History Is Always About Politics

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

In his recent essay in these pages on the vexed question of “presentism” in the discipline of history, David Bell offers a soothing alternative to the American Historical Association president James Sweet’s clumsy dismissal of “presentism” as a deviation from the true path of historical scholarship. But Bell misses the real problem we face in this moment of unprecedented attacks on the teaching of history, largely from the right. While we can all cite disturbing examples of students and faculty on the left seeking to censor what can be taught or even spoken, the concerted attack from the right — in the ultimate form of state laws prohibiting the teaching of so-called critical race theory, the 1619 Project, gender and sexuality, and other topics — are much more dangerous to academic freedom in general and to the practice of history in particular.

The problem that Sweet sidesteps with his invocation of presentism — and that Bell avoids by blandly suggesting that of course present questions inform historians’ engagement with the past — is the one of politics, where “politics” is understood as struggles for power, not always overt or acknowledged. For a long time, politics was the object of most history writing, but it was not considered a dimension of that writing. History was described as dispassionate, neutral, the antithesis of politics. There was nothing “political” about the writing of history itself.

That was the standard disciplinary orthodoxy, probably until the 1960s. Then the expansion of the university and its opening to previously excluded groups — women, African Americans, Jews — led to the critical examination of the processes by which exclusion had been accomplished in the first place, and consequently to an enlarged object for historical research.

Those of us who wrote feminist history asked not only where the women were in what had passed for conventional historiography, but how and why they had been excluded for so long. Those who took up the history of race asked similar questions. In the process, the writing of history itself became for many of us an object of critical investigation. The understanding of history as apolitical was challenged. Upon reading, for example, the presidential addresses of the AHA, it was now clear that there was a politics to history that the discipline needed to acknowledge.

This was not the politics of party — something like official Stalinist history, or the history that Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Florida curriculum seeks to impose, or the one that former President Donald J. Trump’s 1776 Commission hoped would replace 1619. It was not the glorification of the heroism of neglected martyrs (right or left). It was not the confirmation of identity as a natural fact of life. It was, instead, usually about an implicit operation of power (hegemonic belief systems, disciplinary orthodoxies) that appealed to difference to confirm its rule.

The study of previously neglected subjects required the study of the politics of history. And the study of the politics of history called into question the neutrality and dispassion the discipline had long endorsed. Sweet’s stance expresses anxiety about that questioning. Bell’s response tries to quell it. But Bell doesn’t acknowledge the necessarily political aspect of at least some critical historical work. Instead, for both men, the charge of “presentism” is a way of avoiding confrontation with the problem of the politics of history.

And it is a problem. Because the line between a politically engaged critical history and a dogmatic reading of the past is not easy to distinguish. It is made more difficult by the right’s conflation of criticism with dogmatism and by identitarian purists’ attacks on what they take to be distortions of their experiential truth. But it is a line worth attempting to draw. It would behoove those who consider themselves leaders of the profession of history to confront the problem of what counts as history’s politics head-on, in its historical, philosophical, and institutional dimensions. Unlike the “provocations” of Sweet and Bell, that would be a conversation worth having.

Link to the rest at The Chronicle of Higher Education

PG notes that the 1619 Project (or here if you hit a paywall) is a profoundly political publication.

He also suggests that “lived experience” is extraordinarily unique to every person and generalizing from a lived experience of one individual, regardless of their personal characteristics, to other individuals who share the same race, gender, class, etc., is simply another version of propaganda techniques that have been used for centuries to gather people together for a political end.

PG is a white male who was born in the USA. He guarantees that his lived experience differs substantially from the lived experience of every other white male he has met, whether inside or outside of his age range.

For example, PG can name every person who was in his grade in public school until he was twelve years old.

During that time, he learned from excellent teachers in a majority-minority school setting with classmates who were first-generation immigrants or the offspring of first-generation immigrants from both the Eastern and Western hemispheres and seldom spoke English at home.

