Wednesday, September 08, 2004

HNN republished an essay on 9/11 and history by Eric Foner, one of America's preeminent historians and the past president of both the AHA and OAH. Eric Foner is a great historian but he is also very far to the left - from birth in fact, he was a " Red Diaper Baby" and he remains, like many in the historical profession, deeply attached to the socialist idea. If you have any doubt as to this you need only skip to the end of The Story of American Freedom and read Foner's jeremiad against the Libertarian definition of freedom and Foner's wish to replace it in American political culture with the values of Social-Democracy.

Foner's 9/11 essay is multifaceted, well-argued and wrong. It should be read however because it represents probably the most cogent counterattack by our elites- academia, the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, the Democratic Left in Congress - on the Bush doctrine that we are likely to see. Moreover, Foner is arguing for a reinterpretation of 9/11 in the direction of the " root causes of terror are American policies" that the public swiftly rejected when academics tried to push this line in the aftermath of September 11. You should read it because you will soon be hearing echoes of Foner's argument - less elegantly phrased of course- from Democratic pols, from liberal pundits, from media talking heads and grass roots peace activists irately scribbling letters to the editor.

Eric Foner lectures us that "The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche identified three approaches to history – the monumental, antiquarian, and critical. Recent calls to narrow the range of acceptable discussion to what Nietzsche called monumental or celebratory history, themselves have a long lineage ". That begs the question of the historians who reflexively adopt a critical approach toward their own country's history and culture but a celebratory posture toward all others.

Obviously balance, to say nothing of intellectual integrity, would require historians to take a uniform approach. As a group they do not. While you can find historians of any political stripe if you care to look hard enough, as a group they tilt comfortably far to the Left of the voting public, including most rank and file Democrats. Dr. Foner can rest assured that most of his colleagues are well-versed in a number of highly critical approaches toward American history with all the correct nods toward Deconstructionist/Pomo/Race/Gender/Ethnic/Queer nuance. The history profs I know are familiar with the arguments even if they themselves do not follow those approaches.

By contrast, the critical approach seems to be lacking toward other societies at times - particularly when professional historians are commenting on the contemporary conflicts in which the United States finds itself involved. Criticism of radical Islam, statist African dictatorships, Soviet espionage in the United States, genocide under Communist regimes and like topics are conspicuous in professional journals and conferences by their low profile, when they appear at all. In one infamous example, the controversy over the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum erupted because of the uncritical parroting of the views of WWII Japanese ultranationalists and racists like Colonel Masanobu Tsuji and Mitsuru Toyama by American historians enraged veterans ( and anyone else who thought U.S. taxpayer dollars ought not be wasted recycling Fascist propaganda from the Genyosha ).

Dr. Foner does have has some good advice for historians in his ( as always ) well-written essay. However it might be better to ask whether historians themselves might be responsible for the widening gap between their profession and the general public. Is the public simply completely ignorant, easily misled by crafty and nationalistic conservative intellectuals? Or are historians as a profession articulating a politically strident worldview in discussing 9/11 ? A worldview that they find very comforting but not one as objective, insightful or impartial as they might wish to believe ?

I graduated in medieval history not so very long ago (in the United Kingdom) and definitely all the History Department was conservative (one Professor was actually Chairman of the local Conservative Party Association). The one exception was a Doctor who was specialising in women's history.
That's an interesting counterpoint to the situation over here. You would be extremely hard-pressed to find conservative profs dominating history departments in major private or public universities in the United States. In my own undergrad preparation the " right wing " of my history department was a New Deal style liberal - I think the department today, many years later is exclusively marxist.

The only exception to this tilt are a handful of small, " great books canon", liberal arts colleges run by conservative Christian denominations that advertise for religiously committed students of that bent.
Well put. I read the essay and noticed that, apparently, historical criticism regarding American foreign policy is a one way street, according to Foner. I also note that to buttress his argument he pulled some of the more "extreme" examples available to show the attitude of "American exceptionalism." Finally, he resorted to the by-now well-used tactic of overstating the "civil liberties" violations post-9/11. As far as the leftward bent of historians in the academy, I am lucky in my school (I'm currently going for an MA in History) where the department is composed mostly of what I would call New Deal Democrats and plain old contrarians, as well as a few of the knee-jerk left. However, perhaps the fact that it is a Catholic institution has something to do with the departmental make-up.

Hi Marc

Thank you. To be fair I have had several excellent mentors who were on the Left, nationally known historians and one was a Marxist. But they were exceptionally scrupulous about the integrity of the field, their student's work and had very little patience for the PC nonsense of their younger colleagues - I learned a lot from them about evaluating evidence and detecting B.S. posing as valid argument.

Foner's a superb historian but he spent a great deal of prose effort here on a straw man in order to advance a not very admirable worldview.
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