Are Conservatives Unable to Deal with the Complexity of American History?

Why Study HistoryThe responses to the 1619 Project sure make it look that way.

Complexity, of course, is one of the 5 Cs of historical thinking.

Over at Slate, Rebecca Onion traces the conservative backlash to The New York Times project back to the “history wars” of the 1990s.  Here is a taste of her piece, “A Brief History of the History Wars“:

The controversial history standards, along with the defeated and revised Enola Gay exhibit, provided a fine set of talking points for Republicans seeking election in 1995. Presidential candidate Bob Dole referenced the Enola Gay exhibit controversy in a speech to the American Legion in September 1995, calling the national history standards an effort “to denigrate America’s story while sanitizing and glorifying other cultures.” Newt Gingrich—a history Ph.D. who has long delighted in claiming the authority of “historian,” despite having left the academy in 1978 after being denied tenure—made hay of the exhibit and the standards in his own efforts to flip the House to the Republicans. “In a postelection interview,” Wallace writes, “Gingrich said that the new Republican leadership intended to improve the country’s moral climate, especially by ‘teaching the truth about American history.’ ” Later, Gingrich told the National Governors Association: “The Enola Gay fight was a fight, in effect, over the reassertion by most Americans that they’re sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country.”

By 2019, these arguments have become standard conservative fare, and liberals continue to have a hard time countering them. The New York Times Magazine’s use of the term reframe to describe its intention in reconceptualizing the sweep of American history drew particular conservative ire. I think that’s because it sounds a little like “revisionist,” a favorite trigger word for history culture warriors. In 2003, when George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice used it to slam those who criticized the foundations of the war in Iraq, then-president of the American Historical Association James McPherson observed: “Neither Bush nor Rice offered a definition of this phrase, but their body language and tone of voice appeared to suggest that they wanted listeners to understand ‘revisionist history’ to be a consciously falsified interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present.”

Read the rest here.

Onion is right about conservative’s resistance to words like “reframing” and “revisionism.”  Yesterday I argued the same thing about The 1619 Project.  I have also said a few things over the years about revisionist history.  This is from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

…the responsibility of the historian is to resurrect the past.  Yet, because we live in the present, far removed from the events of the past, our ability to construct what happened in by-gone eras is limited.  This is why the doing of history requires an act of the imagination.  Sometimes we do not have the sources to provide a complete picture of “what happened” at any given time….

Even the best accounts of the past are open to change based on new evidence or the work of historians who approach a subject with a different lens of interpretation.  In this sense, history is more about competing perceptions of the past than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event or life…While the past never changes, history changes all the time.  Think, for example, about two eyewitness accounts of the same auto accident.  Even if we assume that the drivers involved in the accident believe that they are telling the truth about what happened, it is still likely that the police will receive two very different accounts  of how the accident occurred and two different accounts of who is to blame or who caused the accident.  It is thus up to the police officer in charge, or perhaps a judge, to weigh the evidence and come up with a plausible interpretation of this historical event.  But let’s imagine two weeks after the paperwork is filed and the case is closed, a reliable eyewitness to the accident emerges with new evidence to suggest that the person who the judge held responsible for the accident was actually not at fault.  This new information leads to a new historical narrative of what happened.  History has changed.  This is called revisionism, and it is the lifeblood of the historical profession.

The word revisionism carries a negative connotation in American society because it is usually associated with changing true facts of the past in order to fit some kind of agenda in the present.  But actually, the historian who is called a “revisionist” received a high compliment.  In his book Who Owns History?, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, “When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?”  Foner responded, “Around the time of Thucydides.” (Thucydides is the Greek writer who is often credited with being one of the first historians in the West).  Those who believe “revisionism” is a negative term often misunderstands the way it is used by historians.  Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history.  Any good revisionist interpretation of history will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind.  This type of reconstruction of the past always takes place in community.  We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians.  This is called peer review.  When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through reviews.

A few examples might help illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history.  Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by what historians call the “Dunning School.”  William Dunning was an early twentieth-century who suggested that Reconstruction–the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to Southern blacks in the wake of the Civil War–was a mistake.  The Northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction and the various “carpetbaggers” who came to the South to start schools for blacks and work for racial integration destroyed the Southern way of life.  In the end, however, the South did indeed rise again.  In Dunning’s portrayal, Southerners eventually rallied to overthrow this Northern invasion.  They removed blacks from positions of power and established a regime of segregation that would last for much of the twentieth century.  These so-called redeemers of Southern culture are the heroes of the Dunning School, an interpretation of Reconstruction that would inform D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most popular, and most racist, motion pictures of the early twentieth century.  In the 1930s the Dunning School was challenged by a group of historians who began to interpret the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of the former slaves . Rather than viewing the blacks in the post-Civil War South as people without power, these revisionist authors provided a much richer understanding of the period that included a place for all historical actors, regardless of skin color or social standing, in the story of this important movement in American history.

