Friday, February 11, 2005

Historiographical treason

Bill Moyers offers a depressing piece on the political ascendency of anti-secular anti-rationalism in America, with a particular focus on how this trend aligns itself with an assault on environmentalism. Moyers quotes from a high school history book, America's Providential History, popular among home-schoolers, which offers this "historical lesson":

The secular or socialist has a limited-resource mentality and views the world as a pie ... that needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece. [But the] Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God's earth ... while many secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate all of the people.
Read the whole piece.

It's a somewhat tangential point, but it's one worth asking: can this country (or any country) hang together if its citizens no longer share a common understanding of the major contours of the nation's history? As numerous historical studies have shown, compulsory primary education with a focus on civics, along with compulsory military service, has been decisive in the formation of coherent nation-states. Creating a shared national narrative, in other words, has been indispensible for creating a shared national identity and shared sense of national solidarity. (For a wonderful account of this process in late nineteenth century France, check out Eugen Weber's wonderful Peasants into Frenchmen.)

Insofar as having a shared national narrative is essential to creating a shared national identity, then I think it's not unfair to observe that the American home-schooling movement can be described, quite precisely, as an "anti-American" movement. After all, isn't the movement motivated, almost by definition, by a desire to withdraw one's children from exposure to the dominant narratives of the country?

Needless to say, the sponsors of the movement think of themselves as preserving a purer kind of Americanism (for example, the authors of the above suggest that "the Bible, perhaps even more than the Constitution, is our founding document") and seek to promote this new narrative as the new "master narrative." But since such wingjobs will never succeed with imposing this freakazoid narrative on the historical profession, what we instead see is the historiographical analog to the linguistic fragmentation created by Babel's fall. And with that fragmentation of the national historical narrative will likely come the fragmentation of the nation itself. And this is an outcome that the homeschoolers, like the Southern secessionists in 1861, are perfectly willing to live with. In short, I regard these homeschoolers, and all their fundamentalist symapthizers, as committing treason by historiography.

Before this begins to come off as just another one of my anti-fundamentalist screeds, let me hasten to point out that the historical profession itself deserves much of the blame for having allowed this situation to become acceptable. If the United States over the last forty years has witnessed the destruction of the very ideal a singular, universal, shared sense of national meaning, then the historical profession itself, overwhelming populated by political liberals, has been largely complicit in allowing this to take place. In many cases, they've egged it on.

Among historians nowadays it's unquestioned conventional wisdom, even a cliche, to suggest that singular all national historical narratives are "constructions." "Polyvocality" is the name of the game, and all nations in fact have multiple narratives that are not only incommensurate, but which both cannot and should not be neatly reconciled. The historiographical big tent makes plenty of room for the Theocrats and the Ward Churchills, along with liberals, feminists, Marxists, classical conservatives, and any number of other idiosyncratic methodological or subjective preferences. (Personally, I've always been favorable to the view that American history can be well and truly told as a history of real estate speculation and swindles.) The accepted standard in history departments today is that there really is no "one right way," no single narrative that can encompass all that is important on a period or a subject. For example, historiographical wisdom today deems that there is no way to establish that a history of, say, the conditions of cotton production in the nineteenth century South is a more or less important strand of the history of the United States, than, say, the legal history of the interpretation of the Constitution during that same period. Only the narrativizing power of the individual historian adjudicates.

As I say, this polyvocal understanding of historical truth represents the conventional wisdom in the historical profession today--and I must say that I agree with this view on an academic and epistemological level. Even so, one must admit that historiographical perspectivalism raises very troubling political questions for the cohesion of the country. Can the country hang together if there's not a shared national identity rooted in a shared sense of the national narrative? I really don't know, but I feel no confidence that the answer is surely "yes."

This problem of how to sustain national unity in the face of a polysemous historical self-consciousness in turn relates profoundly to the issue I raised a couple weeks back about anti-foundationalism: even if anti-foundationalism is philosophically unimpeachable, it must be thrust aside by anyone who wishes to act. As Kant points out, the moral question, "What should I do?" is the most basic and important philosophical question, and Kant also knew that anti-foundationalism provided no succor in answering this question. While I've never found Kant's answers to this problem convincing, he does put his finger on the essential problem.

