misusing history

History is one of those subjects that politicians and the general public are never going to leave to historians alone. I’ve got no problem with that, if those doing it follow basic rules of evidence and have a decent sense of what historical thinking is. I wish those proclaiming what they take to be the truth of history were more interested in discovering that truth than reshaping history to illustrate their own political beliefs. Such a phenomenon is not new, but the current trend among some conservatives to rewrite American history to fit their image of America today is irksome at best, downright troubling at worst, especially if such “history” enters the classroom.

For a taste of this phenomenon, read Steven Thomma, Not satisfied with U.S. history, some conservatives are rewriting it (McClatchy Newspapers). You might want to view the video on that page too. It would be interesting to find a longer piece in a venue that permitted footnotes to lead to further reading, but I suspect most academic historians do not take these rewritings of history seriously enough to address them. Such battles over history will be fought in the media instead, the standard of truth frequently being ideological purity. Let the buyer beware.

[I initially wrote this piece for my History 100 students, but it belongs here too.]

There is an interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times about how Texas is changing the content of its American high school history textbooks. Instead of taking potshots at its clear abuses of history, however, the author locates it in a broader context of history curricula and identity politics over the past few decades. See Sam Tanehaus, “In Texas Curriculum Fight, Identity Politics Leans Right.”

Kevin Levin of the blog Civil War Memory thinks that the focus on textbooks in this newest episode of America’s culture wars misses the point, however. He points out that much history teaching is no longer focused on textbooks. He has a point. Even those of us who still sometimes use textbooks and do not rely as heavily on the internet see history education in terms very different than those of the Texas Board. See “Texas, Textbooks, and the Battle For Our Children’s Souls” and “If I Should Teach American Exceptionalism . . .

Earlier this month I did a post on my Hist 100 blog that might be of some interest to readers here, “Contemporary Politics and History.” My audience was primarily freshmen in their first semester at university, most of them too young to have voted in the last election.

I have said this in class, but it needs repeating here: Our contemporary American political discourse about socialism and nazism has absolutely nothing to do with those terms and phenomena in actual history. While we are not in class to talk about American politics, I want to point out how language and history are being abused for political purposes. I am not doing this to undermine the stances of politicians who use hyperbole to make their points. There are perfectly good ideological and policy reasons that one can bring to either side of the health care debate, the energy policy debate, environmental policy debates, and so on. But none of these reasons has anything to do with Hitler, nazism, communism, or socialism—not if we are being honest, and as long as we are willing to see the slippery slope argument for what it is, a logical fallacy.

This abuse of history used to just offend me as a citizen who knew something about history, but addressing the abuse became part of my teaching job this summer when I had a student try to explain Hitler in terms of “socialism” and “big government.” That is when I realized that not only was history being abused for political purposes, but our contemporary political discourse was getting in the way of students understanding the past. That’s why I wrote a blog post on my own history blog sarcastically entitled, “What Having a Socialist Nazi in the White House Means for the Classroom.”

I could follow the logic of the student who described Hitler in terms of “socialism” and “big government,” if I were willing to understand the past in terms of this country’s contemporary self-image, but I am not. We need to take the past on its own terms and try to understand it in some detail before we attempt easy analogies. In other words, my concern relates to historical thinking, that is, that thing I began teaching you with the reading assignments from August 31st, including Gerald Schlabach’s “A Sense of History.”

I am probably not alone when I say that I have a hard time taking GOP “socialism” rhetoric seriously. The same goes for right-wing attempts to equate Obama with Hitler. Apparently, however, I need to keep this rhetoric in mind when planning my classes, for it has entered my classroom in an unexpected way. In a blue book essay about totalitarianism this summer, one student explained nazism in terms of “socialism” and “big government.” There was no political intent behind these statements. The student simply drew on the language of everyday life, as students are wont to do.

This is a sad commentary on what rhetorical excess on the right is doing to our everyday vocabulary, but it also presents an opportunity. Without engaging in politicking, I can use this apparent linguistic and cultural deficit not only as motivation to be more thorough about how I teach socialism, nazism, and other modern political ideologies and systems, but also as an example for historical thinking. My instinct here is to talk about the use and abuse of history, which is probably what I will do. On the other hand, however, some of those who throw around the “s” word really believe that socialism is on the march in the United States. If I were to take such fears seriously, I would also use them to teach my students about how the meaning of language shifts and even mutates over time, sometimes meaning different things to different groups of people. This too would be a worthwhile lesson, although it would bring me closer to something that some students might perceive as politicking. I should probably take that chance.

Yesterday The New York Times published an article in it’s “Kremlin Rules” series called “Nationalism of Putin’s Era Veils Sins of Stalin’s.” In it, Clifford J. Levy points to how the Kremlin is denying access to archives that contain information about Stalin’s purges.

The Kremlin in the Putin era has often sought to maintain as much sway over the portrayal of history as over the governing of the country. In seeking to restore Russia’s standing, Mr. Putin and other officials have stoked a nationalism that glorifies Soviet triumphs while playing down or even whitewashing the system’s horrors.

