Politics, History, and Change

Just a short post this morning as I have a mountain of grading to wade through before my class this afternoon.

I was intrigued this morning by a short Op-Ed by the historian Michael Lansing titled “On Dead White Men and the Politics of Minnesota’s History” in the Minnesota Post. Lansing argues that for as long as U.S. history is being written, interpretations of the past have changed. Recent cries of “revisionism” by members of the Minnesota legislature, then, ring pretty hollow. Lansing sagely points out: “This phrase is a contradiction in terms that reveals how little the detractors know about the actual practice of history.” 

Historians deal with interpretations and evidence and not matters of fact. There is little objectionable in this claim, of course, but I do wonder whether it’s useful in practice. While it goes without saying that historians are always trying to revise past interpretations of the past, for our own sanity (and the good of the cause) we tend not to dilate on the ephemerality of our interpretations. In practice, historians and their friends in the archives, in historic preservation, in publishing, and in teaching, like to think of our contributions to society as persistent, if not permanent. It is easy enough, of course, to hold to contradictory ideas in our head. Our contributions are lasting, but not necessarily fixed. At the same time, we’d like to imagine that we’re not going to reinterpret slavery, for example, as “not really all that bad” or argue that giving women the right to vote “was historically a mistake” or something along those lines.

The general public, for whom Lansing’s editorial was intended, likewise tend to see certain things about the past as rather fixed. In fact, as historians we’re horrified to see the rise of Alt-Right movements who seek to valorize the Confederacy or Nazism. As much as we embrace the idea that the past is dynamic place constantly open to reinterpretation, revival, and revision, we also insist that certain aspects of the past demand a kind of orthodoxy. Among historians, this orthodoxy is fortified by our methods, but even the most rigorous historian will admit that our methods are not as locked down as we might wish for the social and moral weight that we place on our conclusions.

In the end, nothing that Lansing said was wrong or inappropriate or even really problematic. More than that, he’s a good historian and his argument in his Op-Ed are important. I still wonder, however, whether stating his case as he did runs the risk of undermining the authority of historians by emphasizing the fundamental tension that has bedeviled historical thinking since antiquity: the past is always change and historical thought produces only ephemera. The real value of history, to my mind, is not that (as Lansing quotes Becker): “Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time,” but that our conversations, arguments, and agreements about the past — no matter how painful, problematic, or positive —  afford an distinctive opportunity to assess and establish what we believe. 



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