08 August 2015

Historians as Moral Reformers, "Cheap Politicized Moralizing" & The Adults in the Room

Well it's been an eventful summer, hasn't it? The demand to take down the Confederate flag image everywhere from the soldier's memorial on the grounds of the South Carolina state-house, to Amazon, to the politically correct National Park Service bookstores and even the graves of Confederate soldiers rolls on. "Historical context" - once the rallying cry of the activist historian crowd - has given way to pretty much stripping all Confederate icons from public display or, at best, impugning anyone, or any institution, that fails to comply with the puritanical, witch hunt-like demands.

But that's not be the end of it nor, I believe, the ultimate goal. As the low-hanging fruit of Confederate icons began to disappear, the activists reached higher to attack even Jefferson-Jackson dinners and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Changing the names of schools named after both Confederate figures, as well as Founding Fathers, has picked up speed and  next up is the renaming of streets. The purge of any public commemoration of any American figure who is less than morally pure continues unabated. (Strange how these same activist historians agitators are ignoring the elephant in the room, Margaret Sanger and her legacy, isn't it? More on that in a moment.)

Fortunately, this week has brought some relief to know that there are still a few adults left in the room. First of all, I saw the announcement that the Jeff Davis statue will remain in the Kentucky state Capitol:
I bet we are the only capitol rotunda in United States where you can walk in to see a statue of Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln in that proximity. That speaks volumes about the divide that Kentucky felt during the Civil War," commission chairman Steve Collins said just before voting to keep the statue. "Removing the statue of Jefferson Davis makes it impossible for us to tell that story the way that we can tell it with both statues there.
Thank you Mr. Grownup.

Another recent glimmer of hope was offered by someone who would be considered one of the elder statesmen of American historians: Professor Gordon S. Wood. Earlier this year, Wood wrote a piece for The Weekly Standard in which he made the following observation:
. . . academics have given up trying to recover an honest picture of the past and have decided that their history-writing should become simply an instrument of moral hand-wringing. . . . this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars. These historians see themselves as moral critics obligated to denounce the values of the past in order to somehow reform our present. [Source.]
After Wood was criticized by the predictable corners of academia, TWS followed up with some additional commentary noting, in part:
All of this, of course, should be obvious to any student of the subject, and the consequences of politicizing history are evident for all to see: a growing ignorance about American origins, hostility to learning about them, and the reflexive habit of judging the behavior of people in the distant past by contemporary standards. This has had the effect not only of distorting our understanding of American history, but of alienating students from an appreciation of their country’s rich heritage. [Source.]
As I've noted on many previous occasions, the"consequences of politicizing history" are not only evident, they are, in many instances, intended.

But Wood was not through. In an interview which also ran in TWS last month, the confident Wood doubled down:

The belief in these certain things—life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, equality. All of the great notions that are part of the American Dream or American ideology come out of the Revolution. These are our highest aspirations, our noblest ideals. That’s why the Revolution is the most important event in our history. It’s too bad it’s not being taught everywhere. The people who came out of the ‘60s are currently in control of the profession and it’s has become essentially race-class-gender issues. [Source.]
When someone of Professor Wood's stature is publicly making statements like this, some hope remains that the adults will, at some point, regain control of the children historians. Time will tell.

Then I came across a recent piece written by Stanford professor and military historian, Victor Davis Hanson, which also offered some evidence that some adults had seen about enough from the moral reformers and their blatant hypocrisy and inconsistencies. Hanson dares to bring up the obvious hypocrisy of all the recent uproar over America's original sin - the elephant in the room already mentioned:
There are lots of strange paradoxes in the current frenzied liberal dissection of past sins. One, a historic figure must be near perfect in all dimensions of his or her complex life to now pass progressive muster. That Jefferson is responsible for helping to establish many of the cherished human rights now enshrined in American life apparently cannot offset the transgression of having owned slaves. Two, today’s moral standards are always considered superior to those of the past. Ethical sense supposedly always improves with time. 
However, would the American society of 1915 have allowed a federally supported agency such as Planned Parenthood to cut apart aborted fetuses to sell infant body parts? . . . The architect of Planned Parenthood was the feminist family planner Margaret Sanger. Shouldn’t Planned Parenthood denounce Sanger’s legacy, given her eugenics agenda that deliberately sought to focus abortions on minority communities? [Emphasis mine.]
Hanson brings a real world example of the duplicity of how Professor Gordon Wood describes many modern historians: "moral critics" using history to "reform our present." 

One can easily come away with the conclusion that these people aren't interested in any "reforming" that may come at a cost to their own politics and agenda. Discussing that ugly aspect of our history, as well as it's connection to their preferred political leanings, may cost them something. Hanson exposes their rank hypocrisy as few others have done in recent memory:
The past is not simplistic “gotcha” melodrama in which we convict figures of history by tabulating their sins on today’s moral scorecards. . . . we must avoid cheap, politicized moralizing that often tells us more about the ethics and ignorance of today’s grand inquisitors than the targets of their inquisitions.
You can read Hanson's piece here at National Review. In reading the article, I couldn't help but me reminded of a quote by Adlai E. Stevenson:
A hypocrite is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump and make a speech for conservation.

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