Being a historian in a world so full of needless suffering sometimes feels like a sentence to despair and hopelessness. I am not the first historian to feel this way. A long time ago the American historian Clarence Walworth Alvord looked out a world ravaged by the first Great War and wrote an essay entitled “Musings of an Inebriated Historian.” Historians, he noted, for a generation had celebrated “progress.” They assumed civilization emerged from and prevailed over barbarism, the arc moving ever upwards. Historians reminded their readers and students of that progress, or at least they were supposed to. Like the philosopher George Santayana, who famously declared that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it, Alvord believed that the story of the past could illuminate the path toward a better future. But then, he wrote, “I remembered that this boasted historical mindedness did not prevent historians of all nationalities losing their sense of toleration and feeling for proportion during the World War.” That realization left him forlorn. What, Alvord wondered, “in heaven, or hell, or on earth is the value of a professor of history?” Had the historian, Alvord asked, “ever offered any plausible excuse for his existence?”
As he wandered “aimlessly amidst the shadows of dead ambitions and frustrated hopes, phantoms of many efforts to save the world from its own insanity,” Alvord lamented that the historians who wrote before the war “experienced no difficulty in discovering signs of an upward progress. To them . . . the nations were goose-stepping in serried columns toward a better world, the millennium itself was evidently on the point of capitulating before the onslaught.”
They should have seen the slaughter coming. He should have seen it, too. But he didn’t and they didn’t. And millions died for causes that were not in the end worth the expenditure of a single human life. That progress? It was a lie. He looked out at the wreckage. “After such an error, what right have professors of history to speak?” Alvord thought none. “As I kick my heels on the edge of nothingness’ chasm,” he wrote, “I look as miserable and repentant as I can in my sackcloth suit and shampoo of ashes.”
WHAT IN HEAVEN, in hell, or on earth is the value of a professor of history? Not a thing, it seems, when they fail to ask tough questions and stop casting upon the evidence a critical eye.
My generation of historians, and the generation or generations of historians who have followed me, are not nearly as Whiggish as our profession once was. We know how bad things are, and we know the deep history of our country’s sins. While we are well aware that the world today is in so many ways better than it was in the past, we are far less inclined to focus on progress. We understand the depth of our imperfections. But too many of us still believe in what must be the biggest lie in American history: that he United States was a nation conceived in liberty, committed to justice for all.
If you have not seen this before, you must see it now. And if you cannot see it now, and if you are one of those who supported the President and his hollow sycophants in the Republican Party, it boggles my mind. How could you? We must stop repeating the lie.
REPUBLICANS HAD BEEN at war with historians long before the awful Lynne Cheney declared its “end” in a dismissive attack on the National History Standards which she published in the Wall Street Journal back in 1994. Those of us who teach Native American history have long told our students about all the colonialism, the cruelty, and the violence that rests at the foundation of this nation’s past. But too many of us describe the acts of racism and state-sanctioned violence, as well as the President’s recent strongman posturing, as somehow “UnAmerican.” “This is not who we are,” I hear people say. I am not so sure about hat. The President might lose the upcoming election and he might leave office afterwards–I am doubtful about both of these points–but the type of politics and the attitudes toward race he embraces are as American as apple pie. It is possible that this is who we are.
LET’S SAY THAT YOU and your partner go to see a therapist for some couple’s counseling. “She keeps breaking my stuff,” the husband says.
“Do you break your husband’s stuff?” the therapist asks.
Wiping away a tear, she nods her head.
“Tell me about that,” the therapist asks.
“I try to get him to talk about our problems. Every time I do he shuts me down. He sees neither my pain nor my anger. The only way I can get his attention is by breaking his stuff.”
“How does it make you feel to break his stuff?”
“I’m angry,” she says. “But it feels good for a minute or two, at least. I know it doesn’t make anything better, but I have been trying for so long.”
The therapist turns to the husband. “Do you hear what she is saying?”
“She’s breaking my stuff,” he says. “She admits it.”
“She has,” the therapist acknowledges, “but do you hear what she is saying about the reasons why?”
“I don’t care,” the husband says. “She is breaking my stuff. It’s wrong to do that.”
MOST AMERICANS, who are bad historians indeed, are like that husband as they look out at the riots. White supremacists–and by that I do not mean the assholes with hoods and swastikas and tiki-torches, but all of those who benefit and uphold systems and structures that have historically privileged white people at the expense of peoples of color–will focus on how people protest and not why.
Historians. We are the people who ask why. We must do this even when it is difficult to do so, even when it is frightening. The couple seeking a therapist will never heal by looking at the superficial. Good therapists share much with historians. They seek root causes. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans say to those burdened by the weight of injustice, “Why are you so angry?” You’re acting crazy. Stop being such a bitch.” So few of us have stopped and listened, acknowledged the pain, and joined in the efforts to carve a new path for this broken shell of a country.
Like Clarence Walworth Alvord, we can wallow in our despair. We can say that these have been some of the worst weeks in American history. But if your eyes were open, you saw this coming. And if your eyes are open you will see that in so many ways it is not getting better. “Racism isn’t getting worse,” Will Smith said. “It’s getting filmed.” It’s getting worse in all sorts of ways. Only a racist or a sociopath could want four more years of this.