in ways that diminish the complexity of their thinking and their basic humanity. That’s not necessarily a new or bold thesis, but the way Winterer approaches this conclusion is pretty unique to me. Most notably she points out that the British philosopher John Locke–an imposing intellectual figure in the minds of many of the country’s framers–believed that while knowledge was obtained not through a divine God but through the five senses (empiricism) and language, the extent to which humans could trust their senses to provide an objective understanding of reality was very much uncertain. Similarly, since language was man-made and not the creation of God, the meanings ascribed to any word were subject to interpretation and merely “arbitrary signs that represent ideals.” What this meant for the framers, according to the Winterer, was that the feeling of uncertainty was a prevalent accompaniment in their efforts to create a functioning government and a civil society:
In fact, the American founders were uncertain about many things. They were uncertain about politics, nature, society, economics, human beings and happiness. The sum total of human knowledge was smaller in the 18th century, when a few hardy souls could still aspire to know everything. But even in this smaller pond of knowledge, and within a smaller interpretive community of political actors, the founders did not pretend certainty on the questions of their day. Instead they routinely declared their uncertainty.
While I freely admit that I am no expert of early American history, this interpretation strikes me as largely correct. The effort to create a constitution based on laws and not kings or divine providence was bold, ambitious, and fraught with uncertainty, which is why the framers established a process for amending the constitution to improve it in the future. But this article also got me thinking about the ways we teach history to middle school and high school students and why we need to make the idea of uncertainty a central element in teaching students how to think historically.
It is easy to look back at past events in hindsight and diagnose certain events as “inevitable.” Civil War historian Gary Gallagher, for example, often points out how easy it is to see the U.S. military’s victory at Gettysburg and conclude that this battle clearly led to an inevitable victory over the Confederates in the Civil War. But by understanding the sense of uncertainty people felt as events happened in real time, within circumstances often beyond their control, we can better empathize with the ways people in the past understood and reacted to the contingencies of their lives and their times. And perhaps we can teach students to embrace uncertainty in their own lives rather than seeing it as something to fear.
Growing up during the No Child Left Behind Era led to most of my history classes emphasizing standardized tests, most of which were exclusively multiple choice. The tests and lessons I encountered emphasized rote memorization of facts, which in turn portrayed the study of history as an exercise in the mastery of information and the people of the past as all-knowing figures who in many cases were certain of the consequences of their actions (especially those who fought in the American Revolution and helped create the Constitution). By focusing on the importance of critically analyzing primary and secondary sources, making reasoned interpretations based on the available evidence for a particular historical event, and making evidence-based arguments through written, oral, and digital means, history teachers can perhaps bring the uncertainty of the past (and the present!) into the forefront of building historical thinking skills.
The famed scholar W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a fierce critic of the idea of scholarly “objectivity.” As Brandon Byrd points out in an excellent essay for the African American Intellectual History Society, Du Bois’s status at the turn of the twentieth century as a black professor at Atlanta University in the Jim Crow South exposed him to the necessity of fusing “scholarship and struggle . . . social analysis and social transformation” to remake American society upon the ideals of social and political equality and equal protection of the laws. Indeed, Du Bois understood long before most of his academic contemporaries that claims of “objectivity” and being “cool, calm and detached” in one’s work run the risk of merely being a rhetorical claim to unwarranted power and authority and the maintenance of the scholarly status quo.
Byrd’s essay reminded me of another work from the Du Bois canon: a chapter from his magisterial Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935) entitled “The Propaganda of History.” Historians correctly cite Black Reconstruction as a landmark publication in the historiography of Reconstruction scholarship. In a time when the Dunning School of though argued that Reconstruction was a complete failure and that the effort to enfranchise black men and engage in bi-racial governance after the Civil War was a mistake, Du Bois provided comprehensive statistical analysis and primary source evidence to argue that Reconstruction was actually an era of great civil rights achievements and remarkable evolution in both economics and legal practices in the United States.
