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The Dangers of Politicized History
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By Anonymous, August 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

Americans have a long record of quarreling over their past, but lately it seems like history has become a central theater of the culture wars. Politicians invoke their favorite saints in the American pantheon to seek a blessing on 21st century political platforms. Those on the left, for example, present themselves as the heirs and defenders of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s programs, or argue that certain measures they propose are inspired by the same values that Martin Luther King, Jr espoused.  Those on the right, by contrast, often insist on the need to return to the principles of the early republic and argue about whether American foreign policy is in keeping with the spirit of Ronald Reagan.  Both sides, of course, claim Abraham Lincoln for themselves.  There is no end in sight to the argument about whether Honest Abe, were he still around, would be a Republican or a Democrat.

It’s natural to look to the past for answers to contemporary challenges and to seek the endorsement of history’s heroes. It’s tempting for those who have even a passing familiarity with history to think that the answer to every question today can be found if one is willing to rummage long enough through the historical record, that history has clear lessons to teach us about how to solve any current problem, and that the historical figures we revere, no matter how many centuries now lie between us, would know just what to do if they were alive today.  The temptation is doubly strong for American politicians, not least because in a country where David McCullough and Ken Burns are household names, the history of this country carries a force in popular culture that is rare among Western democracies.  Besides, the history of the United States offers many more examples of grand political success than of political failure, since the last 200 years have been happier for Americans than for nearly any other people.

To complicate matters further, academic historians themselves often approach the past with one eye on the problems of the present.  The birth of the feminist movement encouraged scholars to create a new discipline, women’s history.  Today, one would be hard pressed to find a major university in the United States that does not have a tenured women’s historian on faculty.  The same holds true for African American history since the era of the civil rights movement, and for gay and lesbian history since the beginning of the gay rights movement.  In each of these cases, contemporary debates affected the way that historians answered the most fundamental question of their profession: Which parts of history deserve further study and which do not?  It is easy for conservatives to mock these historical projects as politically correct propaganda smartened up with a few footnotes, or, perhaps more commonly, to fear them as threats to the more traditional kinds of history that focus on Congressional politics and the waging of war.  It is true that political historians do not dominate the profession in the United States in the way that they did in the decades before the Second World War.  But the answer is not to attack the legitimacy of social and cultural history—much of which is of great value—or to redouble efforts to make American history serve the goals of contemporary conservatism, because doing so simultaneously debases our understanding of history and impoverishes political discourse today.

In its most basic sense, the purpose of studying history is to understand the nature and dilemmas of human experience two, ten, or twenty generations ago.  Good historians try to present a true picture of the world as it was, which entails attention to nuance and contradiction and a refusal to reduce the many shades of gray to simple morality tales in black and white.  They attend to the evidence as they see it, and, if they are honest, allow it to lead them to conclusions they did not anticipate when they began.  This is not to say that historians can or should write about every scrap of paper they find in the archives or to reproduce the past in its every detail.  Jorge Luis Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science” encapsulates the absurdity of that approach.  Good historians don’t just reproduce the past, they try to make sense of it, which necessarily entails highlighting certain facts and ignoring others.  But how to decide what to highlight and what to ignore?

One of the dangers of politicized history is that it uses the criteria of contemporary politics to answer this question and, perhaps more significantly, to interpret the evidence.  The result is that, instead of American history tout court, we end up with so-called liberal American history and conservative American history, as exemplified by such titles as The People’s History of the United States and A Patriot’s History of the United States.  But the suggestion that there is a conservative history of the United States that all conservatives must embrace is to betray the purpose of historical study, because it implies that the facts of the past must be sifted according to the terms of today’s political debates.  It rejects the idea that historical evidence must be weighed on its own terms.  In the true sense of the term, it begs the question by presupposing the answers to the questions that it poses.  It also runs the risk of buying into one of the more dangerous fallacies of post-modernism, namely that there is no single truth—no single history—but rather many truths and many histories, each of which depends on one’s own point of view.

