Americans are supposed to be “ahistorical” by nature, meaning that the subject has not preoccupied them as opposed to the more dynamic topics that fit in better with the momentum and optimism of the so-called American “dream.” Henry Ford, one of the architects of this dream, once called history “bunk,” as it had little to do with his assembly line that produced the automobiles that helped make America an industrial and populist superpower.
Ahistoricism in America
One explanation of this country’s distance from history may be its “exceptionalism,” a phenomenon derived in part from the geopolitical isolation that developed over time. This was almost guaranteed by the thousands of miles of oceanic barriers that permitted America to prosper safely without major interference from powerful neighbors.
This was a luxury that few countries in the world would ever enjoy, a luxury that encouraged isolation and idealism. In this context, history can easily be distorted.
Ironically, the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. has inscribed on its exterior Shakespeare’s famous quote that “what is past is prologue,” (The Tempest) meaning that history is responsible for what we are about to do.
Obviously, history is humanity’s only “laboratory,” without which we would have absolutely no criteria or reflection with which to judge the present. The great Spanish philosopher, Jorge Santayana, summarized this reality famously with his line that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (1931).
This leaves Americans in a “conundrum” regarding themselves, i.e. a riddle seemingly necessary but unsolvable (like applying for a job without experience). How can we reconcile our past with our present responsibilities and hopes? Or, to put it another way, how can there be a future without a history?
Thus far, this conundrum has been overcome by unchallenged acceptance. “Ahistorical” does not entirely eliminate the past but instead accepts it as given through generations. This “acceptance” does not involve facts alone, but interpretations of the same.
In historical reflection, there are five questions, all beginning with the letter “W.” The first four – who, what, where, when – can be answered in a sentence. The last — why — may never be answered. That’s because it requires interpretation, a word that means “subjective,” involving thought, opinion, reflection, comparison, analysis, circumstance and other intangibles that go far beyond factual or “objective” conditions.
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Southern batteries fired upon Ft. Sumter. Fact. Why? After more than a century and one-half, we can still say “that’s a good question. I think……..”
To challenge accepted versions, historians include “revisionists” that interpret the past differently than commonly understood. In a sense, revisionists are “rebels” who deliberately offer ideas that “debunk” orthodox (believed) interpretations. Like “party-crashers,” they are usually not too welcomed.
But revisionists are necessary. Not only do they keep the subject alive and dynamic but they also just may — “may” — uncover some unknown truth thus far hidden from view.
That is a revisionist’s merit, and a good merit it is. Yet it also contains a built-in danger: of exaggerating the discovery so as to dismiss central truths. In colloquial terms, this is known as “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
A new interpretation or, even more telling, a new emphasis may well shift the importance of events and their significance into areas of thought and action that become truly “revolutionary.” This has consequences that contain severe repercussions if accepted fully and used as agents of change. In America today, this is exactly what is happening to history.
It is here when “dead” history comes “alive” and when the subject truly takes on a “life of its own.”
Consider: in 1919, the Western allies adopted Article 231 into the Versailles Treaty, labeling Germany as “solely responsible” for World War I. Most Germans reluctantly accepted this and soon joined the Allies in the League of Nations. Except for Adolph Hitler, who was a “revisionist.”
Consider: Capitalism was universally accepted as the economic theory that allowed for progress… until 1858. Karl Marx had another interpretation.
Consider: By 1804, slavery had ended in the North but remained in the fifteen southern states. In 1833, William Lloyd Garrison began modern “abolitionism” with the Anti-Slavery Society, calling for an immediate end of slavery in the South. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slavery novel with great influence. Garrison and Stowe were revisionists. The Civil War began soon afterward, not by coincidence.
(After the war, former abolitionists, including Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry James, formed “The Metaphysical Club” at Harvard in order to understand how they had unwittingly fostered one of history’s worst calamities upon the country. Thus was born the idea of “pragmatism,” America’s only original contribution to philosophy.)
Revisionism Again in America Today
A related issue has returned to twenty-first century America, holding prospects of similar, but not identical, results. Under the ideological title “racism,” American history is being re-written. The subject has enveloped influential portions of the media and political/theatrical elite and is challenging the interpretation of the country as a civilization.
As the most influential example, The New York Times has begun “Project 1619” to “reframe” slavery as the center of the American universe and the chief explanation of what the country stands for. As a beginning, the Times has proposed eliminating July 4, 1776 as the nation’s birth and changing it to August 20, 1619, the date when the first slave ship landed (alleged).
Disney Studios is now considering revising its landmark films as outdated by current standards, showing animated crows in Dumbo (1941), for example, as “racist.”
As so often in history, this attempt at historical revision contains profound consequences for society, and indeed the world. The great problem is that if a single item of the past is erased, then the entire subject, “history,” needs to go as well. All or nothing. Consider the Crucifixion, for example, with Christ executed by lethal injection.
This is revisionism, with a vengeance, aimed at the very heart of rational or coherent thought: Simon Legree to replace George Washington as symbolic “father of the country.” Snow White erased as “supremacist.”
Can these “Lemmings” be stopped before they reach the ledge?