Sunday, February 13, 2022

What's Really at Stake in America's History Wars?

At WSJ, "In debates about monuments, curricula and renaming, the facts of the past matter less than how we are supposed to feel about our country":

In January, McMinn County, Tenn., made international news for perhaps the first time in its history when the school board voted to remove “Maus,” the acclaimed graphic novel about the Holocaust, from the 8th-grade curriculum. The board stated that it made the change on account of the book’s “use of profanity and nudity,” asking school administrators to “find other works that accomplish the same educational goals in a more age-appropriate fashion.”

This curricular change, affecting a few hundred of the approximately 5,500 K-12 students in McMinn’s public schools, was quickly amplified on social media into a case of book banning with shades of Holocaust denial. The author of “Maus,” Art Spiegelman, said that the decision had “a breath of autocracy and fascism.” “There’s only one kind of people who would vote to ban Maus, whatever they are calling themselves these days,” tweeted the popular fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, earning more than 170,000 likes. The controversy sent the book to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.

This outrage of the week will soon give way to another, but the war over history—how to remember it, represent it and teach it—is only getting fiercer. America’s political and cultural divisions increasingly take the form of arguments not about the future—what kind of country we want to be and what policies will get us there—but about events that are sometimes centuries in the past. The Holocaust, the Civil War, the Founding, the slave trade, the discovery of America—these subjects are constantly being litigated on social media and cable TV, in school boards and state legislatures.

None of those venues is well equipped to clarify what actually happened in the past, but then, the facts of history seldom enter into the war over history. Indeed, surveys regularly show how little Americans actually know about it. A 2019 poll of 41,000 people by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that in 49 states, a majority couldn't earn a passing score on the U.S. citizenship test, which asks basic questions about history and government. (The honorable exception was Vermont, where 53% passed.)

Ironically, the year after the survey, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation announced that it would drop the historical reference in its own name, citing the 28th president’s “racist legacy.” It was part of a growing trend. Woodrow Wilson’s name was also dropped from Princeton University’s school of international affairs. Yale University renamed a residential college named for John C. Calhoun, the antebellum Southern politician who was an ardent defender of slavery. The San Francisco school board briefly floated a plan to drop the names of numerous historical figures from public schools for various reasons, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they were slaveholders.

It makes sense that educational institutions are leading the wave of renaming, because it is above all a teaching tool, one suited to the short attention span of today’s public debates. Actual historical understanding requires a much greater investment of effort and imagination than giving a thumbs up or down to this or that name. Often even a Wikipedia search seems to be too much to ask. One of the names that the San Francisco school board proposed to get rid of was Paul Revere’s, on the grounds that he was a leader of the Penobscot Expedition of 1779, which a board member believed was a campaign to conquer territory from the Penobscot Indians. In fact, it was a (failed) attempt to evict British naval forces from Penobscot Bay in Maine.

Clearly, the war over history has as much to do with the present as the past. To some extent, that’s true of every attempt to tell the story of the past, even the most professional and objective. In the 19th century, the German historian Leopold von Ranke saw it as his task to determine “how things really were,” but if that could be done, it wouldn’t be necessary for each generation of historians to write new books about the same subjects. We keep retelling the story of the Civil War or World War II not primarily because new evidence is discovered, but because the way we understand the evidence changes as the world changes.

That’s why so many of America’s historical battles have to do with race, slavery and colonialism—because no aspect of American society has changed more dramatically over time. It has never been a secret, for instance, that George Washington was a slaveholder. When he died in 1799, there were 317 enslaved people living at Mount Vernon.

But when Parson Weems wrote the first bestselling biography of Washington in 1800, he barely referred to the first president’s slaveholding, except for noting that in his will he provided for freeing his slaves, “like a pure republican.” When Weems does inveigh against “slavery” in the book, he is referring to British rule in America. For instance, he writes that the tax on tea, which led to the Boston Tea Party in 1773, was meant to “insult and enslave” the colonies. Today it’s impossible to ignore this glaring contradiction. Weems didn’t notice it and clearly didn’t expect his readers to, either.

