Issue #3, Winter 2007

History Lesson

Those who don’t know history are doomed to distort it–and our political discourse.

A People’s History of the United States By Howard Zinn • Harper Perennial Modern Classics • 2005 • 768 pages • $18.95

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.

It wasn’t always this way. In the postwar era, there was a generation of historians–like C. Vann Woodward, Henry Steele Commager, Richard Hofstadter, and Schlesinger himself–who were consummate professionals and engaged in the important matters of the day. These historians benefited from the stringent demands of professional objectivity, a tradition that had solidified during the early years of the twentieth century with the growth of the modern university as well as the founding of numerous graduate programs in history and professional associations like the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. Yet historians like Woodward, Commager, and Hofstadter did not believe that objectivity and professionalism required locking themselves up in an ivory tower–just the opposite. Objectivity and the broad perspective that a training in history provided made these intellectuals’ engagement in public life an imperative. Now, as professionalization and objectivity–and the cruel realities of limited academic jobs for young historians–exert more pressures than before, we are forgetting the balancing act carried out by a previous generation. Fewer and fewer historians have the skills or ambition–let alone incentives–to make history speak to a wider public world. This leaves public engagement to those who are willing to cheapen the historian’s craft and play political football with the past. Both our understanding of history and our public discussion are the worse for it.

Ironically, the person who best embodies this unfortunate transformation of history is arguably the most famous American historian alive: Howard Zinn. As Michael Kazin recently pointed out in Dissent, Zinn’s most popular book, A People’s History of the United States, “has gone through five editions and multiple printings, been assigned in thousands of college courses, sold more than a million copies, and made the author something of a celebrity.” The book even had a cameo in the Oscar-winning film Good Will Hunting. Zinn–who earned his Ph.D. from Columbia–cut his teeth in the early days of the civil rights movement while a professor at Spelman College, an all-female African-American institution in Atlanta. As he became more involved in the movement and active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Zinn, now professor emeritus at Boston University, made a decision about the way he would “do” history in the future. “There was never, for me as a teacher and writer,” he later explained, “an obsession with ‘objectivity,’ which I considered neither possible nor desirable.” For Zinn, writing history was synonymous with doing politics. As he states in A People’s History, there is an inevitable “taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history.” In other words, history can never be the disinterested pursuit of truth but is rather a radical project, from the very beginning an exercise in spin rather than scholarship.

Riding a wave of “social history” that overtook academe in the wake of the 1960s, Zinn told stories about people neglected in more traditional political and intellectual histories. Instead of the Founding Fathers, readers of A People’s History learn about the urban working class during the American Revolution, Native American resistance to white settlers moving west, and a handful of slave revolts in the South. Telling these stories proved a form of political therapy for Zinn–a way of cheering on ordinary citizens for future political battles. “If history is to be creative,” Zinn explained, “it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion.”

To be fair, there is nothing wrong–and quite a few things right–about bringing to light heretofore unappreciated aspects of American history, whether they involve working people, women, or minorities. But Zinn is less interested in the episodes themselves as he is in stringing them together to tell a sweeping, ideology-heavy narrative that leaves no room for contingency or nuance. Zinn’s narrative in A People’s History is rather depressing. It’s a story of failed struggles in which the always virtuous “people” are beaten by a system that seems conspiratorial in both its reach and its ability to smother dissent. Turn-of-the-century Populists are co-opted, the socialist movement a generation later disintegrates, and the radical unions like the Wobblies and Colorado’s Ludlow strikers dissolve–all at the hands of the ever-present, ever-pernicious “American system,” the “most ingenious system of control in world history.” Crackpot as it may sound, this is the face of American history, at least to millions of non-historians. He has been profiled in Rolling Stone; his latest book, Voices from a People’s History, has been adapted into a play; and at one point Fox (of all places) was considering a TV series based on A People’s History.

Zinn’s popular influence and the fact that he’s widely read by left-wing activists who share his view of the world have evinced a predictable reaction from conservatives. Recent books like The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (replete with cartoons and pull-out quotes) and A Patriot’s History of the United States by University of Dayton Professor Larry Schweikart have done well in sales by simply countering Zinn’s polemics. But Zinn’s popularity hasn’t provided the right a model for their own work as much as a bull’s eye, an excuse to demagogue the discipline and debase the possibility of history providing a credible check to its right-wing agenda. Rather than ignoring Zinn, they place him at the center of the American historiography, just to show how widespread his approach has become. “Chomsky is read, imbibed, followed, by countless people, many of them young. Zinn is merely the author of the top-selling, most widely assigned U.S.-history textbook. Who’s to say these men aren’t mainstream?,” asked Jay Nordlinger in the National Review. And once Zinn is accepted as the model historian, it’s easy for the right to prepare the necessary takedown.

