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Déjà Vu With Condoleezza Rice | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Déjà Vu With Condoleezza Rice

One good measure of this Administration's extremism is the steady drumbeat of criticism being leveled against it by leading establishment figures--many not known for being politically outspoken.

Just the other day, Pulitzer-prize winner James McPherson, one of America's preeminent Civil War historians and the current President of the prestigious American Historical Association (AHA) published a blistering critique of President Bush and his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in the September AHA newsletter.

Among other charges, he accuses them of mis-using the term "revisionist historians" to derisively deflect criticism and denigrate a legitimate and essential activity of his profession.

"Neither Bush nor Rice offered a definition of this phrase," McPherson notes, "but their body language and tone of voice appeared to suggest that they wanted listeners to understand 'revisionist history' to be a consciously falsified or distorted interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present...The 14,000 members of this Association, however, know that revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past...There is no single, eternal, and immutable 'truth' about past events and their meaning. The unending quest of historians for understanding the past--that is 'revisionism'--is what makes history vital and meaningful."

"Without revisionism," McPherson argues, "we might be stuck with the images of Reconstruction after the American Civil War that were conveyed by D.W. Griffith's 'Birth of a Nation' and Claude Bowers's 'The Tragic Era'."

Would President Bush and Condoleezza Rice wish to associate themselves with Southern political leaders of the 1950s who condemned Chief Justice Earl Warren and his colleagues as revisionist historians because their decision in Brown v Board of Education struck down the accepted version of history and law laid down by the Court in Plessy v Ferguson?..."

McPherson reserves his real contempt for the alleged scholar on the Bush team--former Stanford University Provost and political scientist Rice. "The judgmental tone of Rice's derogatory reference to 'revisionist historians,'" McPherson observes, "brings to mind a review of her book The Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak Army, 1948-1983, in the December 1985 issue of the American Historical Review...The reviewer claimed that Rice 'frequently does not sift facts from propaganda and valid information from disinformation or misinformation.' In addition, according to the reviewer, she 'passes judgments and expresses opinions without adequate knowledge of the facts" and her "writing abounds with meaningless phrases.'"

Sound familiar? It does to McPherson, who concludes: "I am tempted to wonder, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, whether we are experiencing deja vu all over again."

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