Black Reconstruction is also a remarkable achievement, however, because it probes the philosophical depths of the historical enterprise itself. Is history a science or art? How do people remember the past over time, and how do those memories shape the way we understand history? Can a nation collectively write its own history in an objective fashion? In the chapter “The Propaganda of History,” Du Bois argues that the history of Reconstruction taught in schools throughout the country at that time had been largely incorrect–even based on lies–because its authors were white supremacists who were “objective” in name only and because the United States was “ashamed” of its Civil War history. “The Propaganda of History” is a really remarkable essay for its time and I believe it still resonates today. The following is an excerpt from that essay. Enjoy!
“How the facts of American history have in the last half century been falsified because the nation was ashamed. The South was ashamed because it fought to perpetuate human slavery. The North was ashamed because it had to call in the black men to save the Union, abolish slavery and established democracy.
What are American children taught today about Reconstruction? . . . [A]n American youth attending college today would learn from current textbooks of history that the Constitution recognized slavery; that the chance of getting rid of slavery by peaceful methods was ruined by the Abolitionists; that after the period of Andrew Jackson, the two sections of the United States “had become fully conscious of their conflicting interests. Two irreconcilable forms of civilization . . . [with] the democratic . . . in the South, a more stationary and aristocratic civilization.” He would read that Harriet Beecher Stowe brought on the Civil War; that the assault on Charles Sumner was due to his “coarse invective” against a South Carolina Senator; and that Negroes were the only people to achieve emancipation with no effort on their part. That Reconstruction was a disgraceful attempt to subject white people to ignorant Negro rule . . .
In other words, he would in all probability complete his education without any idea of the part which the black race has played in America; of the tremendous moral problem of abolition; of the cause and meaning of the Civil War and the relation which Reconstruction had to democratic government and the labor movement today.
Herein lies more than mere omission and difference of emphasis. The treatment of the period of Reconstruction reflects small credit upon American historians as scientists. We have too often a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans. The editors of the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica asked me for an article on the history of the American Negro. From my manuscript they cut out all my references to Reconstruction. I insisted on including the following statement:
White historians have ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption. But the Negro insists that it was Negro loyalty and the Negro vote alone that restored the South to the Union; established the new democracy, both for white and black, and instituted the public schools.
This the editor refused to print, although he said that the article otherwise was “in my judgment, and in the judgment of others in the office, an excellent one, and one with which it seems to me we may all be well satisfied.” I was not satisfied and refused to allow the article to appear.
War and especially civil strife leave terrible wounds. It is the duty of humanity to heal them. It was therefore soon conceived as neither wise nor patriotic to speak of all the causes of strife and the terrible results to which national differences in the United States had led. And so, first of all, we minimized the slavery controversy which convulsed the nation from the Missouri Compromise down to the Civil War. On top of that, we passed by Reconstruction with a phrase of regret or disgust.
But are these reasons of courtesy and philanthropy sufficient for denying Truth? If history is going to be scientific, if the record of human action is going to be set down with the accuracy and faithfulness of detail which will allow its use as a measuring rod and guidepost for the future of nations, there must be set some standards of ethics in research and interpretation.
If, on the other hand, we are going to use history for our pleasure and amusement, for inflating our national ego, and giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment, then we must give up the idea of history as a science or as an art using the results of science, and admit frankly that we are using a version of historic fact in order to influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish.
It is propaganda like this that has led men in the past to insist that history is “lies agreed upon”; and to point out the danger in such misinformation. It is indeed extremely doubtful if any permanent benefit comes to the world through such action. Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?
Here in the United States we have a clear example. It was morally wrong and economically retrogressive to build human slavery in the United States in the eighteenth century. We know that now, perfectly well; and there were many Americans North and South who knew this and said it in the eighteenth century. Today, in the face of new slavery established elsewhere in the world under other names and guises, we ought to emphasize this lesson of the past.
Moreover, it is not well to be reticent in describing that past. Our histories tend to discuss American slavery so impartially, that in the end nobody seems to have done wrong and everybody was right. Slavery appears to have been thrust upon unwilling helpless America, while the South was blameless in becoming its center. The difference of development, North and South, is explained as a sort of working out of cosmic social and economic law.
One reads, for instance, Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization, with a comfortable feeling that nothing right or wrong is involved. Manufacturing and industry develop in the North; agrarian feudalism develops in the South. They clash, as winds and water strive, and the stronger forces develop the tremendous industrial machine that governs us so magnificently and selfishly today.
