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.