Historiography is not an exchange in the marketplace but a fight on the battlefield. It has a particular point of view on the past and punishes opponents; it is power politics masked as tolerant neutrality. The Left—like those behind the 1619 Project—understand the stakes and are fighting to maintain their legitimacy. It is time the Right did the same and entered the historiographical fray to shape the story.
A commonplace idea among conservatives is that “politics is downstream from culture,” that cultural influence transforms nations, rather than electoral politics. The phrase carries much truth, but its maddening vagueness misses the point that cultural power draws authority from the weight of its past, that its ability to shape perception comes from history and precedent. Prevailing historiographies and dominant interpretations of the past grant legitimacy to ideas and delegitimize alternate visions. Recently, David Bahr in the American Mind called the Right to create an American cultural canon: “Get over yourself: every day, you take on this task of division, discernment, and discrimination classically understood, whether you understand what’s at play or not. This is the task of canon-builders. Don’t shy away from it. Let’s get to work.” Those on the Right should also think carefully before abandoning the discipline of history to the Left. As we see today, the price of losing historiographical battles is steep.
Carl Schmitt described the high stakes of historiography as one of legitimacy, that communicating, teaching, and ensuring assent to a particular narrative of historical events carries enormous power. Meditating on the observations of Spanish traditionalist Juan Donoso Cortes, Schmitt critiqued the 1789-1848-1917 progressive vision of history as an optimistic continuity, “whose illusion was based on a combination of technological progress, the advancement of freedom, and the moral fulfillment of humanity in a single unified concept of progress.” Rather than a sunny epoch of rising humanity, Cortes realized the invention of “humanity” necessarily created a dangerous counter-concept.
The significance of [Cortes’] words transcends by far their empirical or intellectual content. His words are the spoken gestures of a man who looks into the abyss of the forces that serve the idea of absolute humanity, in order to brand every opponent a beast . . . [M]ankind, which philosophers and demagogues raise up to be the measure of all things, is in no way, as they claim, an embodiment of peace. Instead, man terrorizes and destroys all other men who do not submit to him. The concept of human only superficially neutralizes differences between people. In reality, it carries with it a murderous counter-concept with the most terrible potential for destruction: the inhuman. A terrible abyss of enmity is immediately ripped open by the mere possibility of the word inhuman.
Cortes gloomily perceived the rising specter of man’s hostility to man in the collapse of religious authority and its corresponding duty to teach virtue. Disordered polities and disordered peoples emerge when religious authority and the self-control it teaches to mankind begin to erode. As virtue fails and men descend, secular political authority fills the gap with police, surveillance, and the totalitarian temptation. The horrors of 1789 and 1848 (and later 1917) demonstrated this, but historiography neglected to reflect this fully. The three revolutions were instead portrayed as evolutionary steps on the way to a bright future of universal humanity.
When Cortes interpreted 1848 dimly, Schmitt wrote, critics successfully pushed him into obscurity “because they felt that only he threatened their monopoly on the interpretation of the century.” The Spaniard understood that historiography and received historical narratives held tremendous power, far beyond the old canard that “winners write history.” If a narrative prevails, it bestows legitimacy on all it touches: “This monopoly contained something very important, namely, the historical legitimacy of one’s own power, the right to violence, and the absolution of the world spirit for all the crimes committed in its name.” Historiography lends legitimacy. It creates precedents. Violence to create and sustain regimes becomes the righteous price for freedom, and sinners transform into saints. This historiography is published and taught, and trickles down into public consciousness to become orthodoxy. Read any history textbook to see affirmations that the liberation of individuals, expanding democratization, globalizing citizenship, and the battles for those causes are unsurpassed common goods. Anne Hutchinson was a victim of Puritan prejudice. John Brown was a freedom fighter. American entrance into World War One made the world safe for democracy. On the flip side, de-legitimatized historiographies have no excuses. Falling outside the Overton window of legitimate interpretations of the past, they remain aberrations prevented from touching the public mind or forbidden ideas one fears vocalizing.
When a historical narrative gains authority, it slowly travels from the academy, through teaching, publication, and media, down to citizens in every walk of life. With little realization, we think and communicate within its categories. The American Civil War was a conflict over slavery. European colonialism robbed people of their self-determination, culture, and human dignity, and marks a shameful chapter of world history. The “Republicans” in the Spanish Civil War stood for popular rights and social justice. Today, these are commonplace ways to think about the past. People repeat them without thinking, testifying to their narrative hold. Considerations of the past change all the time, of course, but usually in ways that affirm larger legitimized narratives and their values. To use a recent harmless example, compare our consideration of President Warren G. Harding. Thirty years ago, high school and college textbooks talked of Harding as an Ohio rube in the grips of the corrupt “Ohio Gang,” a man unfit for the presidency and a symbol of the tawdry Roaring Twenties. My high school history teacher assigned us Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday (1931) to supplement the portrayal, with Harding as a drunk, womanizing crook. Beginning in the 1990s, Harding’s reputation began to shift. Robert Farrell’s Strange Deaths of President Harding (1996) questioned the received narrative, reinvestigating both his administration’s achievements as well as the scandals. Farrell’s work and others shifted perceptions, so that years later history textbooks now give a more nuanced portrait of Harding.