Yet in this sweeping mechanistic interpretation, there is no room for the real plot of this story, for the clear mistake and guilt of rebuilding a new slavery of the working class in the midst of a fateful and sacrifice in the abolition crusade; and for the hurt and struggle of degraded black millions in the fight for freedom and their attempt to enter democracy. Can all this be omitted or half suppressed in a treatise that calls itself scientific? Or, to come nearer the center and climax of this fascinating history: What was slavery in the United States? Just what did it mean to the owner and the owned? Shall we accept the conventional story of the old slave plantation and its owner’s fine, aristocratic life of cultured leisure? Or shall we note slave biographies, like those of Charles Ball, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass; the careful observations of Olmsted and the indictment of Hinton Helper? . . .
One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner, or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children, or that Alexander Hamilton had Negro blood, and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.
No one reading the history of the United States during 1850–1860 can have the slightest doubt left in his mind that Negro slavery was the cause of the Civil War, and yet during and since we learn that a great nation murdered thousands and destroyed millions on account of abstract doctrines concerning the nature of the Federal Union. Since the attitude of the nation concerning state rights has been revolutionized by the development of the central government since the war, the whole argument becomes an astonishing reduction ad absurdum, leaving us apparently with no cause for the Civil War except the recent reiteration of statements which make the great public men on one side narrow, hypocritical fanatics and liars, while the leaders on the other side were extraordinary and unexampled for their beauty, unselfishness and fairness . . .
This, then, is the book basis upon which today we judge Reconstruction. In order to paint the South as a martyr to inescapable fate, to make the North the magnanimous emancipator, and to ridicule the Negro as the impossible joke in the whole development, we have in fifty years, by libel, innuendo and silence, so completely misstated and obliterated the history of the Negro in America and his relation to its work and government that today it is almost unknown. This may be fine romance, but it is not science. It may be inspiring, but it is certainly not the truth. And beyond this it is dangerous. It is not only ideals; it has, more than that, led the world to embrace and worship the color bar as social salvation and it is helping to range mankind in ranks of mutual hatred and contempt, at the summons of a cheap and false myth.”
The African American Intellectual History Society has a thought-provoking piece from sociologist Jennifer Patrice Sims on imaginary and implied whiteness in literature, theater, and film that is worth a read by Civil War historians. I’ll explain.
Sims points out numerous instances in recent memory when black actors were cast for presumably white roles in films like Star Wars, James Bond, and Harry Potter, and how a good number of whites reacted with “incredulity” at these casting decisions. She argues that such reactions occur because book readers and performing arts viewers often assume that the characters in the performance will be white. Whiteness is the default setting. Writers must use explicit language to express to readers that the character is a racial minority, something that does not need to be done for a white character.
It strikes me that I often see a somewhat similar pattern of thinking when studying the Civil War and Southern identity during the nineteenth century. Part of the problem is that many history textbooks and public history sites talk about the Civil War as a fight between Northerners and Southerners instead of a fight between the United States and the Confederacy. The terms are not synonymous. White Southerners in every state except South Carolina formed regiments in the U.S. military during the Civil War, nearly two-hundred thousand blacks–many of whom were born in the South–served in United States Colored Troops regiments, and states generally accepted to be at least partly “Southern” in nature, including Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland, stayed in the Union during the war. The other equally important factor is that blacks born in the South are sometimes not considered “Southern.” As historian Kevin Gannon points out, decades of historical scholarship on the Civil War era has defaulted to whiteness when explaining political and social thought in the South:
Black southerners were not in the front ranks of Manifest Destiny’s advocates, nor did they turn to a states’ rights interpretation of the Constitution in the wake of the 1820 Missouri Compromise. And I would bet that most black southerners saw Lincoln’s election as something other than [a] “catastrophe[.]” Yet, when historians-and by extension, much of the general public-discuss the sectional divide as well as the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, they overwhelmingly deploy the identifier “southern” in the “we-really-mean-white-people-but-you-already-know-that” sense of the term . . . “Southerners rejected the aims of the abolitionist movement, since they threatened the basic principles that defined their society.” Well, again, this is true for many white southerners; for black southerners, not so much.