I don't want to suggest that we should try to return to some (mythical) golden age when everyone ostensibly agreed on what American history was and meant. Even insofar as such a time existed, the narrative that was dominant at the time (the 1940s?) would be absurd to try to impose today; could anyone credibly stand up in front of today's typical multicultural classroom and claim that we are all descended from the Puritans? No one wants to go back to the last hegemonic perspective, before the historiographical Babel fell, when American history was represented as a steady upward march of progress based on consensus and compromise. Indeed, it was garbage like this that gave the whole idea of a master narrative a bad name.

Nevertheless, as Americans we have a political need for a master national historical narrative. The country needs to have an above-board fight about what the country's history stands for -- and the result of that fight must be to produce losers who will be excluded from the conversation and not allowed to participate in the creation of the national narrative. In the same fashion that Creationists have been ruled out of the conversation in evolutionary biology, so the Rapturites should be ruled out of the process of narrativizing American history. And their kids should be forced to learn some proper history, because their willingness to shatter the country is far more dangerous to our long-term national health than the violent efforts of their Middle Eastern fundamentalist analogues.

Most of my historians friends are probably reading this aghast: is he really suggesting that we impose a single dominant narrative on everyone? Let me be clear that I am not arguing that everyone has to do the same kind of history -- professionals should still follow many threads in their specialized research agendas. What I am arguing, however, is that there should be a national history textbook for nonprofessionals, and that everyone should have to internalize that version of American history when they are getting their primary education.

Why do I believe this? I believe that this is necessary, because I believe in the value of national solidarity, and national solidarity requires a shared sense of history. If people no longer believe in the same stories about the country, what are the chances they will see themselves as part of a single community, and thus be willing to make individual sacrifices for the collective good? Would I want to pay taxes to support building roads in communities where people believe that the goal of U.S. history is to prepare for the Rapture? Would those guys want to have their sons enlist to fight on behalf of people who think America stands for the progressive struggle to liberate more and more oppressed minorities, including, say, gays and lesbians? And the worst-case scenario is the one that is currently emerging, with the two Americas (commonly referred to as "red" and "blue") simply ignoring each other. (For graphical evidence of how much these communities ignore each other, check out this image, or this one.)

As some of you are no doubt discerning by now, I see the decline of shared national historical narrative as profoundly related to the privatization of security and risk-sharing (indeed, to the privatization of everything), a topic I've also blogged about in the past. As the American people increasingly believe they have less and less in common with their fellow citizens, they will naturally enough be less and less inclined to share anything with each other. There are good reasons why welfare states have worked best in small, old, homogenous nation-states: the people of such countries have a very strong sense of collectivity, and are thus willing to make individual sacrifices on behalf of the whole. These are countries with a very strong shared sense of national history, national symbols, national unity -- and thus a sense of collective responsibility for the entire national community has come naturally.

Finally (and with this I'll end what by now has indeed become a free-association screed), it's not a surprise that immigration, by decreasing homogeneity, has put pressure on the desire to risk-share via the welfare state everywhere in OECD countries everywhere. (Likewise, it's not a coincidence that the heyday of American welfare-state-building coincided with the period when the country had all but turned off the immigration spigot: for evidence, check out page 9 of this Census Bureau report.) Contrary to the belief of neoliberals, the primary challenge facing the contemporary welfare state is not economic. The way welfare states sometimes hamper productivity is a relatively minor issue, compared with the ideological erosion of a sense of national collectivity which provides the political underpinning for the welfare state.

As someone wrote on talkingpointsmemo the other day, in reference to the struggle to preserve Social Security, "We are facing a galvanizing moment in America as we decide if we are to be a country that understands and lives the humanistic concept of being one's brother's keeper, or if we decide instead to adopt a ruthless, me first, sink or swim approach to dealing with our citizenry."

And yes, historiography has a role to play in this drama.


Zak Braverman said...

The veracity of the Bill Moyers piece has already been decimated, and he has publicly apologized to James Watt for essentially pulling a bogus quotation by him out of his butt:

And, it boggles my mind why studying the effects of pesticides as they are already being used is a bad idea.

What's depressing about the Bill Moyers piece is really how far what used to be a a good intellect has fallen.

zachawry said...

I do agree with you on the gist of your post, though. I think that a common narrative is beneficial-verging-on-necessary, I just don't think that one will emerge. The inertia seems to be in the opposite direction.