Sunday, April 21, 2013

Politics as History; History as Politics

Jill Lepore has assembled a remarkable collection of essays in her book The Story of America. Her essays all deal with our history and how that history has been presented to us by those who wrote about the events that make up our national heritage. She is troubled by the inevitable intertwining of history and politics, and the need to recognize the differences between the two.
"History is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence."

Note that she does not describe history as a collection of events, dates, and people. History is rather one person’s interpretation of the past in light of what that person knows about the present. History is an opinion.

Politics is the art of telling a story about the past in order to excite the imaginations of those living in the present. Both professions share an interest in the past, but they should be vastly different in intent.

"Politics involves elections and votes and money and power, but the heart of politics is describing how things came to be the way they are in such a way as to convince people that you know how to make things the way they ought to be."

"This is curious and worth pondering, because it reveals how much politics has in common with history. Politics is a story about the relationship between the past and the future; history is a story about the relationship between the past and the present."

To a great extent, what we believe about ourselves and about our nation is informed by what we are told is our history. Who gets to write history, and what they choose to include, is important then in determining the character of our nation.

"All nations are places, but they are also acts of imagination....The story’s plot, like the nation’s borders and the nature of its electorate, is always shifting....Who tells the story, like who writes the laws and who wages the wars, is always part of that struggle."

It would seem that collusion between politicians and like-minded historians is an unavoidable danger, and Lepore is correct in being concerned that the two remain intellectually separate.

She tells us this:

"Politics is accountable to opinion; history is accountable to evidence."

But is "evidence" really something that can be relied upon? The dynamics of a nation are so complex that it is inconceivable that anyone could monitor all the factors in play at any instant. As time and the nation rumble on, some evidence of what transpired is left behind, other evidence is obscured or destroyed. The data the historian has available to concoct her story tends to be random and incomplete. The historian then has much leeway in assembling the set of "evidence" that will be used in constructing a story. Another historian can assemble a different subset of "evidence" and arrive at a different story. Historians tend to sort these conflicting claims out by arguing among themselves until a majority line up behind one or another story and it is then assumed that tale is the correct one. It should be recognized that this approach is designed to damp out troublesome controversies when people tire of argument. It is by no means a determination of the "truth."

Politicians have a simpler method for resolving historical uncertainties: they can pick the version of history that is consistent with their preconceptions or prejudices.

This fungibility of history and its evidence is troublesome. One thing that experience has taught us is that researchers usually begin their work with a story in mind, and they tend to find evidence that supports that story. Whether the topic is economics, or psychology, or medical science, it is frighteningly easy for preconceptions to bias results. Why should history be any different?

E J. Dionne Jr. addresses this intersection between history and politics in his book Our Divided Political Heart. He recognizes the importance of the stories we tell about ourselves and attributes our current political polarization to our inability to agree on a single story.

"Americans disagree about who we are because we can’t agree about who we’ve been. We are at odds over the meaning of our own history, over the sources of our national strength, and over what it is, philosophically and spiritually, that makes us ‘Americans’."

He includes a chapter with the intriguing title The Politics of History: Why the Past Can Never Escape the Present.

"To say that the politics of the moment influences history is neither to justify the intentional distortion of our story for partisan purposes, nor to assert that one account is as ‘good’ or ‘valid’ as another, regardless of its factual basis. It is simply to acknowledge that the heart of the historian’s task lies ‘in explanation and in selection,’ as the scholar Morton White noted in his classic book Foundations of Historical Knowledge. In describing events, the historian ‘depends upon generalizations,’ White noted, and ‘because he records certain events rather than others, he may depend upon value judgments that guide his selection’."

Dionne then proceeds to provide the reader with an example of how biased reporting of history corrupted our society for a century.

"But in certain areas, the politics of history is especially raw and contentious. Nowhere is this more obvious than in how historians have dealt with our nation’s long struggle with race, and no aspect of our story has undergone a more thoroughgoing revision and counter-revision than our view of what happened during Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War."

The initial views of this time in our history would be determined by racial attitudes.