This view is and ought to be anathema to anyone who embraces the motto that appears on every nickel and dime in this country: E pluribus unum.  The United States is premised on the triumph of unity over the temptations of factionalism.  This principle should apply not just to politics, but to intellectual life too—especially with regard to Americans’ understanding of their past.  Of course, there is and ought to be room for contending interpretations of the past.  The dialectic of orthodoxy and revisionism is the basic mechanism by which historical understanding advances.  But to suggest that one’s interpretation must necessarily follow from one’s political allegiance—and to suggest that the other side’s interpretation of history is a crass function of the way it votes—is meretricious.  It does a disservice both to the idea of history and to the health of American political debate.

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Lee Trepanier on Aug 24, 2011 at 9:47 am

An excellent diagnosis of the problem that inflicts the discipline today and perhaps explains why academic historians are held in so little esteem by the public.

Peter Haworth on Aug 24, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Thanks for this thoughtful essay. The virtuous historian engages in a non-ideological pursuit of the past. Even historical dabblers should strive to meet this standard.

Danny on Aug 24, 2011 at 2:35 pm

You raise a lot of valuable questions, but I think I missed the answers. You say that "historical evidence must be weighed on its own terms." What does this mean? How does one write a non-politicized history? As you correctly point out, historians must select some facts to include in their histories, and in so doing they necessarily leave others to the side. This activity is necessarily normative. Judgments about what is "relevant," "important," or "significant" are not empirical (though they are about empirical facts), they presuppose a normative theory of what should be included. I agree that one's political views (narrowly construed) need not dictate which history one thinks is important, but how does one escape the necessity of relying on normative judgments in the selection and emphasis of facts?

Peter Y. Paik on Aug 25, 2011 at 12:24 am

Scientific objectivity cannot really be a goal for humanistic study. But dispassion and disinterestedness resemble scientific objectivity, and less imaginative scholars have abused these virtues by making scientific claims for them. How does one achieve dispassion and disinterestedness? In his study of Tocqueville, Pierre Manent writes, "To recognize genius of Pascal does not require us to agree that he is right: It is to feel the necessity of seriously entertaining the possibility of one’s own conversion, and thus, eventually, seriously to spell out reasons why, once thoroughly thought through, one does not convert."

Perhaps we ought to undertake the study of history, or of any other discipline, in the same spirit - the object of our study should resist us, should seek to convert us to a view we do not hold. Regardless of whether we actually convert or not, the ferocity of the struggle that ensues is what determines whether a work is worthy or not.

Lee Trepanier on Aug 25, 2011 at 11:37 am

I do think there is a difference between being fair and being ideological in the study of a topic. One can approach a subject being open to its strengths and weaknesses in a balanced and objective fashion as opposed to one that wants to prove a certain perspective even if there are facts that point otherwise. My sense is that history as a discipline has opted for the ideological approach, to impose one's views dogmatically upon the subject, instead of trying to see what history can tell us.

Richard S on Aug 30, 2011 at 1:10 pm

" The dialectic of orthodoxy and revisionism is the basic mechanism by which historical understanding advances." Is the premise here true? I see little evidence that we understand the American revolution better today than did people 100 years ago, or than those who participated in it. Gordon Wood's Radicalism, for example, has the same dialectic (Monarchy, Republicanism, Democracy), as Henry Adams' history (High Federalist "aristorats," Jeffersonian "political philanthripists" and "Democracy.). Similarly, there's not much daylight between Burke's speeches on conciliation and Jack Greene's Peripheries and Center. The idea that the study of history progresses is a myth, useful to getting tenure, and for justifying the creation of history departments in the modern academy, but it is questionable, to say the least. It's the one Whiggish myth that historians are laoth to challenge. P.S. Is there an apolitical point of view? I doubt it, at least when discussing history. There are, however, more and less ideological points of view. But ideology is an invention of the late 18th century.