The Fog of the Fog of History Wars

on david blight’s “the fog of history wars.”

History class, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, 1902. Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston.

David Blight’s recent essay in the New Yorker, “The Fog of History Wars,” reminds us that the current reactionary assaults on the supposed left-wing threat to historical education are nothing new, but Blight falls short in adequately addressing the urgency of the current battles in the latest incarnation of the history wars.

The current bogeymen of critical race theory or the 1619 Project, Blight reminds us, are merely incarnations of the trumped up charges of the culture wars during the 1980s and 90s. They are perhaps even vestiges of earlier claims that educators could sneakily brainwash America’s youth with communism during the Cold War, or teach them about evolution and monkeys instead of Adam and Eve, the bible, and old-time religion. So much for a thorough defense of free speech by conservative free speechers. It’s as if America’s children, or American adults for that matter, are so feeble of mind that they wouldn’t be able to stand a thorough reckoning with the truths of the American past.

This urge to limit historical education, as Blight is quick to point out, made no sudden appearance in American life. Reviewing past incidents such as the National Standards for History debates or the Enola Gay Smithsonian Air and Space Museum controversy of the early 1990s, Blight frames long-running and key questions in the field of public history, questions that are also about the broader issue of creating American history for the American public. “The broader problem,” Blight writes:

is that, in the realm of public history, no settled law governs. Should the discipline forge effective citizens? Should it be a source of patriotism? Should it thrive on analysis & argument, or be an art that emotionally moves us? Should it seek to understand a whole society, or be content to uncover that society’s myriad parts?

For Blight, “The answer to all of these questions is essentially yes.” What then, he wonders. As he wryly points out, despite their claims that they are losing the battle against the forces of historical radicalism, “The American right, for all its complaints about liberal bias, wins more than its share of these battles.”

So what is to be done?

Here the essay begins to turn in strange directions.

Blight calls for a spirit of being “chastened by knowledge” when facing the traumas of US history. “Slavery,” he writes, “as personal experience and national trial, is a harrowing human tragedy, and like all great tragedies it leaves us chastened by knowledge, not locked within sin or redemption alone.” This is not wrong, but it does seem to border, perhaps unintentionally, on the complacent. It sounds like the voice of someone in comfortable authority, looking down from the ivory tower condescendingly on other Americans. It is close to smug. How would being “chastened by knowledge” enable a forceful reckoning with the “sins” of US history at all, never mind the unfinished, if even possible, quest for “redemption”? It might be able to do that, perhaps, but Blight does not explain how. This leaves the claim sounding almost conservative in its sense of resignation with the sins of history. Chastened knowledge in this framing could slip easily into disenchanted apathy and passivity. That’s just the way life is, always has been, and always will be.

Surely, Blight doesn’t really mean to suggest this perspective. After all, in the essay, he has just spent the previous paragraph girding his loins for the battles ahead with conservatives in the ongoing history wars. He contends that:

…we who care about it have to fight this war better and more strategically ourselves. We will not win by constantly telling the public that they need to see all of American experience in a “reframing” of slavery and racism. We need to teach the history of slavery and racism every day, but not through a forest of white guilt, or by thrusting the idea of “white privilege” onto working-class people who have very little privilege. Instead, we need to tell more precise stories, stories that do not feed right-wing conspiracists a language that they are waiting to seize, remix, and inject back into the body politic as a poison.

Yet arguing for the need to “tell more precise stories,” Blight goes ahead and gets imprecise. First, he calls for historians to write only plainspoken prose “our grandmothers can read.” What is it with the grandmas putdown? They might be the most sophisticated readers and thinkers around these days. Perhaps Americans (especially grandmas) long for prose that does not speak down at them. They might well want prose whose tones do not settle for clarity to the point of oversimplification. They’ve seen life. They can handle it. Many may well already have worldviews “chastened by knowledge.” They can likely deal with, even relish the study of, precision, complexity, ambiguity.

Then, Blight turns to an even more imprecise closing quote. He takes it from the recent writing of George Packer (not a historian by training, although a journalist very interested in history). He quotes Packer’s recent book Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal:

America is neither a land of the free and home of the brave nor a bastion of white supremacy. Or rather, it is both, and other things as well. . . . Neither Sinful America nor Exceptional America, neither the 1619 Project nor the 1776 Report Ko, tells a story that makes me want to take part. The first produces despair, the second complacency. Both are static narratives that leave no room for human agency, inspire no love to make the country better, provide no motive for getting to work.

This seems like even more precisely the kind of imprecise characterization of the past that Blight urges historians not to adopt. As Blight himself immediately grants (“We can debate whether Packer undervalues the 1619 approach, or whether he accounts for the sheer level of willful ignorance in the 1776 Commission report…”), Packer’s statement is bothsiderism at its worst. it is clumsy and distorted history of the recent past’s history wars. Maybe in striving to speak to the imagined grandmothers, Packer equates left and right, 1619 Project and 1776 Project. But in doing so, he renders myth, not history.

Despite its melodramatic tone & journalistic simplifications of complex history (also aiming for the imagined public of grandma readers? Is this a journalism problem more than a history problem?), the 1619 Project is nonetheless filled with efforts to “make the country better,” certainly far more so than the drivel of the 1776 Commission report. “We need history that can get us marching but also render us awed by how much there is to learn,” Blight urges. There is plenty of that spirit in the 1619 Project despite its flaws.

Whatever the ideal history might be that, as Blight puts it “not only tolerates the reinterpretation of its past but thrives upon it” in order to support the flourishing of a “genuine democracy,” it’s not to be found in Packer’s quote. True, it is also not to be found in the substitution of training sessions and rote, preordained lesson plans for ample, extended, well-funded, grassroots educational study and dialogue. And it is certainly not to be found in silencing voices or banning books or outlawing ideas.

What it does demand, as Blight points out, is precision. It certainly can express the sense of humility that comes with studying history: “how much there is to learn.” And it asks for a genuinely democratic approach to public history—one that listens to and speaks with grandmothers rather than talking down to them. But maybe, this history can also be pretty fiery, pretty confrontational, unafraid to reckon with despair, to see sin, and yet still to seek redemption. This kind of history has a “motive” to see the fog with precision, in all its textured thickness, to own up to just how far it stretches into the past behind us and the future before us. Yet also to glimpse the light that occasionally streams in—the periodic vistas that beckon us to see our way forward not beyond the fog, into the clear, but through it, retracing and retracing our steps, as accurately as possible.

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