U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History and Politics

For quite a while, I’ve been carrying around an article, meaning to bring it to your attention. When spring break started for me, I was glad to finally have a minute to write about it. I knew the article was no longer current, but was quite shocked to see that the actual date was “Winter 2007.” (That kind of thing happens to me all the time now; in fact, it’s now the week after I started this post; spring break has long since passed, but I’m determined to get this post up.)

In any case, the essay in question can be found in the Winter, 2007 issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. (I have plugged this middlebrow quarterly a few times in this blog, and highly recommend it. It is a thoughtful, progressive-leaning, politically-themed journal that just won the 2007 Utne Independent Press Award for “Best New Publication.”) There, Kevin Mattson, perhaps most well known for his 2004 When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism (which has been referred to in a couple of recent posts and comments, though perhaps not by name) wrote an essay on the use of history in politics. Mattson, who himself often writes on partisan political matters, is concerned about the fatuous use of historical analogies in the public square. He mentions a couple of egregious examples of this trend: Donald Rumsfeld’s comparison of Iraq war opponents to those who sought to appease Hitler in the runup to World War II, and Slate columnist Jacob Weisberg contention that Ned Lamont’s victory over Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic Senatorial primary signals a “huge and lasting negative impact on the Democratic party,” in the same way as did the nomination of George McGovern. Mattson’s point is that political figures can only get away with such inappropriate comparisons because “the public, even the educated public, has little knowledge of history, or even an appreciation of history as anything other than a grab bag of unrelated facts to be picked from as one sees fit.”

(As an aside, Mattson here is echoing two points made by figures often discussed on this blog: Susan Jacoby, whose The Age of American Unreason is a diagnosis of and meditation on widespread public ignorance and “anti-rationalism,” and Lendol Calder, who, on his “uncoverage” page, argues that good history teaching should not characterize the discipline as the amassing of bite-sized chunks of information about the past, but as a process of interpretation and analysis.)

Yet Mattson’s ire falls not on the public, but on professional historians who, he claims, should be policing public discourse that relates to their subject. Instead, however, they are found far from the scene of civic engagement, publishing articles like “Big Hair: A Wig History of Consumption in Eighteenth Century France” and “The Disruptive Comforts of Drag: (Trans)Gender Performances among Prisoners of War in Russia, 1914-1920.” These works, and the “hundreds of books with similarly arcane titles,” Mattson argues, “give a sense of the overwhelming amount of scholarship out there on topics that few people know exist, let alone care about.”

Thus the public’s increasing interest in history is not being addressed by professional historians. Instead, mainstream audiences must turn to the History Channel, where “entertainment trumps veracity,” or prominent “celebrity historians,” like Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough, whose works “lack analytical power and insight.”

Yet it is a third category, that of “radical historians, who eschew nuance and objectivity in favor of simplistic morality tales,” that primarily concerns Mattson in this article. Focusing his ire on Howard Zinn, Mattson contrasts the writer of the phenomenally popular A People’s History of the United States with “a generation of historians–like C. Vann Woodward, Henry Steele Commager, Richard Hofstadter, and [Arthur] Schlesinger…who were consummate professionals and engaged in the important matters of the day.” Though one cannot accuse Zinn–a civil rights activist and former member of SNCC–of not being politically engaged, it is his activism itself, or, more precisely, his unwillingness to separate it from his historical work, that troubles Mattson. The fact that, for Zinn, “writing history was synonymous with doing politics,” means that “history can never be the disinterested pursuit of truth but is rather a radical project…an exercise in spin rather than scholarship.”

Mattson does not claim that Zinn’s lack of scholarship results in such gross distortions as relaying events that did not occur or generalizing from insufficent evidence. Indeed, he even lauds the project of telling the stories of those whom traditional narratives have ignored. The problem is that “Zinn is less interested in the episodes themselves as he is in stringing them together to tell a sweeping, ideology-heavy narrative…of failed struggles in which the always virtuous ‘people’ are beaten by a system that seems conspiratorial in both its reach and its ability to smother dissent.” By way of contrast, Mattson offers Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow. “Though Woodward was clearly an opponent of segregation and racism, his story didn’t unfold as a morality play of good versus evil, but rather as a clash of ‘real choices,’ some less harmful than others.”

Personally, I admit that I find this article both provocative and confusing. Intellectuals qua intellectuals are generally disengaged from public discourse, and I applaud Mattson for taking up the question of whether historians, in particular, have an obligation to be more involved. On the other hand, I am not entirely sure that he is fair to Howard Zinn, who, on my recollection, offered A People’s History as a corrective to what he viewed as the marginalization of large and important segments of the American populace, rather than a definitive account of, or even a new take on, “traditional” U.S. history. But my central concern is that it is still hard for me to wrap my head around an argument that criticizes professional history for being too narrow and disengaged with public concerns, while at the same time upbraiding radical history for being too willing to subvert the standards of history to a political agenda.

Mattson appears to be saying that the professional standards of objectivity should always trump one’s desire to enact political change. This is easy enough to understand, I suppose, but there remains a more philosophical question: why should one obligation take precedence over the other? The only reason given is that politicized work provides a target for one’s opponents: Mattson mentions how right-wingers love to skewer A People’s History. But if this were the chief concern, then Mattson is actually reversing the direction of his own argument, concluding that it is politically more advantageous to adhere to professionally accepted standards. That seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse and, in any case, it is exactly this way of thinking on the part of Howard Zinn that Mattson criticizes. In any case, I think there is more to be said on this issue, and am glad that Mattson brought it up, and that Democracy exists to publish such ideas in a journal aimed at the educated public.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Nice post Mike. Those liberal historians who go out of their way to bash Howard Zinn for being unprofessional have long annoyed me. For instance, Michael Kazin, a great left-leaining historian who writes relevant books, bashed Zinn’s People’s History:

    “Zinn’s big book is quite unworthy of such fame and influence. A People’s History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?”


    As is so often the case with critical book reviews, Kazin wishes Zinn had written a different book. Zinn’s premise, as I see it, was to offer up a narrative of another America, a possible America, an America where action matches rhetoric. Zinn reconstructs this forgotten America.

    Such a project is an altogether different from Kazin’s. This is not to say that Kazin’s project–to explain why most Americans accept capitalism, etc.–is unimportant. I would argue we need both Zinn and Kazin. AND… that we don’t need Kazin and Mattson to take Zinn down a notch (if they could).


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