Another explanation for this blind spot can be found in the book’s full title: “The Life of George Washington: With curious anecdotes, equally honorable to himself and exemplary to his young countrymen.” Weems was a minister, and his goal was moral uplift. That’s why he avoided writing about Washington’s treatment of his slaves but included the dubious story about young George confessing to chopping down the cherry tree. The point was to show Washington in a light that would make readers want to be better themselves.

Today’s war over history involves the same didactic impulses. Fights over the past aren’t concerned with what happened so much as what we should feel about it. Most people who argue about whether Columbus Day should become Indigenous Peoples’ Day, regardless of what side they’re on, have only a vague sense of what Columbus actually did. The real subject of debate is whether the European discovery of America and everything that flowed from it, including the founding of the U.S., should be celebrated or regretted. Our most charged historical debates boil down to the same terms Weems used: Is America “exemplary” and “honorable,” or the reverse?

How we answer that question has important political ramifications, since the farther America is from the ideal, the more it presumably needs to change. But today’s history wars are increasingly detached from practical issues, operating purely in the realm of emotion and symbol. Take the “land acknowledgments” that many universities, arts institutions and local governments have begun to practice—the custom of stating the name of the Native American people that formerly occupied the local territory. For example, the Board of Supervisors of Pima County, Az., recently voted to begin its meetings with the statement, “We honor the tribal nations who have served as caretakers of this land from time immemorial and respectfully acknowledge the ancestral homelands of the Tohono O’odham Nation.”

To their supporters, land acknowledgments are a way of rectifying Americans’ ignorance or indifference about the people who inhabited the country before European settlement. The use of words like “caretakers” and “time immemorial,” however, raises historical questions that the Pima Board of Supervisors is presumably unqualified to answer. People have been living in what is now Arizona for 12,000 years: Were the Tohono O’odham Nation really in their territory “from time immemorial,” or might they have displaced an earlier population?

Of course, the Board has no intention of vacating Tucson and restoring the land to its former inhabitants, so the whole exercise can be seen as pointless. Still, by turning every public event into a memorial of dispossession, land acknowledgments have the effect of calling into question the legitimacy of the current inhabitants—that is, the people listening to the acknowledgment.

The fear that the very idea of America is being repudiated has led Republican legislators in many states to introduce laws regulating the teaching of American history. These are often referred to as “anti-critical race theory” laws, but in this context the term is just a placeholder for a deeper anxiety. The controversial law passed in Texas last year, for instance, doesn’t prevent teachers from discussing racism. On the contrary, House Bill 3979 mandates the study of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. , as well as Susan B. Anthony and Cesar Chavez. However, it does insist that students learn that “slavery and racism are…deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.” In other words, students should believe that the U.S. is “exemplary” and “honorable” in principle, if regrettably not in practice.

In the U.S., the war over history usually has to do with curricula and monuments because those are some of the only things the government can directly control. Removing “Maus” from the 8th-grade reading list can be loosely referred to as a “ban” only because actual book bans don’t exist here, thanks to the First Amendment. But other countries that are less free also have their history wars, and in recent years governments and ideologues have become bolder about imposing an official line.

In Russia last December, a court ordered the dissolution of Memorial, a highly respected nonprofit founded in 1989 to document the crimes of the Soviet era, after prosecutors charged that it “creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state.” In 2018, Poland made it illegal to attribute blame for the Holocaust to the “Polish nation.” In India in 2014, Penguin India agreed to stop publishing a book about the history of Hinduism by the respected American scholar Wendy Doniger, after a nationalist leader sued on the grounds that it focused on “the negative aspects” of the subject.

Such episodes are becoming more common with the rise of nationalist and populist movements around the world. When people invest their identity wholly in their nation, pointing out the evils in the nation’s past feels like a personal attack. Conversely, for people whose political beliefs hinge on distrusting nationalism, any refusal to focus on historic evils feels dangerous, like a tacit endorsement of them, as in the “Maus” episode. These extremes feed off one another, until we can only talk about the past in terms of praise or blame that would be too simple for understanding a single human being, much less a collection of millions over centuries.

It’s surprising to realize how quickly the American consensus on history has unraveled under the pressure of polarization...