From the September 2015 issue of Chronicles.
Two thousand fifteen was the year that we Americans broke history. By “breaking history,” I do not mean something like “breaking news,” or “breaking records,” or even “breaking the Internet” (though the Internet certainly played a role). Yes, the “historic moments” of the Summer of #LoveWins and #HateLoses—the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges and the marking of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War by an orgy of destruction of the symbols of the losing side in that conflict—helped make the phenomenon manifest, but the reality is that the breaking of history has been a long time coming.
We broke history because fewer and fewer Americans have the desire—much less capacity—to think in historical terms. Fifty years ago, while writing his magnum opus, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past, John Lukacs could be optimistic about the rising and deepening of historical thinking among the American people. For a few decades, even popular observances—the 100th anniversary of the Civil War; the bicentennial celebrations of the Declaration of Independence and, later, the ratification of the Constitution—were accompanied by a rise in the sale of serious historical works, and local historical societies and museums saw a renaissance. Having come of age in the midst of such events and what seemed a widespread interest in history, I shared Lukacs’s optimism when I first read Historical Consciousness in 1990.
Twenty-five years later, I no longer do. Few Americans, it seems to me, are interested anymore in history for its own sake. Like the rest of human life, history has become politicized, viewed in ideological terms, mined not for meaning but for weapons with which to bludgeon one’s political opponents.
This has, as I say, been a long time coming. The tendency was there right from the beginning, at the very rise of historical consciousness. If Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is the first great work of historical consciousness in English, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man represents its opposite. Paine makes liberal use of the material of history, but not to further the historical understanding of his readers. He has scant interest in what the study of history reveals about man, and how he has lived, and how he is meant to live; in Paine’s hands, historical examples become the ill-fitting garments in which he clothes the emperor of his naked reason. He does not concern himself with counterexamples or the complexities of history; the single example that supports whatever abstract principle he is promoting at that moment suffices.
By 1980, the deepening historical sense of the American people, if only as nostalgia (not in itself a bad thing), played a role in the election of Ronald Reagan; but Reagan himself felt less at home with Edmund Burke than with Thomas Paine, whom he and his speechwriters quoted more often than any other figure. While the words conservative and tradition and history may still be related in most people’s minds, the reality of modern American politics is something quite different. Even setting aside the personalities involved and the propriety of applying the appellation conservative to ideas that arise out of 19th-century liberalism (itself a social and political philosophy that rejects history and tradition in favor of universalist abstractions), modern media—from radio and television on up to Twitter and Facebook—reward the sound bite and text message rather than the thoughtful response, much less an historically meaningful one.
Trying to explain what marriage is requires a level of historical understanding that starts off at a huge disadvantage compared not only with #NoH8 and #LoveWins, but with “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” (the definition of marriage in Section 3 of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act). What about such unions before the state took over marriage? What about the polygamy of the patriarchs of the Old Testament? Isn’t your definition of marriage just a narrowly Christian one?
Those who study history for its own sake know that there are answers to each of these questions, but any explanation that runs longer than 140 characters is simply ignored. The historical exception (no matter how specious) demolishes the rule, and the supporter of gay “marriage” or homosexual adoption or “fluid concepts of gender identity” keeps a stack of those exceptions (So I suppose you don’t eat shellfish?) tucked neatly up his sleeve.
So, you’ve spent decades studying the history of the Civil War, have you? Then you know it was all about white supremacy! Just look at the declarations of secession of the various Southern states! Yes, indeed—you should look at them. But don’t stop there. Examine the roots of the sectional conflict. Go all the way back to the debate over whether a discussion of slavery should be included in the Declaration of Independence. Consider the economic systems of the states of the South and the North, the religious divisions, the distribution of immigrants from the various European nations in America (or even just those from the British Isles), and the attitudes on race shared by whites in both North and South. Read Lincoln’s speeches and debates—all of them, not just the ones that superficially seem to support your ideological interpretation of the war.
What a surprise! You don’t want to talk about the declarations of secession. Not in a vacuum, no. Because that’s not how one should study history—not to mention how one develops an historical consciousness.
For a while, I took to calling these ideological and philosophical descendants of Thomas Paine the “New Historians,” on the notion that their outbursts amount to the writing of a new history that bears little relation to historical reality. But such a term is too dignified to apply to what they are actually doing. They aren’t revisionist historians, in the conventional sense of the term; they are ideological warriors who care not about truth but only about winning whatever particular battle they are fighting today. They are, to coin a word, engaged in sophistory—sophism with an historical veneer intended to befuddle those who have the right instincts but are historically uninformed.
They are growing in number and influence, in both the popular media and academia, crowding out those who still understand the importance of studying history for its own sake. They cannot be countered on their own terms—one cherry-picked historical example against another—but only through the deepening, among those who truly care about history, of historical consciousness. And that requires going back to the roots—understanding what history is, and why it is essential to the very nature of man.