In America, historians are rarely heard from and seldom honored. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was an exception to this rule. When he died on Feb. 28 at the age of 89, his historiography was praised and his person exulted in mass media and academic circles. His honors were manifold: the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and the Bancroft Prize, among others. He was a consummate public intellectual before the coin was termed. His liberalism was eclipsed only by his ego.
Schlesinger’s trademark bow tie and coke-bottle spectacles strongly identified him in the public mind as a classic egghead. Alonzo L. Hamby, a distinguished professor of history at Ohio University, wrote in an obit for the History News Network, “Students of the historical profession may think of [Schlesinger] as the most prominent of a small group of scholars who kept the old Charles A. Beard-Vernon Parrington ‘progressive’ interpretation of American history alive against the onslaught of ‘consensus history.’ “
Our historians, like Schlesinger, are a precious link to our tenuous past. They construct a narrative that permits us to hold on to an ethereal present.
History is the glue that binds us. If there is anything that aggravates the bleep out of me, it is America’s utter failure to recognize and reflect on our forebears. Looking back at what has worked, and what hasn’t, in our past can illuminate possibilities for our future.
Take the American civil rights movement. The nexus of that movement revolved around the concept of non-violent civil disobedience. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. studied, then borrowed Mahatma Gandhi’s concept and adapted it to an American context. King reached back into history to plumb its lessons in ways that changed the world. Without that crucial insight, the movement would have failed.
It was a cross-cultural, transnational pollination of ideas that moved the zeitgeist.
Such lessons are not written on granite tablets; literal applications would be specious. Historians are the ones who can separate the wheat from the chaff in the winnowing of history.
Remember how extraordinarily bogus the “domino theory” of communist domination turned out to be. If one nation goes Communist, the rest are soon to follow, they said. History proved differently. Yet the Bush administration promptly turned around and applied the same discredited concept to its Iraq War rationale. Topple Saddam Hussein, they said, replace him with a democratically elected régime, and democracy will sprout in the Middle East. Yes, just like turnips in Uncle Remus’s briar patch. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I‑Conn.) was probably the only sucker who swallowed that whale of a lie.
History tells the tale. Divide and conquer in Chicago. For most of the last half century, a political dynasty has retained and exploited power by simple division. In 1955 Richard J. “Boss” Daley won control of the Windy City by consolidating his power among white ethnics and buying off the city’s budding black political class.
Harold Washington briefly wrested the city away from the Daley Machine in the ’80s, but his sudden death in 1987 buried his progressive coalition, which was quickly co-opted by Richard II. Chicago has been a majority-minority town since 1990. Yet Richard M. Daley, a conservative Democrat and buddy of George W. Bush, has carved out winning majorities from white ethnic, Latino and black votes, leaving progressives in the dust. Last month Daley won his sixth consecutive term.
Progressives in Chicago are still flunking the history test.
Historians tell us that, in America, independent presidential candidates can generate a lot of heat and some unintended consequences. In 1992 the Texas businessman Ross Perot stepped into the slugfest between Republican incumbent George H. W. Bush and his challenger, Bill Clinton. Perot’s conservative pitch helped throw the election to Clinton.
Ralph Nader is a national pariah, at least among Democrats who believe that his independent foray in the 2000 presidential contest insured George W. Bush’s “win” over Al Gore.
History shows us that anything is possible, but be wary of anyone who flirts with an independent run in 2008. There are stirrings out of New York City that billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg is contemplating a self-financed run as a moderate independent.
Maybe our celebrity-obsessed culture refuses to place historians on a pedestal, but that doesn’t mean we can’t honor them.
My favorite historian is also the founder of my favorite magazine. Jim Weinstein founded In These Times 30 years ago. He ensured that these pages would honor history as a tool for a dynamic Left. That’s a history lesson worth memorizing.