Saturday, August 11, 2007

War of Ideology - Who Writes History?

The new Atlantic Monthly's cover story entitled "Lessons From a Failed Presidency" got me thinking.

By now it is clear to reasonable people that the George W. Bush presidency has been nothing short of disastrous. Yet we still see Fox News reporting a different all-is-well story, and we still read reports from some, like neo-con William Kristol and other apologists, encouraging us to stay the course - if not escalate - in Iraq, and to continue to engage in other misadventures around the world (CIA camps, etc. etc.). And this is not to mention the administration's systematic denial of rational scientific evidence in its approach to domestic policy (stem cell, energy policy, etc.).

So the Atlantic's cover story got me thinking about how history will view this era. One hopes there will be a balanced approach, but there's a worry that the Fox News version will prevail.

There is precedent. After the Civil War and the Union victory, the South ultimately won the subsequent "history-writing war." For a brief time following the war, when Reconstruction was underway, there was true equality opportunity for people of all races (women aside, but that's another, major, story). Thereafter things changed, as historian Eric Foner explains:

"By the turn of the century, Reconstruction was widely viewed as little more than a regrettable detour on the road to reunion. To the bulk of the white South, it had become axiomatic that Reconstruction had been a time of ‘savage tyranny’ that ‘accomplished not one useful result, and left behind it, not one pleasant recollection.... This rewriting of Reconstruction’s history was accorded scholarly legitimacy – to its everlasting shame – by the nation’s fraternity of professional historians, … [and] shaped historical writing for generations.... Few interpretations of history have had such far-reaching consequences as this image of Reconstruction, … [which] ‘did much to freeze the mind of the white South in unalterable opposition to outside pressures for social change and to any thought of … eliminating segregation, or restoring suffrage to disenfranchised blacks."

The historians of whom Foner speaks were an early twentieth-century group of young scholars from the South studying the Reconstruction at Columbia University under Professor Dunning, who “were taught … [that Blacks] were ‘children’ utterly incapable of appreciating the freedom that had been thrust upon them. The North did ‘a monstrous thing’ in granting them suffrage, for ‘a black skin means membership in a race of men which has never of itself succeeded in subjecting passion to reason, has never, therefore, created any civilization of any kind.’… These “Dunning School” views … achieved wide popularity through D.W. Griffith’s film, Birth of a Nation (which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and had its premiere at the White House during Woodrow Wilson’s Presidency). … Southern whites, … [it was said,] ‘literally were put to the torture’ by ‘emissaries of hate’ who inflamed ‘the negroes’ egotism’ and even inspired ‘lustful assaults’ by blacks upon white womanhood.’”

In 100 years, will the George W. Bush presidency be remembered in the history books as, perhaps, the era when religion and government were finally properly melded in policymaking? Or, perhaps, the era when the executive finally emerged as the dominant branch, after dispensing with the quaint notion of separation of powers, thus allowing the President to undertake the important task of guiding America in its sacred role as the world's policeman unencumbered by outdated niceties like congressional and judicial oversight?

The War of Ideology in the writing of the history is just beginning.