February 16, 2005


Historians in cahoots (Tristram Hunt, February 16, 2005, The Guardian)

In his messianic inauguration address, President Bush spoke of America's global duty being defined by "the history we have seen together". Inevitably, this was a reference to the events of 9/11. But given how much a sense of US revolutionary heritage is now informing current policy, the broader history that Americans are experiencing together should be an equal cause for concern.

The latter half of the 20th century saw US scholars lead the way in popular social history. The world of the workplace, family life, native America and civil rights was chronicled with verve and style. The delicate oral histories of social chronicler Studs Terkel opened up the local and working-class past to mass audiences. He showed how the second world war was as much the people's as the statesmen's war. On National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service, history was dissected professionally and polemically.

Today, you would be hard-pressed to find such broad-ranging investigations of the American past. Instead, the bookshelves of Borders and Barnes & Noble are dominated by a very specific reading of the 18th century. This does not, in God-fearing America, represent a new found interest in the secular ideals of enlightenment and reason. Rather, an obsessive telling and retelling of that great struggle for liberty: the American Revolution.

Heroic biography has become the bestselling history brand of Bush's America. Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Abraham Lincoln are all speaking from the grave with new-found loquaciousness. Barely a week passes without another definitive life of a Founding Father, Brother or Sister, each one more adulatory than the last. [...]

Sadly, none of this has resulted in any substantive reinterpretation of the revolution or its principal actors.

That is, of course, quite wrong and is contradicted by his own earlier paragraphs. The Founders have been rescued from the unjustifiably low repute that Left wing orthodoxy had cast them into and the Revolution retrieved from the inane Marxist analysis that had prevailed since at least the Beards. The reason this git has his knickers in a knot is indeed because of the more favorable reinterpretation. Academia, the Left's last bastion, has lost control of the historical narrative and they can't stand it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 16, 2005 10:41 PM

Left's lost control of the historical narrative, eh? Well, the postmodern sword is double-edged. The same postmodern onslaught that deconstructs Christianity's metanarrative brings an essential cynicism that threatens the Left's, too.

Posted by: Steve Bragg at February 16, 2005 11:56 PM

Yep. Hard to believe the Left didn't see that coming. It's like the alchemists' search for the substance that dissolved everything it touched. What are you going to keep it in?

Posted by: Li'l Billy at February 17, 2005 12:17 AM

I won't be happy until Howard Zinn disappears from circulation.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 17, 2005 3:19 AM

"At a time when the US imperium is rampaging across the globe, you might have thought there would be a historical concern to enlighten the domestic citizenry about foreign cultures and peoples."

Actually, I think President Bush is pretty good at that.

Note how concerned this guy is that Bush is reading the wrong historical biographies. Too much George Washington and not enough Studs Terkel. I thought the concern was always that he was too stupid to read at all. Hmm, let's see...evil or stupid, evil or stupid, evil or stupid? Let's call a conference on this one.

Posted by: Peter B at February 17, 2005 4:54 AM

Postmodernism has been instrumental to the return of Judeo-Christianity.

Posted by: oj at February 17, 2005 7:14 AM

If nothing is true, everything is permitted. Including piety.

Posted by: ted welter at February 17, 2005 7:20 AM

But, if nothing is true then only the beautiful is worth believing in.

Posted by: oj at February 17, 2005 7:52 AM

Peter: Do we really need to know anything else about the guy other than that he takes Studs Terkel seriously?

Posted by: David Cohen at February 17, 2005 9:13 AM

Robert Schwartz:

Zinn likes to brag that his book has sold over a million copies. Ya think it ever occurs to him that his book is popular because professors make students read it? That was certainly my only reason for buying it.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 17, 2005 9:50 AM

what exactly is the point of this blog? are all of you related and just entertaining each other? i'm sorry i stumbled across it while looking for actual news. have fun!

Posted by: wes nicholas at February 17, 2005 4:06 PM

Making the Beards leftists is a neat trick.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at February 17, 2005 8:31 PM

Well, depicting the Constitution as a devilishly-clever conspiracy hatched by greedy capitalist fatcats sure isn't conservative.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 17, 2005 10:01 PM


They were Marxists. That's still the Left, no?

Posted by: oj at February 18, 2005 12:32 AM

Wes: No we were waiting to entertain you. Sorry you are not amused.


Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 18, 2005 12:40 AM