Indeed, words matter a great deal. Explaining how “Southerners” react to events necessitates further word qualifications such as “black,” “white,” “upper-region,” “Appalachian,” etc., since an entire region of people could never completely agree on a uniform mode of social and political thought.
Confederate veteran and Southern-born George W. Cable offered his own intriguing theory in an 1886 Memorial Day speech in Massachusetts for explaining the relationship between whiteness, Southern identity, and who gets to call themselves a Southerner. He suggested that “Southerner” referred less to the geographical location where one was born and instead reflected a particular way of thinking about the world:
You hear the phrase “true Southerner,” “true South.” . . . where a man or woman is born is no matter. A colored man is never esteemed a Southerner. And there are hundreds of men now in the South of any one of whom you may hear it said at any time, “Why, he is Northern born, but he is a good Southerner.” It is a matter of belief in a social order . . . the white [Southerner] for an arbitrary supremacy, confessedly inconsistent with American liberty, but in his sincere conviction essential to social order and his self-preservation . . . It believes that the preservation of society requires the domination of a fixed privileged class over a lower; that the white constitute this privileged class, and that the blacks do, and must, and shall comprise the lower.
I think there are many other ways–and many of them more positive than Cable’s assessment–to identify oneself as “Southern,” but he offers us some interesting food for thought with this speech.
One of the reasons I enjoy blogging is that it gives me a chance to hash out thoughts, ideas, and theories that may not be fully developed in my mind. Blogging for me is as much about asking questions about how and why we study history as it is writing essays that aim to inform readers on a given historical topic that I’ve studied. Indeed, asking questions about the fundamental theories the underlie the act of historical thinking and the intellectual contours of the profession is a necessary challenge all historians must address. In doing so, we better position ourselves to sharpen our methodological tools while simultaneously improving upon the ways we explain the importance of studying history to the rest of society. Doing a better job of answering the question “why study history?” has been a central challenge of my career as a public historian so far, and I’ve thankfully learned a lot not just by reading books but also blogging out my ideas and receiving constructive feedback from thoughtful readers.
With my last post I delved into the importance of having “historical perspective” when analyzing current events. Does it help to have historical perspective? If the answer is yes, then how so? My thoughts were shaky and I had no conclusive answers. Thankfully a number of commenters stepped in and offered some brilliant thoughts.
From Christopher Graham of the American Civil War Museum:
I think the comparisons of better/worse are not the right way to frame the questions and leads us to dumb debates over better/worse and that’s not very good history.
What historical perspective should be teaching us–aside from the overwhelming complexity that defies a better/worse narrative–is how this process of historical change works. We should be asking–where is the intentionality that represents tradition and systems, and where does contingency and the unexpected that shape sensibilities and events intersect with it? How does that inevitably make things different–not necessarily better or worse, just different. And how do we identify those historical processes at work in current events? The answer reveals that we should be looking widely for motivations for change, should be ready to accept the unexpected, and that it is a dynamic process.
And from Andrew McGregor of Purdue University:
I think a lot of folks who talk about historical perspective, talk in terms of compare and contrast, which, to me, isn’t really what history and historical perspective is about. I think one of the problems that your are wrestling with here is that questions like “how did we get here?” (which are an important question to ask!) are inherently teleological. Similarly comparing and contrasting almost always involved some sort of value judgment (progress or declension). Neither approach is very emotive or humanistic (to deBoer’s point), which forces us to rethink how we understand and tell the history of “victims” (for lack of a better word). I think historical perspective works best, when we are use it to understand and get inside of moments, ideas and arguments, cultures, to better understand the lineage of people’s experiences, creating what might be termed a historical empathy built through examples and understandings of the past. This is much more easily done we analyzing how and why people make certain arguments about the Confederate flag or the R*dskins mascot, but when talking about structures and processes (like criminal justice and policing) we sometimes lose that humanness in how we tell, explain, or understand history. I’ll stop rambling there, but I think my overall point here is that we need to be conscientious of keeping a humanistic historical perspective instead of falling into lazy patterns of analysis that are often flawed.
