Dare to Interpret and Change History

ZNet, 2/7/2016 (this essay is placed out of chronological order with others). Indoctrination works in countless seemingly innocuous and small but cumulatively significant ways. Here’s an example from the long Obama-mad and now Bernie Sanders-backing college town of Iowa City, where downtown lampposts were recently draped with large banners of local University of Iowa academics. One banner shows a leading pediatric researcher beneath the phrase “Dare to Heal Children.” The face of a top novelist (a good friend of Obama’s) appears beneath the words “Dare to Illuminate Life.” Another medical researcher is hailed because he “Dare[s] to Diagnose faster.” A psychologist is honored for “dar[ing] to treat depression.”

One banner knocked me out. It portrays a 20th century U.S historian who is acclaimed because he took the “Dare to Record the Past.” Wow, I thought to myself, is that what historians do with and to the past – record it, chronicle it, put it in the official registry for safe keeping? What could be duller and less daring than that?

The young Marx is often misquoted as having written that “philosophers have tried to understand history; the point is to change it.” The real statement was this: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Marxology aside, there’s a false dichotomy in the formulation. People are in a better position to change history (or “the world”) in a desirable direction when they have studied and understood history (and “the world”).

The Iowa City/University of Iowa banner project isn’t concerned with any of that, however. The historian’s banner suggests that even trying to interpret and understand history (forget about changing it) is too much and that the real job of a historian is simply to log and chart the past.

I know next to nothing about the work of the academic historian who is now celebrated on an Iowa City lamppost. Here, however, is the University of Iowa’s short online bio of the apparently successful professor in question.  The write-up shows that he endeavors to be more than merely a stenographer of past events and indeed that he may be interested in interpreting and even acting on history in accord with some very liberal, maybe even socialistic, values:

“[the historian in question] writes on the history of American public policy and political economy.  He is the author of Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality (Institute for Policy Studies, 2013); Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Dead on Arrival: The Politics of Health in Twentieth Century America (Princeton University Press, 2003), and New Deals: Business, Labor and Politics, 1920-1935 (Cambridge University Press, 1994).  He has written for the Nation, In these Times, Z Magazine, Atlantic Cities, and Dissent (where he is a regular contributor).  His digital projects include Mapping Decline, an interactive mapping project based on his St. Louis research…and The Telltale Chart, a data visualization project focusing on historical and recent economic data…He is a senior research consultant at the Iowa Policy Project, for which he has written reports on health coverage, economic development, and wages and working conditions (including the biennial State of Working Iowa series).”

It’s a little depressing (to me) to see Dissent (where I used to write nicely paid pieces until Noam Chomsky filled me in on its editors’ rabidly anti-pro-Israel and anti-Arab leanings) listed as a place where the historian regularly publishes. Clearly, though, the historian in question brings some progressive and left-of-center values to his interpretation of the past – and thus to his sense of what parts of history are more relevant than others. Clearly he is interested in applying historical knowledge to current events and policy.

There’s nothing wrong with that. “Value free” research and interpretation is a deeply conservative academic myth. No historian or so-called social scientist comes to the study of the past or present as a purely “objective,” impartial, “neutral” and “outside” observer – like some kind of thoroughly unbiased Martian or Mandarin. Being a socially and historically generated member of the human species, the historian brings her own personal, cultural, political, socioeconomic, and ideological background, world view, and living historical experience to the task of filtering through the boundless mass of facts, sources, and events that make up the ever growing record of the human past. And, as the late radical historian and activist Howard Zinn used to say, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

The historian herself is not beyond or above history. She brings her own socially produced senses of what matters most and indeed of good and evil, right and wrong, to the task of weaving a patterned narrative with present-day meaning from the chaotic multitude of historical “facts.” (When graduate students in history get examined prior to being approved to write a doctoral thesis, they don’t get quizzed so much about the actual facts of different eras as they do about the various schools that have developed over generations to make interpretive sense of those multitudinous facts. If anything, the privileging of historiography – the different interpretive schools in their contrast and development over time – over history itself is probably excessive in academic history departments.)

