Eric Foner Talks “Good History”

FonerNorton2.2Journalist John Green recently interviewed Columbia University historian Eric Foner for the British socialist newspaper Morning Star.

Here is a taste:

You’ve argued that the past needs to be “usable.” What exactly do you understand by that term?

The idea of a “usable” past is often misunderstood. It certainly does not mean distorting history for political ends, nor ignoring less than appealing features of past movements with which one is sympathetic.

I do believe that for those trying to change society today, an understanding of where our current situation comes from is essential and knowledge of past social movements very desirable.

A usable past is a body of historical knowledge that inspires people to try to make this a better world and that cuts through much of the historical mythology with which we are surrounded.

You say that Trump is not an aberration, but a logical extension of the way the Republican Party has been operating since Barry Goldwater. Why?

In terms of personality or temperament, Trump may be unique.

But his essential outlook and strategy — liberating business from “regulation,” opposing the rights of labour, appealing to white resentment against non-whites and native-born peoples, fears of foreigners and immigrants — have been standard Republican fare since Goldwater’s campaign of 1964 and Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy.”

Trump gives all this a new twist but the basic ideology is the same.

In the face of the Trump administration’s determined efforts to rewrite history or change our understanding and interpretation of it, how do you feel historians can best counter that?

To paraphrase Jefferson, the best antidote to bad history is good history. In the current situation, writing what Nietzsche called “critical” history is itself an act of opposition.

Read the entire interview here.