Friday, June 15, 2007

Are Historians Unpatriotic?

Many thanks to btarrington over on the discussion board for calling my attention to a Lincoln mention in Time Magazine this week. I read the piece and want to share an observation that has less to do with Lincoln, more to do with the historical profession and, I fear, the current status of political dialogue in America.

For those of you unfamiliar with William “Bill” Kristol, he is a conservative pundit—a founder of the Weekly Standard and Fox News Contributor. His father, Irving Kristol, is generally considered one of the founders of the neoconservative movement in America. Like all of us, Kristol’s world-view influences the way he interprets the past.

In the article, Kristol focuses on Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum Address. He praises 28-year-old for accepting the challenges his generation faced at the time. “Now we face challenges almost as daunting as those confronting the nation when Lincoln spoke,” Kristol writes. “The perpetuation of freedom in the world is no more certain today than was the perpetuation of our free institutions then.”

I don’t want to take issue with Kristol’s overall thesis; instead, I want to talk about the first two sentences of the article:

"In the old days, historians—at least some of them—were partriotic and moralistic. No longer."
I don’t like this at all.

Kristol references Andrew Ferguson’s new book, Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America. For those of you who haven’t picked this one up I encourage you to. It is a good one—along the lines of Confederates in the Attic—Ferguson is interested in the ways we remember Lincoln. He not only writes with humor, but he is genuinely interested in the way history works.

Apparently, Krisol was intrigued by Ferguson’s observation that historians have encouraged “skepticism about the country, its heroes and its history.” So we come back to Kristol’s opening line: “In the old days, historians—at least some of them—were patriotic and moralistic. No longer.”

What? Historians today are somehow unpatriotic because they encourage Americans to view their origins with a critical eye? Let’s be careful with what we wish for. Apparently, Kristol wishes history would return to an earlier, simpler time—a time in which American textbooks "celebrated" the past. Well, he should pick up a textbook from the nineteenth century. Nationalist historians—most notably George Bancroft—were incredibly popular a century and a half ago. But be careful with them. Their interpretation of American history "celebrated" the triumph of Anglo-Saxon people over inferior races, often justifying colonization and the treatment of Native Americans, and yes, they also justified American slavery.

Bancroft offered an interpretation of American history—largely from the perspective of white males. To put it mildly, the historical profession has come a long way since then. Historians today do not tell simple stories. We meet the past on its own terms. We do our best to interpret what life must have been like for the generations that came before us. That means our histories include the people who were absent from Nationalist histories—people like women, African Americans, Native Americans, indentured servants, slaves, sharecroppers, child workers, etc. I could go on, but you get the point.

It isn’t that historians today are unpatriotic—they love their country as much as any political pundit. We celebrate the American experiment in popular government, but we understand that the story has many layers. If those stories make some people uncomfortable, that is just too bad! I’ve never taken an oath to make people feel comfortable.

Kristol has the right to question a historian’s judgment in telling uncomfortable stories. I see no harm in that debate; in fact, I encourage it. However, to question a historian’s patriotism is a sad commentary on the current state of political dialogue in America.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts about this on the DISCUSSION BOARD.

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