Both of these comments redirected my thinking on historical perspective towards a new direction. It’s perfectly natural for us to compare and contrast the conditions of contemporary society with those of past societies – it’s all we can really do since we can’t predict what the future will bring. But in focusing my thoughts on comparing past and present through a better-or-worse dichotomy, I failed to grasp all the different and dynamic ways historical thinking challenges us to assess the present beyond a simple progress/declension narrative. Historical thinking includes all that Christopher and Andrew mention in their comments; finding the intersection of intentionality and contingency, analyzing change over time, and exploring ideas, cultures, and experiences in a way that goes beyond making subjective judgements as to whether things are better or worse today.
It’s a profound analytical failure to scold people for not having “historical perspective.” We don’t live in history. We live in our lives.
— HR-Compliant Freddie (@freddiedeboer) July 8, 2016
The above tweet from linguist and writer Fredrik deBoer got me really thinking about the meaning and purpose of having a historical perspective when looking at contemporary events. deBoer was responding to a recent essay by Jonathan Chait entitled “It Is Not 1968.” Chait argues in that essay that the country is actually more unified in its views towards Black Lives Matter and police reform than social media may suggest. He argues that recent op-eds and commentaries from a number of conservative political leaders and thinkers indicate a shift in thinking that is more sympathetic to BLM’s grievances. “[Democrats and Republicans] may not agree with Black Lives Matter on the exact scope of the problem, but the two sides have a shared sense of its existence — no small achievement in a country where the two parties cannot even agree on such questions as climate science — and broad moral contours,” he explains. Chait sees these developments as a genuine victory for “reasoned, evidence-based progress.” We as a country are doing better than we were in 1968 and should ultimately proceed with caution before making any rash historical comparisons.
But deBoer pushes us to take a wider perspective and consider how the families of Philado Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and many black victims of police violence might react to Chait’s declaration of forward social progress and “historical perspective” when the price of such progress has been paid in human life and the loss of their loved ones. What good is it to say “things are better now” when the threat of violence at the hands of police still remains for many people of color today? What good is it to tell someone that “it is not 1968” when the challenge at hand is living in 2016? Are there times when “keeping things in perspective” prevents us from taking steps to ensure a better world tomorrow?
I made a similar argument a couple years ago when I wrote about the events in Ferguson, events that occurred within a short drive to my own house here in the St. Louis area. I appreciated the historical perspective that numerous writers offered in attempting to explain the looting and violence that hit the area (including a long history of urban riots in places like Watts and Detroit and others led by white supremacists for different reasons that completely destroyed cities like Memphis, Wilmington, and Tulsa), but I simultaneously suggested that such historical perspective probably offered very little solace to the victims whose businesses were destroyed amid the chaos. Likewise, I imagine any claims suggesting that police practices are more humane today than fifty years ago are probably true but of little solace to the residents of Ferguson and surrounding areas whose local governments used their police force and municipal court system to raise funds through petty fines and fees for offenses that were not a threat to the community.
To be sure, I do think it’s a good thing to have historical perspective. There’s a song by Billy Joel, “Keeping the Faith,” where he cautions that “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” I always liked that line because it warns us to avoid being overly sentimental about the past while demonstrating that the potential for a better tomorrow is always there. But at the same time I see issues with that thinking when real problems in peoples’ lives today are minimized and dismissed, especially when those people are truly disadvantaged. At its most extreme we see the worst perversions of “things are much better today” when people say things like “slavery was a long time ago. Life is so much better today and everyone is treated equally, so get over it!” That viewpoint isn’t helpful for solving the problems of today and is ultimately another way of telling someone to shut up because their concerns aren’t valid.
What are the advantages of viewing contemporary problems with a historical perspective?
“Make America Great Again,” “A Future to Believe In,” and Competing Philosophies of American History
The current U.S. election has been a consistent stream of embarrassing statements, extremist rhetoric, radical political stances, glaring hypocrisies, and nonstop media coverage that in many cases comes off as an uncritical infomercial for Hilary Clinton and/or Donald Trump, the presumptive Presidential nominees of the Democrat and Republican Parties. I rarely discuss contemporary politics on this website and I don’t want to wade too deeply into those depths with this post.
