History Is Always About Politics

In his recent essay in these pages on the vexed question of “presentism” in the discipline of history, David Bell offers a soothing alternative to the American Historical Association president James Sweet’s clumsy dismissal of “presentism” as a deviation from the true path of historical scholarship. But Bell misses the real problem we face in this moment of unprecedented attacks on the teaching of history, largely from the right. While we can all cite disturbing examples of students and faculty on the left seeking to censor what can be taught or even spoken, the concerted attack from the right — in the ultimate form of state laws prohibiting the teaching of so-called critical race theory, the 1619 Project, gender and sexuality, and other topics — are much more dangerous to academic freedom in general and to the practice of history in particular.

The problem that Sweet sidesteps with his invocation of presentism — and that Bell avoids by blandly suggesting that of course present questions inform historians’ engagement with the past — is the one of politics, where “politics” is understood as struggles for power, not always overt or acknowledged. For a long time, politics was the object of most history writing, but it was not considered a dimension of that writing. History was described as dispassionate, neutral, the antithesis of politics. There was nothing “political” about the writing of history itself.

That was the standard disciplinary orthodoxy, probably until the 1960s. Then the expansion of the university and its opening to previously excluded groups — women, African Americans, Jews — led to the critical examination of the processes by which exclusion had been accomplished in the first place, and consequently to an enlarged object for historical research.

The line between a politically engaged critical history and a dogmatic reading of the past is not easy to distinguish.

Those of us who wrote feminist history asked not only where the women were in what had passed for conventional historiography, but how and why they had been excluded for so long. Those who took up the history of race asked similar questions. In the process, the writing of history itself became for many of us an object of critical investigation. The understanding of history as apolitical was challenged. Upon reading, for example, the presidential addresses of the AHA, it was now clear that there was a politics to history that the discipline needed to acknowledge.

This was not the politics of party — something like official Stalinist history, or the history that Gov. Ron DeSantis’s Florida curriculum seeks to impose, or the one that former President Donald J. Trump’s 1776 Commission hoped would replace 1619. It was not the glorification of the heroism of neglected martyrs (right or left). It was not the confirmation of identity as a natural fact of life. It was, instead, usually about an implicit operation of power (hegemonic belief systems, disciplinary orthodoxies) that appealed to difference to confirm its rule.

The study of previously neglected subjects required the study of the politics of history. And the study of the politics of history called into question the neutrality and dispassion the discipline had long endorsed. Sweet’s stance expresses anxiety about that questioning. Bell’s response tries to quell it. But Bell doesn’t acknowledge the necessarily political aspect of at least some critical historical work. Instead, for both men, the charge of “presentism” is a way of avoiding confrontation with the problem of the politics of history.

And it is a problem. Because the line between a politically engaged critical history and a dogmatic reading of the past is not easy to distinguish. It is made more difficult by the right’s conflation of criticism with dogmatism and by identitarian purists’ attacks on what they take to be distortions of their experiential truth. But it is a line worth attempting to draw. It would behoove those who consider themselves leaders of the profession of history to confront the problem of what counts as history’s politics head-on, in its historical, philosophical, and institutional dimensions. Unlike the “provocations” of Sweet and Bell, that would be a conversation worth having.

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