Why the right hates history right now
Edited by Tommy Craggs
When George W. Bush was getting ready to sell the invasion of Iraq to the American people, he turned to History. It was 2002, and the cable channel was prerecording an interview with the president, scheduled to air after the death of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, which seemed imminent at the time.
As Michael Isikoff and David Corn recount in their 2006 book, Hubris, Bush prepared for the segment by rummaging through history, trying to find any analogy he could use as a justification for his desired war. In the margins of a pre-interview brief with potential questions about Reagan, Bush wrote words like “moral clarity” and “faith.” Beside a reference to the 1983 suicide bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, he scribbled: “There will be casualties.”
When the interview came, Bush pulled out a then-favorite conservative historical chestnut:
Reagan “didn’t say, ‘Well, Mr. Gorbachev, would you take the top three bricks off the wall?’ ” Bush told [interviewer] Frank Sesno. “He said, tear it all down. . . . And the truth of the matter is, I spoke about the Axis of Evil, and I did it for a reason. I wanted the world to know exactly where the United States stood.”
Reagan’s hard line had been a success, Bush said to Sesno. Not only the top three bricks but the whole damn Berlin Wall had come tumbling down. Now Bush had the chance to do something similar.
This is how the American right used to (and perhaps still does) think about history: a chronicle of Great Moments and Great Men, chock full of still-operational examples — a collection of unexpired warrants waiting to justify their immediate goals. In The Conscience of a Conservative, the 1960 manifesto ghostwritten by L. Brent Bozell, Jr., and published under Barry Goldwater’s name, the movement’s founding fathers instructed: “The Conservative does not claim special powers of perception … but he does claim a familiarity with the accumulated wisdom and experience of history, and he is not too proud to learn from the great minds of the past.”
These days you’re more likely to hear the opposite sentiment. Take Bret Stephens’ column this week in the New York Times. Lamenting what he sees as the “collapse” of “History” (the capital H is his), Stephens lectures: “The proper role of the historian is to complexify, not simplify; to show us historical figures in the context of their time, not reduce them to figurines that can be weaponized in our contemporary debates. Above all, historians should make us understand the ways in which the past was distinct.”
What has changed between the Goldwater and Bush years and today should be obvious. When Bozell and Bush talked about history, they were thinking of a body of reactionary texts, edited to bolster narratives in which people who looked and sounded like them were the protagonists; “the history of a nation that grew through the initiative and ambition of uncommon men,” as Bozell put it. One might call this an “identity politics,” one in which there was little room for outliers or revisionist works like W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America or William Appleman Williams’ The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. (Bozell also knew all about the extensive efforts to ensure that the bulk of university faculty would toe the party line in his day: Before going to work for Goldwater he had been a speechwriter for Sen. Joseph McCarthy.)
Today, the faces of both the academy and popular history are very different than they were back then. Women and nonwhite people have entered the scholarly ranks in droves, helping create new methodologies and re-introducing old and historically excluded perspectives. (Stephens’ insistence on the supposed absolving power of the “context of their time,” as applied to the founders of the United States, for instance, requires ignoring the perspectives of displaced Native Americans and enslaved people, among others, not to mention prominent thinkers of the day like Samuel Johnson, who famously wrote in 1775, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”)
One can definitely still be a successful scholar without challenging midcentury narratives, as a peek at the résumés of the most prominent critics of the 1619 Project can attest. But, and to their neverending chagrin, people in the wider culture have an ever-lessening interest in what they have to say. The most celebrated works of history these days are ones that blow up historical idolatries and make use of new scholarly narratives — analyses that are fiendishly difficult for anyone operating with a shred of intellectual integrity to discard out of hand. Which is why reactionaries of every stripe get so excited when a real, credentialed historian seems to side with them.
The latest of these events — the trigger for Stephens’ column, among others — was a blog post by James Sweet, the current president of the American Historical Association. Sweet took aim at what historians call “presentism,” which he summarized as declining interest in “pre-1800 topics” as well as “our increasing tendency to interpret the past through the lens of the present.”
This is, suffice it to say, extremely inside baseball. I almost definitely wouldn’t know what “presentism” was if I didn’t live with a historian, who spent the first half of our marriage writing a (really excellent) doctoral dissertation. But Sweet, probably unintentionally, lit a bat signal for those with no real interest in history as a profession to flock to.
First, quoting an earlier scholar’s lament (from 2002, in fact), he worried that “if history was little more than ‘short-term … identity politics defined by present concerns,’ wouldn’t students be better served by taking degrees in sociology, political science, or ethnic studies instead?” The reference to “ethnic studies” in particular burrows right into a conservative nerve. Such departments (African-American studies, Asian-American studies, etc) were born directly out of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, in an effort to break what was seen as a Eurocentric stranglehold on humanities research and education. It took student strikes to create them. Decades later, the far-right Claremont Institute still sees such departments as stalking horses for “progressive ideologies” that “despise America.”
Then Sweet went further. Turning to his area of expertise — Africa and the African diaspora — he singled out three examples of what he called “bad history” that fed right into the culture wars: a guided tour of Ghana’s Elmina Castle (a landmark along the trans-Atlantic slave trade), an upcoming Viola Davis movie about 19th century West Africa, and, of course, the 1619 project.
These examples, of course, had nothing to do with his argument. None of them are scholarly works — and of course a Hollywood movie, a weekly news magazine, and a tourist attraction are going to be “presentist.” But they cut right to the core of what perhaps really bothers established (and in Sweet’s case, white) scholars: They have the cultural cachet that an aging generation of historians deeply craves.