One theme from this election that interests me, however, is the degree to which political change from the status quo is necessary to ensure future prosperity for the United States. Bernie Sanders and Trump maintain two remarkably contrasting political platforms, but they’re also the two loudest advocates for a political revolution that completely dismantles the vaguely-defined Washington “establishment” and puts a totally new order of governance into place. Meanwhile other candidates like Clinton and the now-departed John Kasich often speak in more moderate terms about incremental change, compromise, and the toning down of heated rhetoric.
Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” has clearly resonated with a good number of Americans who, for various reasons, feel like they are falling behind economically while also watching their moral values and ways of life being destroyed in a twenty-first century culture war. The slogan offers itself as a great title for a manifesto in support of a conservative revolution. But what, exactly, does it mean when we call for America to become great again? Are we not great now? What greatness are we trying to recover? Who are we trying to take the country back from? When in American history was this country ever truly great for all? What does “Make America Great Again” say about how we view the whole of U.S. history?
In his 2015 publication Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, historian Andrew M. Schocket argues that the memory of the American Revolution and the development of U.S. history holds inherent “political and cultural implications” for how we view the world today. In sum, how we view the origins of the country’s founding can say a lot about how we view the role of politics and government in our lives today. Schocket distinguishes between those who view the American Revolution from an “essentialist” viewpoint and those who view it from an “organicist” viewpoint.
The essentialists argue that American history has only one discernible meaning that offers us clear lessons for navigating the contemporary world, and that any other interpretation or act of “historical revisionism” that diverts from the clear, God-ordained version of American history is flawed. This version of history emphasizes the importance of “private property, capitalism, traditional gender roles, and Protestant Christianity,” according to Schocket, and it views the U.S. Constitution as a perfect or near-perfect document that promotes freedom and liberty for all. The essentialists also assume that our contemporary U.S. government has strayed from its glorious founding ideals, and that the great future struggle of American society lies in restoring our political life to one that sits in harmony with the constitutional order that existed during the nation’s founding and early formation, which is the greatest, most free era in our history. The essentialist vision is all about making American great again.
The “organicist,” version of American history differs from the essentialist one in several ways. The organicists argue that there is no single, fully accurate version of American history that can be learned without interpreting the facts of the past. They believe that there are many ways to interpret this history and that appreciating the various interpretations people form about the past allows for a more holistic and accurate understanding of American history. For example, Schocket explains that “you might insist that white Virginians revolted primarily because they wanted to keep their slaves, and I might insist that white Virginians revolted primarily because they resented British governance, and we could both have a legitimate claim to be debated.” The organicists also refrain from glorifying the American Revolution and the nation’s early years too much, instead stressing the contrast between the ideals of the founders and the sometimes destructive policies they implemented in practice. The great future struggle of American society for the organicists isn’t so much about returning the country’s government to a state of perfect alignment with its glorious past (which in their minds is a contested belief subject to debate) as much as it’s about improving upon that past by achieving the ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality through good governmental practices in the present. The organicist vision is perhaps best articulated through Sanders’ campaign slogan, “A Future to Believe In.” (It bears repeating, however, that the Sanders campaign platform of a “political revolution” to accomplish these ideals is contested, and I doubt all organicist-minded thinkers would agree with the necessity of such a revolution).
I suspect that most Americans fall somewhere in between the essentialist-organicist spectrum. I don’t believe the constitution or American history as a whole can be understood through one uniform narrative devoid of interpretation, and my training as a historian stresses the importance of understanding multiple perspectives and interpreting history through both primary and secondary sources. I also tend to agree with Ulysses S. Grant when he wrote (more or less) that it’s impossible for a contemporary society to solely live by the rules set by people hundreds of years ago. In these regards I find myself aligned more with the organicist interpretation. I can embrace some essentialist philosophies, such as the belief that the nation’s constitution and republican form of government have promoted freedom and liberty for many Americans, but I would argue that the challenge of enhancing everyone’s freedoms is a never-ending project that requires constant debate and discussion about the best path forward. There will never be a point when we wave a “Mission Accomplished” banner once we’ve successfully implemented a perfect form of Republican governance throughout the United States. Moreover, asking an essentialist-type question like “What would Jefferson do?” is not very useful. Instead, we should follow the lead of historian David Sehat and ask, “What is the common good today?”
