What History Will Not Teach Us

The great historian of our age, Newt Gingrich, declared during an interview August 16, 2010 on Fox News’s Fox and Friends, that “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington” so “there’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.” Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that a proposed Islamic cultural center would be built blocks away from the former World Trade Center site; that terrorism in the name of Islam and Islam are not one and the same; and that our Constitution could be interpreted to permit an expression of Nazi opinion “next to” a museum in the nation’s capital. Gingrich was offering a receptive audience a lesson in historical analogies, opining that the Nazi program exterminating 6 million of Europe’s Jews and other non-Aryans is analogous to the infamous September 11 bombing of the World Trade Center, which claimed the lives of Muslims as well as “white” New Yorkers.

Joining Gingrich as another one of the nation’s eminent history teachers, talk show host and Fox News commentator Glenn Beck organized a rally of tens of thousands for August 28 at the Lincoln Memorial as a latter-day civil rights assembly. That was the site, 47 years ago to the day, where Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech to the multitudes gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Beck aspires to reclaim the civil rights movement from “progressives” and black America, which he complains have co-opted the movement with their disdain for “white culture.”

Let’s also set aside the fact that the “white culture” which Beck champions gave us not only patriotic, freedom loving, and small town Americans, but also the Ku Klux Klan, our very own native terrorist organization.  Between its founding during Reconstruction and its peak during the 1920s, the KKK has claimed over 4 million advocates of “white culture.” (You can still join up on-line at one of several KKK websites.) Victims of the Klan’s violence under the cover of darkness included such notable enemies of “white culture” as (besides blacks) Catholics, Jews, foreigners, and organized labor.  We can also set aside the fact that the 1963 March on Washington was in every respect animated by a progressive political agenda, as its name suggests.

Less flamboyant, but hardly less earnest, Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund also taught some history to a Maine Republican Liberty Caucus clambake August 26.  Guests learned from Fund that the ‘tea party movement’ is analogous to “another populist grassroots movement: the left’s antiwar campaign during Vietnam [sic].”  We’ll set aside the fact that east and west coast college and university campuses, where the antiwar movement gathered most of its steam, were not the spawning grounds of ‘populist grassroots’ movements in the 1960s or any other decade in U.S. history.  We’ll also set aside the fact that on the substance of their respective issues, Glenn Beck and the late William Sloan Coffin, religious leader of the anti-war movement, represent opposite corners of our religious and political landscape.

History is to societies what memories are to individuals; it offers a past which we can use to rationalize or explain the present.  Unfortunately, history also waits to be exploited by those who lack well-informed or reasoned arguments for their claims on the rest of us. The putative lessons of history have been used for moral and political persuasion since Thucydides and Plutarch who, in turn, supplied some history lessons to the founders of the United States.  Were such lessons merely rhetorical decoration, questions of their accuracy might remain academic.  But such ‘lessons’ have often been the basis of misguided policies as well as virulent politics.

The belief that our historical experiences could be scientifically captured and understood–another one of Francis Bacon’s promises–tantalized thinkers and writers from the 18th century Enlightenment until well into the 20th century.  The conviction that scientific accuracy might be reached through a reliance on the measurement of ‘objective’ data–or quantitative history–resulted in a preference for varieties of historical evidence that could be counted, such as tax records and population statistics.  Few historians working during the 1970s can forget the uproar over Robert Fogel’s 1974 Time on the Cross, a quantitative history of American negro slavery, in which Fogel concluded that–whatever its moral failings–slavery was economically profitable.

Well before Fogel wrote, however, physicist Thomas S. Kuhn and philosopher Karl Popper undermined the belief that science could produce indisputably valid knowledge of our world, whether by counting measurable things or not.  Thus depleted of its theoretical underpinnings, scientific history lost much of its following in the ensuing decades, while ‘social constructionists’ began to treat all historical narratives as the self-serving products of prevailing social groups.

Neither the scientific nor the social constructionist views of what history might teach got it right.  Definitive scientific truth does not and cannot exist for the simple reason that before the sun sets tomorrow we could have stumbled upon entirely new and contrary evidence.  And so it is with historical conclusions, however ‘objective.’  On the other hand, some things indisputably did happen yesterday and the day before, and those happenings were not socially invented.  A fatal automobile wreck was not a socially invented or biased truth to the person killed in it, and the newborn infant is not a socially invented truth to its parents.  Both events, initially small in apparent importance to the rest of us, could have vast potential consequences, depending upon what happens as a result in the years that follow.

What historians do–real ones, that is–is gather evidence to produce narrative explanations of certain events; their work is comparable to what good trial attorneys do as they prepare their cases for a court hearing.  Such cases–built on narrative explanations–can be dry or unpersuasive, or they can be compelling on the basis of the evidence.  But the fact that a court finds one account of an event persuasive and thus ‘true,’ does not mean that all similar events will be true either in the same way or to the same extent, or that the actions of those involved found comparably virtuous or despicable.  Before the sun sets tomorrow, new evidence may appear, or new circumstances arise, that will lead to an appeal of a court’s ruling. Similarly, new evidence or new readings of existing evidence may send historians back into the archives or on the road in search of a different retelling of the previously accepted narrative.

Thus the fallacy of George Santayana’s maxim, too often quoted by historians in defense of our profession: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Indeed, we should remember the past, and study it well; but what we acquire from that study is not a map of the future and our best path through it.  What we acquire is a realization of the breadth and complexity of human happenings, and the vast possibilities and uncertainties that lie before us. Not to appreciate the enormity of those possibilities, and thus to be gravely misled by our misconceived certainties, is fortune’s punishment for abusing our past.


Text sources: Available on request.

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