“They don’t know history, but they are making it. But what are they making?”
– Victor Serge, “The Conquered City,” 1932
In contrast to the physical sciences, and even other social sciences, the study of history is, by nature, subjective. There is no real mathematical formula to assess the past. It is more an art, or artifice, than a science.
Yet how we present and think of the past can shape our future as much as the statistics-laden studies of economists and other social scientists. Throughout recorded time, historians have reflected on the past to show the way to the future and suggest those values that we should embrace or, at other times, reject.
Today we are going through, at both the college and high school levels, a major, largely negative, reassessment of the American past. In some ways, this suggests parallels to the strategy of the Bolsheviks about whom Serge wrote. Under the communists, particularly in the Stalinist epoch, the past was twisted into a tale suited to the needs of the state and socialist ideology. This extended even to Bolshevik history, as Josef Stalin literally airbrushed his most hated rivals – notably Leon Trotsky, founder and people’s commissar of the Red Army – into historical oblivion.
In the modern reformulation, America – long celebrated as a beacon of enlightenment and justice – now is often presented as just another tyrannical racist and sexist state. The founding fathers, far from being constitutional geniuses, are dismissed as racist thugs and suitable targets of general opprobrium.
Initially, the progressive assault made some sense. Traditional “civics” education often presented American history in an overly airbrushed manner. Many of the nation’s worst abuses – the near-genocide of American Indians, slavery, discrimination against women, depredations against the working class and the environment – were often whitewashed. These shortcomings now have been substantially corrected in recent decades, from what I can see in my children’s textbooks.
Of course, the old attitudes still remain embedded, particularly among those mostly older, white middle- and working-class Americans who are attracted to Donald Trump’s call for America “to be great again.” This kind of unfocused nostalgia does seem likely to be consigned to – as Trotsky dubbed it – “the dustbin of history.”
But as progressive ideology has grown in influence, it has become ever more radicalized, often to the extent of downplaying, or even denying, the remarkable accomplishments of our civilization. It is now considered a “microaggression” on college campuses, notably, those of the University of California, to call America “the land of opportunity,” or celebrate the notion of the “melting pot.” This attitude ignores that America has provided succor and hope to many millions of people who left desperate conditions in places like southern Italy, Ireland, the slums of Lancashire, the shtetls of Russia, rural Japan, China, Central America, the Middle East and, increasingly, Africa.
That not all Americans have succeeded, and that too many have fallen behind, certainly needs to be addressed. Yet it is hard to find America’s equal as the savior of millions of the oppressed. The legacies of slavery and other oppressions certainly remain, but so, too, do the obvious success stories, starting with the massive growth of the black middle class, now in integrated suburbia, the election of an African American president, the growing influence of new immigrants and the very real prospect of a woman becoming our next president. America may not be perfect, but continues to try perfecting itself.
Twilight of the Idols
The horrific murders in June of nine black people at a church in Charleston, S.C., by a deranged racist set in motion arguably the most radical move to disassociate the country from its past. All over the country, Confederate flags went down and, in public spaces, none too quickly.
To be sure, the Confederacy was essentially driven by an agrarian plutocracy’s addiction to slavery, and it is not surprising that many people, not just African Americans, resent having high schools named after those who essentially fought to defend slavery.
But it’s also important to acknowledge that most white Southerners at the time of the Civil War didn’t own slaves. Many felt they were defending their home states from a Northern invasion. Can we compare the farm boy from Alabama who fought under the Star and Bars to a fanatic racist of the Waffen-SS seeking to conquer the world? The Confederacy can no more be excised from our history than can the westward movement, which, for all its successes, also decimated American Indians and altered the environment in sometimes destructive ways.
More serious still, the fallout from the Charleston church shootings has led to a drive to delegitimize even our founders, many of whom were slave owners. This list includes arguably the greatest of the founders, George Washington, as well as Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, James Madison, a critical figure in framing the Constitution, and Andrew Jackson, primary architect of the populist ideology of the Democratic Party.
Now, like what occurred with Trotsky and the other Stalinist purge victims, there is a concerted move to airbrush these American idols from the national pantheon. Today’s Democratic Party, for example, has started eliminating its traditional Jefferson-Jackson day events, starting with Iowa.
Progressives, notes liberal writer Ross Baker, may rue the day they replaced their historic forebears with a new identity as “the Church of Perpetual Repentance.” The shaper of modern progressivism, Woodrow Wilson, could be knocked off his pedestal, in large part because he was, among other things, a confirmed racist.
Even Franklin Roosevelt, Baker notes, could be considered suspect for his political alliance with Southern segregationists and the internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II. FDR also made Columbus Day a national holiday, an abomination today in progressive strongholds like Minneapolis and Seattle (among the whitest cities in America), which have opted to rename it Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Meaning for the Future
The current ideological purging of our history could lead to some odd consequences. After all, what will become of the more than 200 locales, cities or counties named after George Washington. And what about the state of Washington – or our nation’s capital, for that matter?
And then there are scores of places named after Jefferson, Jackson and Madison? Should Wisconsin change the name of its capital from Madison, and Missouri, from Jefferson City, or perhaps Jacksonville, Fla., should become something else, like, perhaps, Beachville. These changes could create a bull market for map makers, sign painters and all those clever “Madmen” types who can think up clever new names for reinvented places. Think of the corporate branding possibilities.
More serious, still, will be the damage to the American sensibility. From early on, America was derived not from a single ethnic identity, as was largely the case in Europe and Asia. America, noted the British writer G.K. Chesterton, is “the only nation in the world founded on a creed.” Our national traditions are fundamentally based on ideas – albeit all too often violated – concerning the rights of individuals, an elaborate set of checks and balances to rein in authoritarian tendencies by spreading power among different branches and various levels of government.
These notions do not have to remain etched in stone, as some conservatives might allege. Virtually all the leading reformers in our history – Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, the Roosevelts and Martin Luther King – couched their proposals in terms of fulfilling American ideals. Throw out the ideals, and those who originally formed them, and we lose the precious ability to meld our traditions with change. We are left simply with a postmodernist battle of interest groups, with no unifying or moderating principle.
Winston Churchill remarked that “history is written by the victors.” Today, in terms of history and the American past, the presumptive winners are Hollywood, academia and the mainstream media, where people often have little appreciation for America’s unifying creed. In such a situation, there are also losers – namely, the rest of us and our children – who will inherit little of the pride in their country’s history that older generations took for granted.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University in Orange and the executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.