One of the most unfortunate and widely-accepted ideas about historical thinking is that “history is written by the victors.” This talking point asserts that the truth of the past is not shaped by reasoned interpretive historical scholarship or a factual understanding of the past, but by the might of political and cultural leaders on the “winning” side of history who have the power to shape historical narratives through school textbooks, public iconography, movies, and a range of other mediums. To be sure, these mediums are powerful venues for establishing political ideologies and shaping personal assumptions about the way the world works. And it’s definitely true that governmental or “official” entities can and do exploit this power to achieve their own ends. In his book Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, historian John Bodnar discusses the concept of “official cultural expressions” that aim to shape how people remember the past. These expressions originate from social leaders and official authorities who seek to shape society’s historical understanding in ways that promote “social unity, the continuity of existing institutions, and loyalty to the status quo” (13). In other words, those in power have an interest in maintaining their power, and a “useable past” that conforms to their vision of present-day conditions can function as a strong tool in upholding their status.
It is a mistake, however, to assume that only the “winners” of history have the power to manipulate the past to attain their present-day goals. This is especially the case in an age where the internet wields enormous potential for a person from any walk of life to build a powerful platform for spouting their beliefs and opinions. We must do away with this fiction that history is only written by the winners. (I know that “Winners” is a vague and ill-defined term in this context, but I will set aside any long-winded attempt at a definition for this post).
There may be no stronger example of “losers” writing widely accepted historical narratives than those who have advocated for the Lost Cause interpretation of the American Civil War. The central argument of the Lost Cause, of course, is that the Confederacy was morally and constitutionally right in their efforts to secede from the United States. But loss is central to Lost Cause theory in that many of its advocates argue that the Confederacy was doomed from the very beginning of the war since United States forces had superior resources and military forces to overwhelm them. Although the historical reality demonstrates that there were several instances during the war when it appeared the Confederacy was on the brink of victory, the narrative power of young men patriotically putting their lives on the line for a doomed yet noble cause still appeals to a great number of Americans today.
In the years after the Civil War, Lost Cause advocates grabbed their pens and their pocketbooks in an effort to win the memory battle over the meaning of the nation’s bloodiest conflict. In 1866 Confederate General Daniel Harvey Hill established The Land We Love, a magazine that glorified Southern literature, agrarianism, and provided a platform for Confederate veterans to publish their reminiscences of battle. From 1884 to 1887 the popular Century Magazine published its famous Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, which included lengthy articles from both United States and Confederate military leaders about the war. Former Confederate political leaders like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens wrote autobiographies and histories of the Confederacy that reflected their version of events. Many history textbooks in schools throughout the country, but especially those in former Confederate states, taught a Lost Cause version of the war that glorified the Confederacy. Later on a number of motion picture films like Birth of A Nation and Gone With the Wind further extended the Lost Cause’s reach. And for roughly fifty years (1880-1930) countless millions of dollars were spent through both donations and public tax revenues to support the erection of monuments glorifying the Confederacy all across the South (and elsewhere, I’m sure).
All of these expressions of memory and historical interpretation were readily accepted by many if not most of Americans all over the country after the war. The “Losers” succeeded in writing a history that gained popular acceptance in American society. And the Lost Cause interpretation of the war is readily available for those looking to study it today. Anyone can go online and read Davis, Stephens, and many other Lost Cause materials on Google Books or HathiTrust. Anyone can find the Declarations of Secession written by the various Southern states that chose to explain their reasoning for embracing disunion.
History is written by everybody, not just the “winners.” It’s true that there have been times in history when “official narratives” have aimed to eradicate alternate historical interpretations that didn’t fully conform to the desires of the nation-state, the Church, or what have you. But the bigger point that is equally true is that historical counter-narratives always exist to subvert “victors” history, both orally and in print. “History is written by the victors” is a lazy argument that is usually deployed in the absence of historical evidence to defend claims about the past. This is why it was so ironic to me when I heard the complaint that “history is written by the victors” when the city of New Orleans decided to take down their Confederate statues in December. Clearly that’s not a true statement once you see how former Confederates and their supporters succeeded in shaping NOLA’s commemorative landscape for more than 150 years following the end of the Civil War.