19 thoughts on “Are Conservatives Unable to Deal with the Complexity of American History?

  1. Jim in STL,

    Any discipline undergoes refinements. With that being said, I will trust my life today to aeronautical engineers who have mathematically formulated that my new aircraft is going to fly. I will also trust my life to a heart surgeon who states that a scientific yet experimental procedure has a 95% chance of saving my life. I would not place the same level of trust in historians, social scientists, or economists.



  2. The problem with taking a couple of days to think about something is that in blogtime it may as well be a century. Just in case someone’s still listening.

    History is a lot like science in that different propositions are formulated and tested. I imagine, like science, all established historical “theory” and certainly myths are testable via evidence and that when new evidence supporting an alternative view is uncovered the old is challenged. In academic work the evidence is in the footnotes and end notes. Whether science or history, experimental outcomes have to be interpreted and, like science, there will be agreement and disagreement.


  3. Paul,

    I suspect you did not take any of those pills today.

    My only point is that the whole slavery narrative is being fostered widely by certain factions in the media and elsewhere because it dovetails nicely with the current Establishment line that Trump is a racist. The past wrongful treatment of the slaves is incidental at best to these people. Once the slavery connection fails, the powers that be will find new rhetorical ammunition to train on The Donald. My guess is that it will be recession fear-mongering. Let’s all stay tuned.


  4. Oh wow, nobody is explicitly advocating for slavery, silly me!

    Where could I ever get the idea that going into a frothy rage over a commemoration of slavery is evidence of racial animus? I took my dumb pills this morning, James, you got me. Tomorrow I’ll take the red pill and my head will be clearer! Thanks for setting me straight!


  5. Paul,
    I am not sure what your point is. I have not read any pieces by apologists for slavery nor any works by those who have identified white supremacist rhetoric on the part of Trump. Maybe you can find it in the Mueller Report in one of the footnotes.



  6. The tell is that people are so bothered by criticism of slavery. They’ll keep insisting that of course they are really upset at something else, but notice how they don’t nitpick at Trump’s white supremacist rhetoric. No, they make excuses for that, and nitpick commemoration of slavery.


  7. John: to repeat, I’m more than happy to say that “slavery has influenced a lot.” If that were the primary goal of the 1619 Project — to educate people that slavery has influenced a lot over the course of American history — I (and many others) would have no objection.

    But you keep eliding it’s very explicit claims, to wit: “It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding.”


    “We will publish essays demonstrating that nearly everything that made America exceptional grew out of slavery.”

    Those are radical and sweeping ideological claims, and a very far cry from the alternative “influenced a lot” ground to which you have retreated. You claim I’m engaged in semantics, getting hung up on words. No: I’m taking the NYT’s stated purpose seriously. You want to gloss over how extreme this is — does it concern you at all that there is no balance, no dissenting viewpoint whatsoever challenging the ‘slavery is everything’ credo within this curriculum? — and pretend we are just having a debate about the lingering effects of slavery in many areas of American life. A thesis which I would not debate, because I agree with it.

    Here is Damon Linker, discussing the 1619 Project in general, and in this specific context the essay by Matthew Desmond in which he argues that the “brutality of capitalism” arose out of the horrors of life on the plantation:

    “Desmond likewise treats the core claim of this recent scholarship — that capitalism, especially in its supposedly uniquely harsh American form, originated with slavery — as a given rather than as a controversial claim that has been contested, sometimes powerfully, by other scholars. He treats the assertion as fact, in other words, rooted in definitive archival evidence most readers of the 1619 Project will never examine for themselves. These readers are expected to defer to Desmond’s authority, and even more so to the authority of the scholars on which he relies. These sources have supposedly revealed the truth about the American past, showing us that defenders of capitalism in the present are, by implication, defending a set of norms and institutions that were born of and remain tainted by their association with slavery.

    This turns historical scholarship into propaganda for a left-wing political movement.”

    Just so. If you believe that everything exceptional in America derives from slavery, you should embrace that world view. If you will only go so far as to say that slavery was central to the American story, that its social, economic, and cultural effects are still with us, that Americans — and especially American Christians — should strive to become more informed about slavery, racism and the life experiences of their African American brothers and sisters, we are in complete agreement.