"But at the heart of the argument over Reconstruction, from the beginning and ever since, was the moral and political question of whether southern blacks would be offered rights genuinely equal to those of whites. Would African Americans be empowered to shape the decisions that determined their fate as individuals and as a community? Or would they be denied the basic rights of citizenship and treated as an inferior group?"

During Reconstruction the Republicans, then the party of Lincoln, essentially occupied the South and imposed equal rights for the blacks. The Democratic Party, then the home of the racists, fought back politically, and the southern whites fought back by instituting a reign of terror aimed at disarming blacks so they could not defend themselves and ignoring any voting rights the blacks had been granted. Eventually, the federal authorities withdrew and left the field to the southerners to do as they wished.

The historians who told the story of Reconstruction in the first decades of the twentieth century seem to have been captured by notions about the superiority of whites. Any attempt to raise blacks to the same level could then only be viewed as a misguided or corrupt political maneuver. Dionne reminds us that these were respected historians working out of some of our most highly-regarded universities.

"It is strange to our ears now, but the whites who overthrew the Reconstruction governments, imposed a color line, and stripped African Americans of their rights were known, proudly, as ‘redeemers’."

"The scholars who wrote the history of Reconstruction from the turn of the last century into the 1920s saw the foes of Reconstruction just that way in accounts offered when the nation’s inclinations turned conservative (one could also fairly say racist) on matters of civil rights. Works by James Ford Rhodes, William Dunning, John W. Burgess, and their students painted Reconstruction as a disastrous interlude. They described the Reconstruction governments as dominated by corrupt ‘carpetbaggers’ and ‘scalawags’ and accused them of imposing misrule on the South, partly by granting power to ‘ignorant’ freed slaves. Southern whites who used violence and fraud at the polls to overthrow the Reconstruction governments were defended, not condemned. Burgess called Reconstruction ‘the most soul-sickening spectacle that Americans had ever been called upon to behold.’ Rhodes called the work of the Radical Republicans ‘repressive’ and ‘uncivilized’ and cast them as politicians who ‘pandered to the ignorant negroes, the knavish white natives and the vulturous adventurers who flocked from the north’."

Dionne recalls encountering this picture of Reconstruction as an elementary school student. I also heard the same tale as a child and can still recall an image provided of a rather nasty looking individual carrying a carpetbag and meant to represent the "vulturous scalawags."

"Their accounts became the conventional wisdom of American history—and they were still affecting the presentation of the period in American history textbooks I first encountered in elementary school in the 1950s and early 1960s. These approaches to Reconstruction, in turn, reinforced racial attitudes that undergirded southern segregation."

Another era, and a century of learning that blacks were quite capable of determining their own future, led to the issuance of books and articles reconstructing Reconstruction and placing it in the context of well-meant, if not always wise attempts to both rebuild the southern economy and to provide civil rights to blacks who were demanding them.

Dionne refers to a massive study by Eric Foner, Reconstruction, issued in 1988 as being representative of these efforts. Ironically, Foner produced his history at Columbia University which had been at the forefront in producing the original picture of Reconstruction. Dionne quotes Foner’s description of the power of (bad) history.

"For it was at Columbia at the turn of the century that William A. Dunning and John W. Burgess had established the traditional school of Reconstruction politics, teaching that blacks were ‘children’ incapable of appreciating the freedom that had been thrust upon them, and that the North did a ‘monstrous’ thing in granting them suffrage. There is no better illustration than Reconstruction of how historical interpretation both reflects and helps to shape current policies. The views of the Dunning School helped freeze the white South for generations in unalterable opposition to any change in race relations, and justified decades of Northern indifference to southern nullification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments."

Jill Lepore is correct in warning us about the danger of mixing politics and history. E. J. Dionne Jr. provides us with an excellent example of the damage that biased historians can cause.

Politicians and activists have learned the lesson of manipulating history well. The easiest way to defeat an opponent or an opposing idea is to rewrite history in order to make your enemy look evil, foolish, or ineffective.

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