Heinlein and Cheney and Bush, Oh My

September 21, 2004

Let me see if I can make this one hang together. I fear that I am tilting at a straw man, but it is an important straw man.

In To Sail Beyond Sunset, and elsewhere for that matter, Robert Anson Heinlein complains about "revisionist historians" who, starting in the 1960s, went forth to re-tell the events of the past so as to make the United States out to be the villain - no matter what. He puts these words into the mouth of a character during the Spanish American War, and she then complains that while the war itself was fought on behalf of democratic rebels in Cuba, these revisionist historians have re-told the tale into one of imperialism and occupation, thus distorting "what really happened."

Lynne Cheney, both during her time as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and as a prominent spokeswoman for reform in history education, has repeatedly argued that the purpose of history is to tell American's positive stories about their past. The discipline creates a collective memory and identity, and she wants that identity to emphasize the good things about the nation. There are subtleties - this is a brief review of her position - but that is one of her major arguments.

A month or so ago George W. Bush, a man noted more for his firm opinions than for his intellectual curiosity, was giving a speech in the Philippines. During this speech he made some reference to America's long-standing commitment to democracy and democratic government, something that he hoped the nation would bring to Iraq just as it had brought it to the Philippines. He was booed, and it was obvious that he had no idea what he had said that was so offensive.

The answer, of course, is that after the United States stumbled into possession of the Philippines in 1898 we went ahead and colonized them, running the country for our benefit. Some American politicians called on the nation to "Christianize" the Philippines, conveniently ignoring that the islands had been Catholic before there was a permanent settlement in North America. More importantly, there had been a democratic insurgency in the Philippines just as there had been in Cuba. After praising that insurgency and its goals, the United States proceeded to impose its own rulers and policies on the nation, and then to fight a long bloody guerilla war against that very same democratic movement, finally quelling it for a while. After the Second World War the Philippines did become an independent nation, but even today they are living with some of the side effects of the long guerrilla war against first Spain, then the United States, then Japan.

Heinlein suggests that telling that story is "revisionism" and is bad for the nation. It is revisionist, in the sense that one of the things we do as historians is look for places where earlier accounts have gotten it wrong, and revise the story to match new data, new questions, or new perspectives. The revised account had better be well grounded in the facts - if not then it is fiction or wishful thinking - but just because it disagrees with the official story at the time of events does not mean that the official story was correct. In the case of the Philippines, the irony is that Mark Twain condemned our actions at the time, and that Heinlein is a huge fan of Mark Twain.

And, while Cheney is right that a good historian, especially on the elementary or high school level, must provide students with a compelling account of national identity and national meaning, she misses the fact that praise alone is meaningless. If you ever had a boss or a teacher who responded to all questions about how things were going, how good your work was, and so on by saying "fine fine, its great, you're doing great baby." - every single time, regardless of what you had given them - well, you quickly conclude that they have NO IDEA what is good or bad. Worse, you have no idea which parts of your work need to be improved, which are already strong. In contrast, someone who explains to you what you are doing well, what is weak, and what needs to be improved will help you grow as a person and as a worker. Historians provide that sort of feedback to a nation. And while it is important that we identify and celebrate national ideals and that we point out moments where those ideals mattered, we also have a duty to point out moments where our actions fell short of our ideals, and to show how and why we dropped the ball.

Otherwise, we end up in the position that George W. Bush was in during that speech - where we say something stupid, or offensive, or do something with poor consequences, because no one told us that the nation had been less than perfect. The school of hard knocks lets us learn from our mistakes. Education lets us learn from other people's mistakes - a far less painful process. If we blind ourselves to those mistakes we have to find things out anew every generation.

Posted by Red Ted at September 21, 2004 11:35 AM | TrackBack