I recently witnessed firsthand how the right uses history to further its own agenda while writing a biography of Upton Sinclair, a socialist and hero to Zinn. In December 2005, the Los Angeles Times reported that a man bought a bundle of Sinclair’s letters at an auction; in one letter Sinclair admitted to knowing that Sacco and Vanzetti–two Italian immigrant anarchists put to death for murder in 1927 and lionized by the left–were guilty, but that he decided nevertheless to write a book that could still help their “cause.” The right-wing pundit Jonah Goldberg pounced on the story, declaring that the episode exposed the “clay feet of liberal saints,” including historians, who had written Sinclair into the canon of historical American heroes. Goldberg quickly compared Sinclair’s reaction to the Sacco and Vanzetti case to Al Sharpton’s own use of Tawana Brawley (she claimed that six white men raped her and later was found to have lied about it) in New York in the 1980s. Goldberg didn’t even bother to discuss (or perhaps even read) the book that Sinclair had mentioned in the letter. (If he had, he would have found that the book presented a grayer picture of the case than Goldberg made it seem.) But such journalistic responsibility and historical accuracy would have slowed down the mad dash for the op-ed that could scream out: Liberal history is a lie! And with people like Howard Zinn supposedly at its helm, who would disagree? Thus Zinn’s approach to history provides both a target and a method to those who would profit from the debasement of serious history–those who, like Goldberg, can only win ideological arguments by delegitimizing those who could prove him wrong.

Considering all this, it’s no wonder historians stay out of the public sphere and content themselves with obscure articles that no one reads. Why become fodder in this debate? Better to treat the past as past and leave the political discussions to loud-mouthed pundits whose hatchet jobs rarely illuminate the past, let alone the present.

Issue #3, Winter 2007
Post a Comment

Hofstader as a positive role model?:

Kevin, you state: "These historians benefited from the stringent demands of professional objectivity, a tradition that had solidified...." and you go on to state "historians like Woodward, Commager, and Hofstadter did not believe that objectivity and professionalism required locking themselves up in an ivory tower–just the opposite".

With regards to Hofstadter, I am not sure about his "objectivity" -- at laeat when it came to the populists. His interpretation certainly cast a very long and negative shadow (he is largely responsible promulgating the "hicks and hayseeds" stereotype used to belittle those late 19th century agrarians who engaged in the politics of protest).

That shadow help reinforce the notion of periodation of history (that the "hot" populists era ended and the "cool" progressive era began when the fact of the matter is that that one era flowed directly into the next).

Moreover, that shadow extended well beyond the ivory-tower. Just read TNR today and you will see how Hofstadter's prejudices live on in the disparaging comments that are made almost anytime "populism" is mention. Hofstadter did not do the research that would have been necessary to support his claims (and his insinuations). With regards to "stringent demands of professional objectivity", Hofstadter was a failure (a no-nothing), at least when it came to the populists. You are a historian. Name one "fact" he got right about the populists. How about the "yeoman farmer" idea? Reading Hofstadter, you might get the impression that they had "nativisist tendencies", correct? And that they had a provincial mind-set? And so on and so forth.

To paraphrase your statement... Those -- like Hofstadter -- who don't know a particular history are doomed to distort it -- and thereby distort our political discourse.

I think a very sound case can be made that today's political discourse on populism is so very much distorted because of Richard Hofstadter and his own prejudices and for that reason I don't know why Hofstadter's name would be brought up as a role model for professional objectivity.

Am I being unfair to Hofstadter? If so, I would challenge you to please set the record straight. Thank you


Dec 12, 2006, 8:40 PM
Leigh Ann:

No history is objective--no scholarship is objective. We all select the topics we research and the sources we use, and therein lies a large dose of subjectivity. Should we be willing to find things that challenge our preconceptions and our ideological commitments? Absolutely! Does that willingness make our work objective? Not at all--just empirically sound and supported by scholarly integrity. Nevertheless, I agree with Professor Mattson that we--historians--need to produce scholarship that engages issues of current public concern (more subjectivity here in topic selection) and present it in ways the public can appreciate. Proclaiming our objectivity will not serve the public but educating our readers and our students to recognize and distinguish between interpretations of the past and use historical scholarship responsibly will.

Dec 13, 2006, 4:14 PM
Siva Vaidhyanathan:

You only listed six or seven public historians from the supposed golden age of public intellectuals.

Such declinism and nostalgia is ahistorical and simply wrong. Your evidence that historians fail to engage with the public comes only from some choice titles of journal articles. That does not cut it.

Just for a lark, here is a list of current academic historians -- some quite young -- who engage with the public through books, magazine articles, and media interviews on matters of history and public interest:

ï Gary Nash

ï Eric Rauchway

ï Niall Ferguson

ï Jonathan Zimmerman

ï Tony Judt

ï Sean Wilentz

ï Patricia Nelson Limerick

ï Ed Morgan

ï Eric Foner

ï Susan Douglas

ï Richard Pells

ï Juan Cole

ï Robert Dallek

I could go on. It took me about 45 seconds to come up with that list.

So what's the problem? Publishers still want good writers. Publishers still publish good and well-written history books. Historians still show up on talk shows and NPR. People have always misused history and they always will. Most academics have always and will always decline or fail to engage with the public.

What, exactly, as changed?

Dec 13, 2006, 4:20 PM

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