Things that annoy me as a historian (election thoughts)

I should qualify this post with the disclaimer that election seasons annoy me a lot, so this particular annoyance is probably just an extension of the many other misuses of history that pass so much gas with the elections and the various stumps and campaigns.

On Facebook, this morning, someone posted this comic:

Or, a brief non-history…

So, before I wrote this blog, I double-checked to make sure I hadn’t forgotten something obscure about the history of socialism.  I had not.  Socialism–the word and thus the concept, more or less–was first used in a French newspaper in 1832.  (The OED acknowledges that the roots are obscure, but the idea itself has far fewer direct parallels to historical eras than has been argued.)  Americans have not been decrying every new or progressive idea by hollering, “Socialism!”  I did not bother to double-check the years for which the various public institutions were invoked, though I may still look up the public water controversy of 1808 if I have some spare time.  I encountered this cartoon after it was shared from the Facebook page, “Being Liberal,” but I’m sure they found it elsewhere (it was the second time they had shared it).

In fairness, this isn’t really a post about elections, so much as it is a post about the misuse and abuse of history in politics which inevitably ramps up during the election season.  The current Tea Party, is not entirely accurate in its retelling of the original Boston Tea Party, either, which just demonstrates that political polemic abuses of the field flourish on both sides of the aisle.  (C-Span also captures such abuses regularly during congressional sessions, but they do not often get the same press or viral sharing that occurs during elections.)

History can be an interesting tool for the present, but the parallels can be overplayed.  I am starting to increasingly believe that we as historians and instructors of history should spend more time talking about the Nachlebens of history to show how applying history on the present can be used as a propaganda tool.  History majors usually get a healthy dose of historiography, but non-majors seldom do, and even the history majors do not always see the fallout of popular historiography.

In the end, I find this tendency at best embarrassingly stupid and at worst dangerous.  Rewriting the past to suit the ideological needs of a platform in the present does everyone a disservice and can unduly manipulate with damaging consequences, just as all untruths and lies can be used to manipulate.

It reinforces the importance of actually learning the field of history.  Aside from content blunders, a better knowledge of how we learn about the past highlights the limitations in making parallels because we appreciate the time’s unique culture that can differ in a thousand ways from our own.  I’m not saying we cannot evaluate the past with the present and vice versa, but we have to be cognizant of the inherent challenges.  Most people who pull from the past do so without that understanding which means they have only further confused the contemporary issue.

Besides, it’s damn annoying.

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