Those who don’t know history are doomed to distort itand our political discourse.
The Strange Career of Jim Crow By C. Vann Woodward • Oxford University Press • 2001 • 272 pages • $15.95
In the run-up to this year’s election, the past became the present political weapon of choice. Everything in politics, it seems, has a historical analogy. Consider first a speech this summer by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld before a gathering of the American Legion. It revolved around an analogy between the appeasement of fascism in the 1930s and the critics of the Iraq war. Both then and today, he said, appeasers hold a belief that “if only the growing threats ” could be accommodated, then the carnage ” could be avoided.” Or take a recent column by Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg that compared Ned Lamont’s victory over Joe Lieberman in Connecticut’s Democratic senatorial primary to the 1972 choice of George McGovern, a “na‘ve and honorable anti-war idealist,” as the Democratic presidential candidate. McGovern lost the general election in a landslide and left behind a lasting impression that Democrats were weak on foreign affairs. Weisberg intoned that, therefore, Lamont’s nomination would have a similarly “huge and lasting negative impact on the Democratic Party.” Or recall how the death of Iraqi civilians at Haditha was touted as a modern-day My Lai, how Democrats are told to be more like Harry Truman, and how George W. Bush is scolded for being too much like Woodrow Wilson.
Just as the stakes for the future of America seem to have become greater, the country has been looking back as it tries to move forward. Yet in this respect, hindsight is hardly 20-20. Neither Rumsfeld’s nor Weisberg’s historical analogies, for example, work very well when put to even quick examination: Adolf Hitler was expanding throughout Central Europe during the late 1930s, while Saddam Hussein had been sufficiently contained after the first Gulf war and had nothing to do with the attacks of September 11. Lamont was not, as McGovern was, running for president at the height of a conservative backlash, but rather for the Senate in a deeply blue state and in a political party that, unlike with Vietnam, is not the key instigator of the war in question.
But if such analogies are so specious, why do politicians and pundits continue to deploy them? Simply put, because they can. Today the public, even the educated public, has little knowledge of history, or even an appreciation of history as anything other than a grab bag of unrelated facts to be picked from as one sees fit. These days, who knows much about the ins and outs of British appeasement or McGovern’s 1972 campaign (hardly ancient history)? But even in their ignorance, audiences are still sufficiently impressed by history’s power that even the weakest analogies provide immediate faux expertise, an instant credibility. Thus history is both poorly understood and everywhere present; we shape our public discourse with a discipline we don’t understand.
And where are the professional historians who are trained to understand the past and could scrutinize such claims? They’re in academia, churning out esoteric articles that move fast onto resumes but rarely into public debate. Go to recent issues of the American Historical Review and you’ll find articles like “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth-Century France,” “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics,” and “The Disruptive Comforts of Drag: (Trans)Gender Performances among Prisoners of War in Russia, 1914–1920”–and those are just the titles. If you make it through them, you’ll face the back of the journal where there are reviewed, literally, hundreds of books with similarly arcane titles, all of which give a sense of the overwhelming amount of scholarship out there on topics that few people know exist, let alone care about.
To be sure, there is something to be said for professionalism; professions, after all, help members learn the skills of research, objectivity, and balance. But they also press members to take their cues from other professionals, not the public. Today historians learn to frame their writing from the research concerns (including theoretical ones) delimited by the academy. To be “presentist,” to care about what the public is thinking and worried about and to try to shed historical light on such concerns, is to perform career suicide. Granted, there are a few noteworthy exceptions of academic historians who have written works of political significance: Dan T. Carter, Michael Kazin, and Alan Brinkley come to mind. Yet no junior faculty member will be serving his or her quest for tenure following such a path.
Four months before his then-boss, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. argued in the Atlantic that when scholars abandon engaged history and leave public life behind, they empower “prophetic historians” who replace complexity with a big overarching idea (Schlesinger had in mind Marxism). Today, scholars are leaving behind the public world not to communist theory but to the History Channel, where the imperative of entertainment trumps veracity, where shows about absurd conspiracy theories run alongside more serious fare, all formatted to work in between commercials. Or they leave it behind to blockbuster historians–think David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, or the recently deceased Stephen Ambrose–whose books, though widely bought, lack analytical power and critical insight. But most worrisome of all (and here is where Schlesinger was most prescient), professional historians have left a void to be filled by radical historians, who eschew nuance and objectivity in favor of simplistic morality tales.
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