Historians, like journalists, are in the business of manipulating facts. Some use facts to tell truths, however unpleasant. But many more omit, highlight and at times distort them in ways that sustain national myths and buttress dominant narratives. The failure by most of the US’ popular historians and the press to tell stories of oppression and the struggles against it, especially by women, people of color, the working class and the poor, has contributed to the sickening triumphalism and chauvinism that are poisoning our society. The historian James W. Loewen, in his book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Markers and Monuments Get Wrong, calls the monuments that celebrate our highly selective and distorted history a “landscape of denial.”
The historian Carl Becker wrote, “History is what the present chooses to remember about the past.” And as a nation founded on the pillars of genocide, slavery, patriarchy, violent repression of popular movements, savage war crimes committed to expand the empire, and capitalist exploitation, we choose to remember very little. This historical amnesia, as James Baldwin never tired of pointing out, is very dangerous. It feeds self-delusion. It severs us from recognition of our propensity for violence. It sees us project on others – almost always the vulnerable – the unacknowledged evil that lies in our past and our hearts. It shuts down the voices of the oppressed, those who can tell us who we are and enable us through self-reflection and self-criticism to become a better people. “History does not merely refer to the past … history is literally present in all we do,” Baldwin wrote.
If we understood our real past we would see as lunacy Donald Trump’s bombastic assertions that the removal of Confederate statues is an attack on “our history.” Whose history is being attacked? And is it history that is being attacked or the myth disguised as history and perpetuated by white supremacy and capitalism? As the historian Eric Foner points out, “Public monuments are built by those with sufficient power to determine which parts of history are worth commemorating and what vision of history ought to be conveyed.”
The clash between historical myth and historical reality is being played out in the president’s disparaging of black athletes who protest indiscriminate police violence against people of color. “Maybe he should find a country that works better for him,” candidate Trump said of professional quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the national anthem at National Football League games to protest police violence. Other NFL players later emulated his protest.
Friday at a political rally in Alabama, Trump bellowed: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” That comment and a Saturday morning tweet by Trump that criticized professional basketball star Stephen Curry, another athlete of African-American descent, prompted a number of prominent sports figures to respond angrily. One addressed the president as ‘U bum’ on Twitter.
The war of words between the president and black athletes is about competing historical narratives.
Historians are rewarded for buttressing the ruling social structure, producing heavy tomes on the ruling elites – usually powerful white men such as John D. Rockefeller or Theodore Roosevelt – and ignoring the underlying social movements and radicals that have been the true engines of cultural and political change in the United States. Or they retreat into arcane and irrelevant subjects of minor significance, becoming self-appointed specialists of the banal or the trivial. They ignore or minimize inconvenient facts and actions that tarnish the myth, including lethal suppression of groups, classes and civilizations and the plethora of lies told by the ruling elites, the mass media and powerful institutions to justify their grip on power. They eschew transcendental and moral issues, including class conflict, in the name of neutrality and objectivity. The mantra of disinterested scholarship and the obsession with data collection add up, as the historian Howard Zinn wrote, “to the fear that using our intelligence to further our moral ends is somehow improper.”
“Objectivity is an interesting and often misunderstood word,” Foner said. “I tell my students what objectivity means is you have an open mind, not an empty mind. There is no person who doesn’t have preconceptions, values, assumptions. And you bring those to the study of history. What it means to be objective is if you begin encountering evidence, research, that questions some of your assumptions, you may have to change your mind. You have to have an open mind in your encounters with the evidence. But that doesn’t mean you don’t take a stance. You have an obligation. If you’ve done all this studying, done all this research, if you understand key issues in American history better than most people, just because you’ve done the research and they haven’t, you have an obligation as a citizen to speak up about it. …We should not be bystanders. We should be active citizens. Being a historian and an active citizen is not mutually contradictory.”
This article has been excerpted from: ‘The Abuses of History’.