Why does Russia’s leadership fear its Soviet past? Is the truth about Stalin so unbearable that the current Russian regime would collapse under its weight? There could be fears of personal links between today’s leadership and yesterday’s crimes. After all, Putin was in the KGB. That seems pretty unlikely, however, because we are talking about a distant era even for the Soviet Union, though not so distant that leaders who followed Stalin dared to reveal too much, especially after Kruschchev fell from power.

But that was the Soviet Union. This is Russia. I understand Russia’s need for tradition-building, but it seems to me that its past is usable enough without whitewashing it. Are Russia’s political and social stability really so fragile that they cannot survive the truth? Does Russia really need Stalin to justify its current brand of authoritarianism? It has been doing just that, both on national television and in the classroom.

I find it hard to believe that Russia cannot stand strong and proud even after light is thrown onto its darkest secrets, but that does not mean that the Russian leadership is any less fearful and suspicious. For a regime so concerned about maintaining a posture of strength in the world, its archive policy constitutes an ironic admission to deep-seated insecurities.

From NPR’s Morning Edition today:

Russians have the chance to pick the greatest Russian in history during a 13-part TV series that began airing there this month. Internet voting has already generated controversy by temporarily putting Soviet dictator Josef Stalin at the top of the list.

State-controlled Russian television is billing it the “project of the year.” Once a week until the end of December, a panel will have an on-air debate over who is the greatest figure in Russian history. Almost everyone on the panel is a well-known conservative . . .

Full story: Gregory Feifer, Was Stalin The Greatest Russian In History?

Related blog post: Good Old Stalin (8/13/2007)

Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory has posted good material to his academic blog under the category, The Myth of Black Confederates. Several recent posts include criticism of efforts by modern-day Confederate patriots and would-be historians who want to appropriate Weary Clyburn, a slave, as a defender of Southern liberty. In one he points out that writing good books to debunk myths is all well and good, but on the subject of black Confederates “the real fight must take place on the web.”

In the same post he points to an earlier one he made in late March: “Should Civil War Historians Blog (academic that is)?” In it he observes how vast the public discourse about the American Civil War is, while the discourse in which professional historians participate is relatively narrow. Historians need to continue their current research and publishing mission, but they also have “a responsibility to engage a wider audience and contribute to the public discourse.” Since much of the public turns to the internet for ready answers, historians need to offer these answers in an accessible format, especially for highly sensitive questions that shape American identity.

I agree with Kevin about the need for Civil War historians to blog. I have also observed a similar need with respect to Holocaust denial, since I have found that Google can get it wrong. Until now I have used this blog mainly to reflect on what I do and to communicate with other historians, but as Kevin points out, Google brings him search engine traffic for important topics such as black Confederates, so his blog posts reach a wider audience. I have written a few of my posts with that awareness, but his arguments make me think I could do much more. So could other historians.

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A question about names: I refer to other historians by their last name in formal academic prose. In blogging, on the other hand, I generally refer to fellow bloggers by their first name. This post has left me unsure of how to handle this issue. Since it’s about blogging, I have decided to go with the first name. If I had been engaging historiographical arguments, I think I would have used the last name instead. What do you other blogging historians do?

Update (1/11/2010): Civil War Memory has moved to

In a piece called “Mind Games: Remembering Brainwashing” from today’s New York Times, Tim Wiener points to one of the more irresponsible uses of historical documents that I have seen this summer. Apparently “American military and intelligence officers” (he is not more specific) decided in 2002 to examine Cold War CIA studies of Chinese interrogation methods during the Korean War. After all, these Communists were the supposed masters who fed the kinds of fears that later gave rise to a movie like “The Manchurian Candidate.” In one major study the officers found examples of what are now often called “harsh interrogation techniques” when the more negatively valued term “torture” is being deliberately avoided. “They reprinted a 1957 chart describing death threats, degradation, sleep deprivation—and worse—inflicted by Chinese captors. And they made it part of a new handbook for interrogators at Guantánamo.”

The provenance of these techniques might give pause, but here’s the real bombshell:

The irony is that the original author of that chart, Albert D. Biderman, a social scientist who had distilled interviews with 235 Air Force P.O.W.’s, wrote that the Communists’ techniques mainly served to “extort false confessions.” And they were the same methods that “inquisitors had employed for centuries.” They had done nothing that “was not common practice to police and intelligence interrogators of other times and nations.”

This story reminds me of the student who hurriedly pulls a bunch of quotes from a book without actually reading or studying the book as a whole, let alone thinking about its historical context. The student then slaps the material together in a paper that might confirm his own beliefs, but whose conclusions bear no tangible relationship to the source that he supposedly read and analyzed. Is that what happened here? Or was the document perhaps too complex for them? Perhaps they needed to invest in some historians who were not afraid to dig through this kind of thing in an honest manner, no matter what conclusions the documents might suggest.


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