In high school, PG was the Valedictorian in a class of 22. He and his high school girlfriend, the Salutatorian, were the only two members of that class to receive a college degree.

PG’s “lived experience” can’t be generalized to other white males or white persons or persons of color. He didn’t realize how profoundly different his lived experience was from the experiences of a great many other people until he began his freshman year at a selective university.

PG suggests that the practice of generalizing from an individual’s lived experience or claiming some special privileges or unique viewpoints because of a standardized racial “lived experience” is not an accurate way of describing the world and the people who live in it and certainly doesn’t increase an understanding of what other individuals have experienced or not experienced in their lives.

But, of course, PG could be wrong.

9 thoughts on “History Is Always About Politics”

  1. Too many who push the class and race conscious position forget that not ALL white people are rich, very few have influence or power, and most live very simply.
    The “truth” of white dominance is based on a very small subset of white people.

  2. When anyone uses the term “Critical [insert word here]” it indicates a Woke person being “Critical”. In other words, they must and will examine anything to find something to be “Critical” of.

    – To create division to destroy, rather than finding common ground for people to work together.

    This is the Religion of Marxism used by them to tear down, destroy, existing “power structures” to ultimately build their grand utopia, their perfect world where no one is oppressed, all are equal.

    – Sadly, this means the “equal” of the grave.

    Here in Northern New Mexico we have the highest per capita number of cults, so I’ve wandered through, brushed past, stumbled across an amazing number of cults in my life.

    – When I drive from my house to the Post Office I easily pass a dozen different cults, but I digress.

    We have rules in a pluralistic society to make room for every Religion, thus they are limited to control of themselves, not the society at large.

    As long as the Woke are not seen as an actual “Religion” no one has the proper tools to put the genie back in the bottle, and it is calmly walking into every group and institution, devouring them.

    – Think Vampire being invited in — because they have to be “invited” in.

    The rest follows.

  3. It’s not the right that is the threat to the university history establishment. It’s the students who are shunning the major. History majors have declined more than any other subject area, more than even English. Students are voting with their feet.

    • I shunned it myself, despite the passionate entreaties of a (very good) history professor. I had a future wife, and hoped for children, to support.

      Probably would not have ever obtained an advanced degree in any case, much less a tenured position. I was not one to join the march through the institutions – which was already close to completion even in the 1980s.

  4. One of the more insightful quotes from an academic on this topic goes something like this: “Scholarship is how you gain political capital; activism is how you spend it.”

    And the thing is, no one really expects academics to not have political opinions. (Well, no one who’s sane anyway.)

    The real problem comes in when, as this article does, activism like the 1619 Project is treated as scholarship. Once you’ve done that, why on earth should anyone trust you on anything?

  5. One can argue that all history is politics, which is like saying all science is quantum physics.

    Both statements are true, but calculating the orbit of Pluto using quantum physics is pointlessly hard when alternative routes to calculating its path through space-time are available.

    Same goes for history.

    • History is not just dry facts you can plug into an equation to get the answer. It is facts, context, and analysis of contemporaneous thought about the events in synthesis. History is absolutely political because everyone brings a particular bias in their framing of events, even if trying to minimize it.

      • Problem is this days it often starts with a political agenda and twists the facts to fit the agenda, ignoring the ones tgat don’t.
        That isn’t just an imposed, much less unconscious bias, that is outright propaganda ala 1984.o
        And that’s before adding a big dollop of presentism.

  6. History is a difficult discipline – but it does have some rules.

    A historian can interpret history – while recognizing that his or her bias cannot be completely eliminated – but they CANNOT lie about known facts. Neither by commission – as in lying that the first slaves were sold into America in 1619; nor by omission – as in ignoring that slave ownership was not a “white” monopoly.

    These modern “historians” are NOT historians – they are propagandists. Their efforts have the same relation to history as the “histories” produced in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or any of the “Peoples Republics.”

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