The death of a social movement is an instructive and sobering phenomenon. After years of greatness and influence, an idea eventually sickens and dies, until its adherents are reduced to a pathetic handful. Somewhere in history, there must have lived the last Albigensian, the last Ranter, the last native practitioner of ancient Egyptian religion. Somewhere in the not-too-distant future, this select band of ultimate diehards will be joined by yet another, when Marxism breathes its last. And while I do not know the name of the last Marxist, I can, with some confidence, identify the profession of this heroic loser: He or she will unquestionably teach humanities at an American university—and almost certainly in the history department.
Academic historians rarely make much impact on the wider world, which explains why the public at large generally pays so little attention to their weird and wonderful tribal practices. Over the last year or two, however, historians have ventured beyond the forest clearing and into public view, and the sight has been something to behold. I suppose the new age started in the mid-1990’s with the controversy over the Smithsonian’s scheme for a revisionist exhibit of the Enola Gay, which condemned the U.S. decision to drop the atomic bomb. Crucial to the controversy was the exhibit’s insanely inaccurate projection of the number of casualties the Allies were likely to incur in an invasion of Japan. The Smithsonian said the figure for American dead would be “only” about 30,000, while most competent scholars suggested figures closer to a half-million. Though the exhibit was (very properly) closed down, the affair lingers in liberal mythology as a victory by ignorant racist yahoos over sound scholarship.
Shortly afterward, the once-respected scholar John Hope Franklin agreed to chair President Clinton’s ludicrous inquiry into American race relations, which was deputed to explore any avenues whatever, as long as they placed enough emphasis on white guilt and provided ammunition for expanding affirmative-action policies. (You remember the “National Dialogue.”) Then, vast numbers of historians chose to sign pro-Clinton petitions during the impeachment crisis, all basically swearing to assertions about the origins of impeachment that were contrary to fact. In 2000, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) went into a spasm of New Left revivalism when it turned out that the group had chosen to hold its annual convention at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in St. Louis, although the hotel chain was under attack over dubious charges concerning civil-rights violations.
The 2000 election really brought the professors out of the woodwork when Princeton professor Sean Wilentz organized breathless anti-Bush petitions that even middle-of-the-road liberal media thought hysterical. (The fate of American democracy allegedly stood or fell on whether Florida’s Palm Beach County was allowed to vote again, presumably until a Democratic majority was secured.) Most recently (in January), almost 500 historians signed a petition shrieking about the Bush victory and complaining that the majority on the U.S. Supreme Court “acted as it did in order to install a Republican president and to expand its political position on the Court.” The historians professed themselves “outraged and saddened at this wound inflicted upon American democracy.” The letter was signed by some of the biggest names in the field, including Lizabeth Cohen of Harvard, Todd Gitlin of New York University, David Brion Davis of Yale, George Frederickson of Stanford, and—of course—the ineffable Wilentz. Incidentally, all of those named are not only solid historians but can actually write very well, and, presumably, can read.
Several observations come to mind about these eruptions: Most obviously, the fact that historians can make such screaming misstatements about a well known contemporary event casts an utterly damning light on their critical abilities to explore the remoter past. All the readers of the election protests lived through the events concerned and have at least as much knowledge of what went on as the professors. Wilentz and his merry men are not claiming that they had personal access to secret documents from the World League of Racists, Homophobes, and Other Bad People, ordering the U.S. Supreme Court to fix the election for Boy George. They are just relying on media sources, the same as the rest of us. If they are willing to base themselves entirely on one-sided parti pris documents to reconstruct the affairs of anno 2000, what earthly hope do we have that they will be more perceptive when studying the issues of 1800 or 1900, let alone any earlier period?
The recent upsurge of activism among the workers, peasants, and professors indicates a distressing herd mentality, a willingness to sign basically anything that comes from History Central, so long as it gives people the sense that they are fighting the good fight. The event arouses a powerful temptation to wreak upon historians the same dirty trick that a mischievous soul performed upon the British Young Liberals in the 1970’s, persuading most of the party’s annual convention to sign a heartfelt declaration of support for the oppressed people of the Republic of Santa Clara. (Since no such state exists, the Santa Clarans are, perforce, not oppressed.)