His objections to all of them were also, at best, pedantic. His objection to the castle tour was that it was too meaningful to African-American tourists, in light of the fact that “less than one percent of the Africans passing through Elmina arrived in North America.” I assume Sweet is familiar with the vast literature on “sites of memory” — places or things that have “become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community,” as the term’s coiner, the French historian Pierre Nora, wrote. I’ll write that again: symbolic element. (I’m sure he wouldn’t have done this, but it’s hard not to imagine Sweet going up to a family from, say, Atlanta, deep in their feelings at a “door of no return,” and saying: “Stop crying, you idiots, your ancestors were probably beaten and chained in an entirely different castle.”)
Sweet also thought the Viola Davis film’s trailer “seems to suggest” that its titular “Woman King” fought the slave trade, when in actuality, according to him, the warriors “promoted it.” But there’s nothing in the movie that explicitly says the characters are fighting slavery as opposed to efforts at European colonization more generally — which the figures the movie is based on definitely did, in the First and Second Franco-Dahomean Wars. As for the 1619 Project, Sweet didn’t offer any specific criticism at all, except to blame it for the right-wing backlash it inspired.
It’s likely that few in the online right actually took time to read Sweet’s post. If they had, they’d have seen that he saved his most biting criticism for the Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. The most attention-getting pull-quote (“This is not history; it is dilettantism”) and his most-cited accusation (of “cherry-pick[ing] historical data”) were both aimed not at Nikole Hannah-Jones or Viola Davis but at those justices and the pseudo-histories they employed in the latest gun-rights case, NYSRPA v. Bruen, and in overturning Roe v. Wade. (As the historian Kevin Gannon argued, equating the creators of popular histories with two officials using their actual power to harm millions may have been Sweet’s most insidious move.)
But even if they had read it, the right-wingers likely wouldn’t have cared. All that mattered was that the head of the country’s most prestigious historians’ guild had criticized three forms of popular history that are meaningful to Black Americans. (And that he pointed out that West African leaders participated in the slave trade — a fact which is covered, it should be noted, in the 1619 Project as well.) And with the post now having passed into culture-war territory, culture-war rules now applied. When Sweet issued a face-saving apology, particularly to his “Black colleagues and friends,” the firestarters pounced. A Claremont Instituter invoked China’s Cultural Revolution (likening the murder of millions to criticism of a blog post—speaking of ahistorical takes). The right-wing academic hoaxster Peter Boghossian said: “It was a mistake to apologize. … Now they’ll come for you with a renewed vigor.”
But it wasn’t the left that came after AHA next. It was the far right, including white nationalist Richard Spencer, who replied to the tweeted apology an hour after Boghossian quote-tweeted it. At sunrise, likely as soon as the AHA social media person saw what was happening, they temporarily locked the Twitter account — prompting another wave of right-wing outrage and glee.
Tellingly, the reaction to all of this from the center-right to the far-right has been to dance on the history profession’s deepening grave. Stephens, Megan McArdle, and the Wall Street Journal’s Dominic Green all took the time to celebrate declining undergraduate enrollments in U.S. history programs and the cratering number of available tenure-track history jobs, which they connected, rather speciously, to the debate over Sweet’s post.
Suffice it to say that asserting a link between the faculty jobs crisis and a debate over “presentism” is a major citation needed. If there is a political dimension to it, it seems far less likely to be a disembodied market rejecting a “desperate bid for relevancy,” as Stephens asserted, and far more to be a product of active suppression by Republican officials who have spent decades relentlessly cutting funding for the liberal arts — as well as an emphasis on the material- (and thus money-)producing fields in science, technology, engineering, and math by both mainstream parties.
And it isn’t just history but all of the humanities that are collapsing. The number of college graduates in humanities fields has declined for the last eight straight years. Only 4 percent of college graduates finished with degrees in English, philosophy, foreign languages, literature, or history in 2020, according to the most recent U.S. government data.
The real problem the most powerful people on the right and center have with the “new” history — and the humanities in general — is not that it practices identity politics, but that it rejects theirs. As the historian Joan Scott wrote in response to Sweet’s post, as previously excluded groups entered the academy, they started engaging in “critical examination of the processes by which exclusion had been accomplished in the first place.” The product of this was “not the glorification of the heroism of neglected martyrs (right or left),” nor “the confirmation of identity as a natural fact of life. It was, instead, usually about an implicit operation of power (hegemonic belief systems, disciplinary orthodoxies) that appealed to difference to confirm its rule.”
The problem, then, are the generations of scholars — and young people who read and watch their work — have become fiendishly adept at dismantling pseudo-historical, identitarian projects like Trump’s trolly “1776 Project” or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Christian nationalist “civics” curriculum. Add to this the fact that this newer generation of scholars is more willing (and able, thanks to social media) to draw parallels between their areas of study and the social and political crises of today, and you get a sense of the threat the right sees. (This all reached a fever pitch, from the right’s point of view, in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020 — the largest mass protest event in American history. The right, and some sympathetic liberals, have spent almost the entire two years since trying to drown memories of the George Floyd uprising in calumny about “wokeness” and “CRT,” as they try to dismantle the educational institutions that made that summer’s widespread understanding and compassion for the victims of systemic racism possible.)
All of this has created a PR headache for conservatives. Sure, the liberals who vamp about being on the “right side of history” are indulging in a fantasy (history doesn’t have sides and is never fixed). But whether you’re talking about pandemics, the climate, racial and economic justice, foreign wars, or overt threats to democracy, there are few instances in which revealing historical roots or drawing historical analogies will make the right’s current positions look more humane or sympathetic. For most Americans anyway, the baddies of World War II and the Civil War are clear, and the work of identifying their modern equivalents is made significantly easier when the slogans are the same. It is no wonder the right is so desperate to leave the past in the past.
Thanks to Claire Payton for her insights.
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