Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell has a very interesting reflection on bringing politics into blogs about history. Here is a taste:
First, when I consider Revolutionary history, that includes how we remember it and what principles it established. If a politician or political movement quotes, misquotes, or claims the mantle of the U.S. of A.’s founding, that catches my eye. If people invoke or break parts of the Constitution written in the 1700s, that’s relevant. Sometimes I see interesting parallels between events of the past and today.
Still, all Boston 1775 postings pertain to the eighteenth century. I haven’t focused on income tax brackets, prohibition, charter schools, campaign finance, public media, or regulation of financial derivatives, and not because I have no opinions about those topics. Maybe a link will surface, and I’ll be interested. But there would have to be a link.
Second, for Tea Party adherents to object to seeing ideas they dislike on a website they’re reading for free does nothing to dispel the notion that the movement’s emotional energy comes from privileged Americans whining about not getting everything they want. Instead, it looks a lot like evidence of people feeling entitled, unable to respond rationally, and not truly committed to their stated principles about freedoms.
I understand that much of the American right has come to see the nation’s history, and especially the founding era, as their exclusive property. Some Boston 1775 visitors might therefore be surprised to discover that people with other politics, like myself, are just as passionate about it. But learning new things is why we research, right?
Third and most important, I simply don’t agree with the idea that studying and discussing history can be segregated from politics. Especially when it comes to the Revolution and national founding, which is such an influential and emotionally freighted period.
There’s a political dimension to writing about ordinary people’s experiences and desires instead of just those of elite politicians and military leaders. There’s a political dimension to writing about George Washington as a person who needed outhouses and chamber pots instead of just as a paragon. There’s a political dimension to writing about enslaved people, or working children, or Loyalists who lost the war.
I was recently asked how I separate my “historian” hat from my “commentator on contemporary events” hat. I am not sure I can answer that question at this point, but I will say that the study of history has two dimensions to it. I have argued forcefully that historians should avoid presentism or manipulating the past for contemporary political and/or cultural agendas.
But on the other hand, it is always true that the past speaks to the present in powerful ways and it is the historian’s job to use the past, responsibly, to inform people’s thinking about contemporary issues.
Tom Van Dyke says
I liked Hayek's view, that the past influences the way we see the present.
That should be its role. Which is why, in my view, those of the “progressive” bent seek to emphasize how America has historically sucked; the best way forward then, is “progress,” not return.
But I have found no particular wisdom on the part of historians when it comes to their views of current politics. In fact, often the reverse, but that's just my opinion.