Just what is wrong with the historical profession? I can give a short answer: Particularly in American history, the profession is dominated by people whose ideas were formed in the social struggles of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and who have not noticed that the world has since changed. Obviously, a large proportion of the current historical profession grew up after the Nixon years, but they remain true to what seems to them a golden age of activism. Accordingly, their response to events is largely Pavlovian, and they are still trying to answer questions that were not terribly relevant even in 1970. For example, we might look at Lizabeth Cohen, the first name on the recent election petition. Her major book is called Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (Cambridge, 1990), and it assembles a good deal of useful information. Her theme, however, is that vital issue that so greatly agitates the American masses at the start of the 21st century—namely, class formation. The same riveting theme stirred Wilentz to write his best-known work, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (Oxford, 1986). It’s a good read despite the sub-Marxist intellectual framework—certainly not because of it.
Once we realize that many American historians have not progressed intellectually beyond 1974 or so, we can easily appreciate their areas of concern. Race, above all, agitates them: In their minds, it has only been five or ten years since the Selma march, and black Americans are still pretty much where they were during the King years. Given this sense of drama and urgency, it is not surprising that racial themes permeate their literature. Also—remember, we are still mentally in the Nixon years—there are all sorts of new and thrilling debates concerning women’s liberation, and even gay liberation. (Tired? Who said these themes were tired?)
If you think I’m exaggerating, just look at a typical year’s output of the Journal of American History, the official organ of the OAH, published in four hefty numbers annually. The March 2000 issue devoted half its space to a round table on the theme of ethnicity and race, with such groundbreaking studies as “Japanese American Resettlement and Community in Chicago 1942-45.” All the articles in the June issue were about ethnicity, race, and slavery, and a special section celebrated the lifetime achievements of Herbert Aptheker, the unrepentant doyen of American communist historians. September brought a refreshing change of theme, with a focus on “gender” issues, feminism, contraception, and theories of masculinity. Readers feeling deprived of their regular racial fix would have been delighted to pick up the December issue, with its major study of race and slavery. Specifically, this number devoted a round table to the question of whether Cinqué, leader of the legendary Amistad slave revolt, was himself a slave trader. The issue was topped off with an article examining “the new disability history,” which is currently enjoying something of an academic vogue.
The journal’s emphases are neatly epitomized by the front covers of the year’s four issues, which depicted Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo; an African-American teacher in a one-room sehoolhouse; a cartoon about Victorian feminist and birth-control advocate Victorian Woodhull; and an outrageously idealized Cinqué. In the eyes of the historical profession’s establishment, that seems to represent a pretty complete spectrum of American life, past and present. Is there anything or anyone they might have omitted here?
Nor are these weird concentrations peculiar to the JAH. If anything, the rather more prestigious American Historical Review (AHR) is even quirkier. Highlights of their 2000 issues include one massive “forum” section on “gender” and masculinity in Chinese history; another forum on contemporary histories of slavery and a lengthy article on Maya revivalism that was largely a puff piece for die contemporary Zapatista rebels in the Mexican province of Chiapas.
Putting the main journals together, we can see that “mainstream” American history today—what successful historians actually do—is overwhelmingly concerned with what would once have been viewed as the extreme margins: radical and feminist history, racial and sexual minorities, and other marginal groups. There is nothing wrong with any of these interests (heaven knows, I myself work a great deal in the margins, and indeed beyond them) but the problem comes when the margins are seen as the whole of the American experience. It’s even worse when historians adopt such an activist stance toward their subjects. They are not writing the history of contraception, which anyone will admit is an important topic, but rather studying how women struggled heroically against male oppression. (I offer a representative quotation from one article in the September 2000 issue of JAH, p. 459: “Such letters offer more than a touching tribute to the determination of women and men in late nineteenth century America to restrict their fertility”) Especially in racial matters, history is recounted in starkly ideological terms, with heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys. Competing views are not simply excluded; they are left unconsidered. History is a weapon for social activism, and historians are soldiers in the liberation struggle.
Given the power of the social mythologies through which American history is read (and misread), we can scarcely wonder at the joy with which practitioners greet anything that can be taken, however implausibly, as a repetition of past horrors. The Adam’s Mark affair? A chance to stand again at Selma. The 2000 election? We’ll fight Dred Scott afresh, and this time, we’ll win. Just don’t bother me with facts: I’m an American historian.