  8. John,

    Are you not a bit suspicious concerning why the NYT is pushing this narrative now as opposed to eight years ago when President Obama was in office? We can only speculate but I would wager that it would not be the “narrative of the season” if Hillary had won.


  9. Jim in STL
    Your nuanced view of science is true, however, my only point is that hard science is a lot more testable than historical theories.



  10. Tony: Then why not just say that slavery has influenced a lot. It is at the center of the American experience and deserves to be at the center of the narrative. The founding fathers, industrialization, American economic power, city planning an development, the Cold War, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, Jim Crow, voting rights, etc…. Why won’t you just admit and acknowledge such history on this ,the 1619 anniversary? Historians have been writing about this for decades. Instead, you get hung up on words like “EVERYTHING.” Your default posture is to attack rather than to try to come to grips with all the major parts of our history that have been stained by slavery. That is what I don’t understand.


  11. “Unlike science there is no ultimately definitive laboratory test. “

    One reason that people that need absolute certainty in their lives reject science, or at least the inconvenient parts of science, is that there is no such thing as a “ultimately definitive laboratory test.” There are well designed tests that either support or negate the hypothesis that precedes the test with either high or low probability. In science, a theory is a well tested set of hypotheses with extraordinarily high probability that the outcome is viable and that it can yield valuable and highly probable predictions. But still vulnerable.

    Because they have an everyday effect and because the effects can be “seen” people tend to accept the theory of “germs” and of gravity even though they are still vulnerable to new data. People that need absolute certainty and find the outcomes inconvenient reject modern evolutionary theory, climate theory and vaccines no matter how high the probability.

    I’ll let John speak to the history if he wishes.


  12. But you’re now moving the goalposts, John. The sweeping claim with which you took no issue as a historian was not that five or ten or one hundred things have been influenced by slavery. No, the explicit and radical truth claim which undergirds the 1619 Project is that EVERYTHING exceptional in American history is rooted in race and slavery.

    I can name a whole bunch of things that have been influenced by the evil legacy of slavery. I’ve never said otherwise.

    Can you fathom 5 things which might not have been caused by slavery?


  13. Tony: Are you willing to name five things in which the legacy of race and slavery has influenced in this country? If you can’t, then I think you need to read a little more U.S. history.


  14. Let me understand: the lock step progressives who are promoting the simplistic and reductionist claim that EVERYTHING is caused by slavery — poor diet, traffic jams, general accounting techniques, lack of universal health care, Rush Limbaugh children’s books, gun violence, Adam Sandler movies post-Happy Gilmore, the Ben Shapiro podcast, SUV’s with snorkels, NBA owner— er, Wealthy Helpers, new and improved White Nationalist Soylent Green, etc. — are the folks exemplifying complex, nuanced, anti-echo chamber thinking?

    If you say so.


  15. The problem is simply one of projection. Many conservatives see no value in history other than as a means to support (or attack) a nationalistic objective in the present. Because they can’t fathom why else anyone would want to talk about the past, they assume anyone who does is doing so for the only reason they have any interest in the past. If a historical fact can’t be twisted into having some relevance to modern day nationalism, it has no value, except perhaps as a signal to start making unintelligible quacking noises about “elites.”


  16. Are Conservatives Unable to Deal with the Complexity of American History?

    Other than —
    “Barton Said It,
    I Believe It,

    Add a Mythic view of a rose-colored Past and you have the perfect setup for a Grievance Culture:
    1) “Once WE were Lords of all Creation and Everything Was Perfect! A Truly Golden Age!”
    2) “Then THEY came and took it all away!”
    3) “PAYBACK TIME!”
    (Note that these three Grievance Culture axioms also summarize the plotline of both Atlas Shrugged and Left Behind.)


  17. This entire discussion is essentially a highfalutin statement of a rather simple dictum. The interpretation of the facts is dependent upon the weight apportioned to these various facts by the observer. This phenomenon can be seen in emerging scientific theories but is most obvious in the social sciences. Historians of all ideologies flatter themselves unduly in assuming they have the key to accurately analyzing the present. Unlike science there is no ultimately definitive laboratory test.

    As far as the negative connotations of the word “revisionism”, a lot of it might go back to the old Soviet Union. At least that is the case for many of us who recall The Cold War. Take a look at Soviet historians. Leon Trotsky had a few years as a good guy but was soon revised to be a bad guy. Joe Stalin had a generation as a noble fellow but was revised to villain status in the 1950s. Nikita Khrushchev shone for a few years but was quickly revised to nonentity status. And so it goes. While new historical facts do indeed come to light, the eye of the interpreter as a creature of his/her particular era has a more striking ability to influence the history we read.


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