Changing History

Changing History

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Editor’s Note:

One year after the attacks, Eric Foner assessed the impact of 9/11 on the way America tells the story of itself and readjusts its relationship with the world.

All history, the saying goes, is contemporary history. People instinctively turn to the past to help understand the present. Events draw our attention to previously neglected historical subjects. The second wave of feminism gave birth to a flourishing subfield of women’s history. The Reagan Revolution spawned a cottage industry in the history of US conservatism.

Many years will pass before we can fully assess how our thinking about history has changed as a result of September 11. While historians ponder this question, conservative ideologues have produced a spate of polemical statements on how we should teach American history in light of recent events. In a speech less than a month after the tragedy, Lynne Cheney insisted that calls for more intensive study of the rest of the world amounted to blaming America’s “failure to understand Islam” for the attack. A letter distributed by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which she once chaired, chastised professors who fail to teach the “truth” that civilization itself “is best exemplified in the West and indeed in America.”

In What’s So Great About America, Dinesh D’Souza contends that freedom and religious toleration are uniquely “Western” beliefs. The publisher’s ad for the book identifies those who hold alternative views as “people who provide a rationale for terrorism.” With funding from conservative foundations and powerful political connections, such commentators hope to reshape the teaching of American history.

Historians cannot predict the future, but the past they portray must be one out of which the present can plausibly have grown. The self-absorbed, super-celebratory history now being promoted will not enable students to make sense of either their own society or our increasingly interconnected world.

Historians cannot choose the ways history becomes part of our own experience. September 11 has rudely placed certain issues at the forefront of our consciousness. Let me mention three and their implications for how we think about the American past: the upsurge of patriotism, significant infringements on civil liberties and a sudden awareness of considerable distrust abroad of American actions and motives.

The generation of historians that came of age during the Vietnam War witnessed firsthand how patriotic language and symbols, especially the American flag, can be invoked in the service of manifestly unjust causes. Partly as a result, they have tended to neglect the power of these symbols as genuine expressions of a sense of common national community. Patriotism, if studied at all, has been understood as an “invention,” rather than a habit of the heart.

Historians have had greater success lately at dividing up the American past into discrete experiences delineated along lines of race, ethnicity, gender and class than at exploring the common threads of American nationality. But the immediate response to September 11 cut across these boundaries. No one knows if the renewed sense of common purpose and shared national identity that surfaced so vividly after September 11 will prove temporary. But they require historians to devote new attention to the roots of the symbols, values and experiences Americans share as well as those that divide them.

All patriotic upsurges run the risk of degenerating into a coercive drawing of boundaries between “loyal” Americans and those stigmatized as aliens and traitors. This magazine has chronicled the numerous and disturbing infringements on civil liberties that have followed September 11. Such legal protections as habeas corpus, trial by impartial jury, the right to legal representation and equality before the law regardless of race or national origin have been seriously curtailed.

Civil liberties have been severely abridged during previous moments of crisis, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to Japanese-American internment in World War II. Historians generally view these past episodes as shameful anomalies. But we are now living through another such episode, and there is a remarkable absence of public outcry.

We need an American history that sees protections for civil liberties not as a timeless feature of our “civilization” but as a recent and fragile achievement resulting from many decades of historical struggle. We should take a new look at obscure Supreme Court cases–Fong Yue Ting (1893), the Insular Cases of the early twentieth century, Korematsu during World War II–in which the Justices allowed the government virtual carte blanche in dealing with aliens and in suspending the rights of specific groups of citizens on grounds of military necessity. Dissenting in Fong Yue Ting, which authorized the deportation of Chinese immigrants without due process, Justice David Brewer observed that, like today, the power was directed against a people many Americans found “obnoxious.” But, he warned, “who shall say it will not be exercised tomorrow against other classes and other people?”

September 11 will also undoubtedly lead historians to examine more closely the history of the country’s relationship with the larger world. Public opinion polls revealed that few Americans have any knowledge of other peoples’ grievances against the United States. A study of our history in its international context might help to explain why there is widespread fear outside our borders that the war on terrorism is motivated in part by the desire to impose a Pax Americana in a grossly unequal world.

Back in the 1930s, historian Herbert Bolton warned that by treating the American past in isolation, historians were helping to raise up a “nation of chauvinists”–a danger worth remembering when considering the drumbeat of calls for a celebratory and insular history divorced from its global context. Of course, international paradigms can be every bit as obfuscating as histories that are purely national. We must be careful not to reproduce traditional American exceptionalism on a global scale.

September 11, for example, has inspired a spate of commentary influenced by Samuel Huntington’s mid-1990s book The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington’s paradigm reduces politics and culture to a single characteristic–race, religion or geography–that remains forever static, divorced from historical development or change through interaction with other societies. It makes it impossible to discuss divisions within these purported civilizations. The idea that the West is the sole home of reason, liberty and tolerance ignores how recently such values triumphed in the United States and also ignores the debates over creationism, abortion rights and other issues that suggest that commitment to them is hardly unanimous. The definition of “Western civilization” is highly selective–it includes the Enlightenment but not the Inquisition, liberalism but not the Holocaust, Charles Darwin but not the Salem witch trials.

Nor can September 11 be explained by reference to timeless characteristics or innate pathologies of “Islamic civilization.” From the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction to Oklahoma City in our own time, our society has produced its own home-grown terrorists. Terrorism springs from specific historical causes, not the innate qualities of one or another civilization.

The study of history should transcend boundaries rather than reinforce or reproduce them. In the wake of September 11, it is all the more imperative that the history we teach be a candid appraisal of our own society’s strengths and weaknesses, not simply an exercise in self-celebration–a conversation with the entire world, not a complacent dialogue with ourselves.

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