On January 21 Columbia University hosted a “History in Action” conference that received a lot of attention within the history community on Twitter. I was not at the conference, but I followed along online with much interest. The noted Harvard University historian Jill Lepore gave the keynote for the conference, which focused on writing for public audiences. Based on the tweets I saw it appears Lepore made a number of arguments about the state of the field today, most notably that historians have “retreated into the academy” and are hesitant to engage public audiences, that the speed by which they produce their work is “indefensibly slow,” and perhaps most provocatively:
The public doesn’t care about the past for its own sake, just about the relationship between the past and the present.
I want to address this last claim. While it’s something I might have agreed with while studying public history in graduate school a few years ago, I no longer agree with it.
The first problem lies in assuming that there is a singular non-academic audience–“The Public”–that exists for consuming historical scholarship. Public historians have argued since 2013 and probably earlier that there exists no singular public audience but many public audiences that approach history from a number of different perspectives. Students, activists, politicians, senior citizens, and other community members all bring different levels of pre-existing knowledge and interest with them when approaching historical scholarship in a book or at a public history site. If we wish to spark an interest and appreciation for history among these many publics, we must work to meet them where they are. That means working to move some people’s interest level and historical knowledge from square one to square two and other people from square nine to square ten. I think it’s great to see articles written by historians in The New Yorker and popular history books on the bestseller lists, but we need to think more broadly about the ways people consume history besides books and articles and acknowledge that the idea of “The Public” is a myth. Know your audience.
My personal observation is that many people interested in the past are interested for the sake of the past itself. Again, we have to look beyond the writing of op-eds, magazine features, and academic scholarship that can sometimes delve into contemporary issues. Why do people visit history museums and National Parks or watch history-related movies and television programming, things that get far more attention than most historical scholarship in print? One of the latest studies on visitor motivations suggests that people visit cultural sites to fulfill their identity-based needs, one of which is the desire to “escape the mundane, work-a-day world” and learn about things out of the ordinary like past historical societies. I contend that there are far more people that visit public history sites out of a genuine curiosity about the past than people who come specifically to find something relevant to the present. I am sympathetic to the idea of connecting historical interpretations to present-day issues, but we should acknowledge that such efforts are difficult to implement, often uncomfortable for both historians and audiences, and far from accepted practice in either written historical scholarship or at public history sites. The problem at many historic house museums is not that public historians are facilitating deep, thoughtful dialogues with audiences about the role of history in shaping contemporary political circumstances, but that too many house tours focus on giving “furniture tours” and offering positive anecdotes about happy slaves, benevolent enslavers, and the mythical good old days. The past is a foreign country, but it’s a country many people are still willing to travel to without the filter of a present-day connection.
Another consideration we need to keep in mind is that Lepore is an Americanist whose recent books include historical analyses of Wonder Woman and the conservative Tea Party movement, both popular subjects in recent U.S. historical memory and arguably relevant to present-day political issues and topics. But is every historian in a position to study and interpret historical topics that are so easily relevant to the present? Should Medieval and Ancient historians make their scholarship more accessible by only focusing on topics that are relevant to today? I’m just not sure how a Medievalist would respond to Lepore’s claim given that a topic like burial practices in 10th century France is going to be much tougher to relate to the present (although no less important) than the Tea Party’s use of American history to justify their movement’s political convictions and advocacy for conservative candidates in public office.
Finally, we should also keep in mind that what counts as “relevant” is subject to debate among historians and their many publics. Who in society gets to determine what history is relevant and irrelevant? Historians are not the only ones with the power to shape historical narratives and make connections to the present. What I as a historian may consider relevant to the state of society today may be dismissed by someone else as wholly irrelevant. If I wish to connect something like American slavery to present-day racism and mass incarceration, the onus is on me to craft those connections and prove their worth through a reasoned interpretation of available historical evidence. “Relevance” is not a self-evident concept.
What do you think?