The Use and Abuse of History on Both the Left and the Right

As readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I have been making this point for a long time.  It will be one of the key features of my forthcoming Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  I am thus glad to see John Halpin, in a guest post at Think Progress, has joined the cause.  Halpin chronicles how both the Left and the Right misuse the past in their attempts at winning political points in the present.  Here is a taste:

In an example of a more critical historical method on the left, Sean Wilentz and Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick have been duking it out in The New York Review of Books over the latter’s book and ten-part Showtime series, The Untold History of the United States. Wilentz argues that Stone and Kuznick are purposefully “cherry-picking” history to make a case against the policies of United States from Truman and the Cold War to Bush and Obama in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stone and Kuznick, in turn, claim that Wilentz is misusing history himself in order to justify the hawkish and imperialist views of politicians he supports like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama,

It’s all a bit confusing and flush with details that require lots of fact checking but the debate raises important questions about the direction of U.S. foreign policy and the current stands of the Obama administration on Bush-era policies like torture and drones.
On the right, the uses and abuses of history have focused more on antiquarian and critical methods. The most obvious example of the antiquarian method is the Tea Party. Jill Lepore’s, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, (reviewed here by Gordon Wood) explains how the Tea Party turned the founding into a quasi-religious like moment that is “sacred” while documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution “are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments.”

Since the first election of Obama we’ve also seen a drumbeat of conservative academic and lay historians using the critical method to attack the legacy of FDR and progressivism, and by extension, the policies of Obama who is cut from the same ideological cloth.  Amity Shlaes’ attempted takedown of the New Deal and subsequent promotion of the wonders of Coolidge-nomics is one strand of this type of history. Glenn Beck and others have promoted another strand that argues the original Progressive movement — and its contemporary manifestation — is a subversion of the Constitution and an aberration from historical norms. 

Progressives tend to view these critical uses of history as over-the-line and “factually challenged” (as Newt Gingrich famously labeled Michele Bachmann during the presidential primaries), but it is certainly necessary and important for conservatives to put forth their version of the nation’s past for Americans to evaluate.

One thought on “The Use and Abuse of History on Both the Left and the Right

  1. I would by no means tarnish Amity Shlaes' work by association with Glenn Beck. Simply disagreeing with someone's political point of view–and the historian among us without one may cast the first stone–isn't enough to condemn their work, something which Halpin seems to suggest. Gosh, I use Eric Foner's “Voices of Freedom” in US History surveys and while I disagree with his Left-leaning sympathies, I don't accuse him of being a bad historian.


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