The ultimate judgment, however, is still negative. He should never have been elected, Republican policies worked against social justice, he and Coolidge were ciphers for big business, etc. The narrative tint is different, but the framework is the same. But no one is losing a job over the historiography of President Harding. When the stakes are higher and challenge the prevailing pieties of academia, the power of historiography becomes clear. Historians shift the Overton window of socially and morally acceptable ways to consider the past. Those in opposition to the new orthodoxy face ostracism, marginalization, and threats to their careers.
Consider the case of Professor Bruce Gilley of Portland State University, whose article “The Case for Colonialism” was published online by Third World Quarterly in 2017. A political scientist, Dr. Gilley suggested that European colonialism carried with it considerable political, economic, and social benefits backed by a majority of the indigenous population, and that nationalist forces in former colonies governed brutally and corruptly, and made life worse for their people. The argument was not a new one. Niall Ferguson’s Empire (2003) made similar claims for the British Empire, that it laid the foundation for relatively peaceful representative government and market economies in its former colonies. Fourteen years of historiographical change made all the difference, however. His work ran directly counter to the prevailing post-colonial historiographical narrative. Protests from professors and students pressured the journal for retraction in a highly publicized campaign. Dr. Gilley’s article was pulled from the journal, fifteen members of the editorial board resigned in protest, activists called for his doctorate to be revoked, and he received death threats. Dr. Gilley’s work was de-legitimized and a warning sent to those sympathetic with his thesis.
The New York Times 1619 project demonstrates historiographical power with exactitude. Its goal to “reframe American history” and recast 1619 as the true founding date of America—the date when enslaved Africans stepped from a Dutch ship onto the shores of what would become the United States—aims to show that racial inequality has remained constant since colonial times. The task is staggering both in its magnitude and simplicity. To rewrite and re-conceptualize American history around the story of slavery belies the complexity of people and events that founded the nation, and the changing situation of African-Americans, and attempts to go further than the usual academic interpretive concentrations on race, class, and gender. Historiography would shift to where slavery was the story of America, with all its founding personalities and subsequent crises as elaborations on this central idea. An entire new “reframed” narrative would become legitimized, taught, published, and received through schools and media, and those objecting would find themselves de-legitimized by the new historiographical reality.
Mainstream historians not normally taken to activism sensed the danger posed by the 1619 Project’s terrible simplifiers. Recently, prominent American historians Victoria Bynum, James Oakes, James McPherson, Gordon Wood, and Richard Carwadine gave interviews to the World Socialist Website condemning the Project’s willful avoidance of decades of historical scholarship that utilized a host of interpretive lenses. Dr. McPherson observed:
I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism—which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it—but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out.
Socialists conducting these interviews also well understood the danger too: “The formation and development of the United States cannot be understood apart from the international economic and political processes that give rise to capitalism and the New World.” The 1619 Project’s single-minded vision drives traditional Left interpretations of American history from the field. If the recriminatory tendencies of contemporary identitarians hold, latter-day Gilleys, even of the socialist variety, should expect hostility to their scholarship and professional lives.
We are witnessing battles over historical legitimacy today. To control historiography is to control the understanding of the past. To control the understanding of the past is to control what are acceptable interpretations of the past and the values behind them. It is the power to legitimize and stigmatize. The Gilley controversy and 1619 Project demonstrate the stakes. Those on the Right need to abandon a neutralist position over historiography, that it is sufficient to do their good research and let it sink or swim in the “marketplace of ideas,” because there is no such thing. As Adrian Vermeule of Harvard Law School notes on “marketplace” systems as a species of the “invisible hand” theory:
[R]esearch programs in cognitive and social psychology and behavioral economics have radically undermined any remaining, naïve faith that truth will automatically tend to “win out” in free and open discussion. It would take a kind of miracle of providential stature for the large and motley assortment of human heuristics and biases to interact in just the right way so as to make the marketplace of ideas into a reliable truth-generating machine.
Historiography is not an exchange in the marketplace but a fight on the battlefield. It has a particular point of view on the past and punishes opponents; it is power politics masked as tolerant neutrality. After all, what difference lies between the Little Sisters of the Poor battling contraception mandates and Bruce Gilley facing the post-colonial university mob?
History is upstream from politics, not just culture. Socialists understand the stakes and are fighting to maintain their legitimacy. It is time the Right did the same and entered the historiographical fray to shape the story.
This essay first appeared here in February 2020.
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The featured image is “Truth and Wisdom Assist History in Writing” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.