The great Soviet historian E.H. Carr likened the historian to a fisherman confronted with a ridiculous over-abundance of fish (facts).  He has to decide which to keep and which to throw back into the sea. Inevitably, the historian’s own moral and ideological framework and social background plays a very big role in what qualifies as a “keeper” for him – and indeed of where he fishes in the first place. The historian’s socially produced values and world view shape what qualifies for her as a relevant “fact” to be taken from and included in the historical record. Thus, when the heralded U.S. business historian Alfred DuPont Chandler wrote The Visible Hand, (1977), a magisterial history of the rise of the modern American managerial-capitalist corporation, he did not pay the slightest attention to the experience, consciousness, and struggle of the vast new working class that emerged in and around those corporations’ new mass production facilities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  That was a lake of facts he never fished. The topic held little interest for Chandler, an heir to the DuPont business fortune.

Things were very different for the leading U.S. labor and political historian David Montgomery, a former skilled machinist and labor activist, and for a cadre of skilled historians from immigrant and working class backgrounds (primarily David Brody, Herbert Gutman, and Melvyn Dubofsky) who joined Montgomery in developing a new social, labor, and working class historiography during the 1960s and 1970s. This “new labor history’s” allegiance to the working class and its struggle with capitalist employers was evident to any serious reader beneath the requisite academic discourse. Its practitioners cast their nets in a remarkably un-fished sea of facts and sources that previous chroniclers and interpreters of the nation’s past had neglected.

Of all the new banners hailing academic heroes in downtown Iowa City, it’s the historian’s one that seems most particularly absurd. The phrase “Dare To Record the Past” was probably just the outwardly innocent default choice of a university publicist scratching her head about what historians actually do. Still, it is unfortunate. It conveys the reactionary sense of the historian about little more than the dutiful compilation of a listless and mind-numbing log of lifeless facts,  as in “and then the Magna Carta was passed…and then the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock…and then England passed the Stamp Act…and then Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin….and then Andrew Jackson was elected…and then Abe Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address…and then Henry Ford invented the Model T …and then the stock market crashed…and then Franklin Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act…and then Hitler invaded Poland…and then America bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki…and then….and then…and then.” Sadly, that’s how a lot of junior high and high school history is taught to this day: as an endless series of rote facts to be memorized for a dreaded multiple choice exam. The banger-hangers really ought to replace the embarrassing phrase “Dare to Record the Past” with the far more dignified, accurate, and meaningful phrase “Dare to Interpret the Past.”

Changing history is a bigger and related collective task, but we need to do that in the streets before we can brag about it on streetlight banners.  Which reminds me of something that Howard Zinn said in early 2001 – something that people in presidential election- and presidential candidate-mad Iowa would do well to keep in mind when it comes to how progressive change occurs. “There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn,” Zinn told Socialist Worker after George W. Bush took office,  “than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in–in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating–those are the things that determine what happens.” Seven years later, Zinn elaborated in an essay on what he called “The Election Madness” that had “engulf[ed] the entire society, including the left” with special intensity in the year of Barack Obama’s ascendancy:

“The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. …”

“Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes – the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth…But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice….”

“Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore….”

“Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war. Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”

That’s some history – and historical interpretation – worthy of extra-rote memorization in the O-bam(a)boozled, Bernie-mad, election-frenzied and banner-strewn town of Iowa City.

Personally, I’d go quite a bit further than Zinn.  Our objective should be to build a great grassroots and revolutionary movement to overthrow the American ruling class and introduce a socialist transformation to implement social equality and justice, peace, democracy, and livable ecology. We must aim not merely to shake power from the bottom up but to take power both from the bottom up and the top down.

One thing American history shows beyond the shadow of a doubt to someone with my own socially produced background and filter is that it’s not enough just to pressure ruling classes and their political agents from below and that the capitalist and imperial U.S. government continues to remain responsible above all to the ruling class even when it appears to be responding to grassroots pressure. But that’s another essay for another time.

Paul Street is an author in Iowa City.  His latest book is They Rule: the 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

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By | 2016-05-15T14:46:51+00:00 May 15th, 2016|Articles|