Why The Iconoclastic Left Are On The Wrong Side Of History

Why The Iconoclastic Left Are On The Wrong Side Of History

Approaching history with condescending arrogance, as the woke movement does, merely highlights the smallness of the examiners.
Steven Watts
By

“In times of change and danger,” wrote the novelist John Dos Passos, “a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present.” For the battalions of social justice warriors battling for racial and gender politics, nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, it demonizes the American past as a story of unrelenting injustice and recently has launched a series of campaigns against it.

The California Board of Education just nixed its history curriculum due to a purported stain of white supremacy, replacing it with an ethnic studies model rooted in critical race theory. In early 2021, the San Francisco Board of Education voted to rename 44 district schools, removing historical figures such as George Washington, Paul Revere, James Monroe, James Russell Lowell, Theodore Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover because of their supposed ties to slavery, the oppression of women, and genocide.

Last fall, a Washington D.C. city committee recommended renaming a host of public monuments and government buildings, replacing Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Francis Scott Key with “more women, people of color, and LBGTQ Washingtonians.”

In the summer of 2020, protests after the death of George Floyd triggered a nationwide assault on historical monuments and statues. The year before, the 1619 Project established the template with its dubious insistence that racial oppression, not freedom or democracy or opportunity, defined the American experience from the earliest colonial days.

Many jaws dropped over a recurring aspect of this campaign — the leftist blackballing of Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, the Great Emancipator, who led the Union war effort that crushed the Confederate slave-owning class in the Civil War and then pushed through Congress the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery, failed their political purity test.

Rampaging Portland, Oregon protesters pulled down a Lincoln statue. In Chicago, a city commission, under pressure from leftist activists, is considering the removal of five Lincoln statues in order to “address the hard truths of Chicago’s racial history.”

San Francisco renamed Abraham Lincoln High School because, as a city apparatchik explained, of Lincoln’s insensitivity to Native Americans and his failure to demonstrate that “black lives ever mattered.” The Board of Education chairperson eloquently intoned:

I think Lincoln gets more praise than the . . . how can I say this? Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t think that . . . Lincoln is not someone that I typically tend to admire or see as a hero, because of these specific instances where he has contributed to the pain of the decimation of people.

Clearly, the political left has a significant problem with our national story. They don’t understand history, either the actual developments that made the United States or the field of study that seeks to make sense of that process.

Historians try to understand how and why human beings acted the way they did in the context of their circumstances and possibilities. But social justice warriors know better. For them, the past is a convenient arena in which to practice the latest exercise in cancel culture.

Abolishing History

The shocking ignorance of the past many social justice warriors display is all too evident. The 1619 Project overflows with untruthful assertions and gross distortions, beginning with its ludicrous claim that the American Revolution was launched to protect slavery. A clueless woke mob in Madison, Wisconsin dismembered a statue of an outspoken abolitionist and pulled down another symbolizing the advance of women’s rights.

One of the most egregious errors committed in San Francisco concerned poor Paul Revere, who was unhorsed from his midnight ride because he participated in the Penobscot Expedition of 1779. The school board decried this as a campaign to capture American Indian land when, in fact, it was a failed assault on a British fort during the American Revolution.

While this disdain for historical facts is distressing, even more troubling, however is the woke movement’s profoundly wrongheaded approach to history itself. Sometimes, they simply seek to abolish it.

Leftist disciples shrewdly sense (and fear) that history tends to create a sense of attachment and perspective, qualities that blunt efforts to remake the world anew. Revolutionary zealots have always targeted historical symbols as a key enemy in their crusades for purification. In the French Revolution, Jacobins sought to erase the centuries-old influence of Christianity by installing the Cult of the Supreme Being to harness religious feeling without the danger of religious content.

The Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China targeted the “Four Olds” of the pre-Communist era — old ideas, old culture, old habits, old customs — as the Red Guard ransacked the country forcibly renaming streets, shops, and monuments, destroying classical Chinese architecture and paintings, desecrating Confucian temples, and exhuming, convicting, and burning the bodies of Ming Dynasty emperors.

In the Middle East, Islamist militants wielding everything from pickaxes to dynamite have attacked numerous historical sites, including the tomb of Queen Hatshepsut in Egypt, the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, and the Mosul Museum in Iraq. Revolutionaries instinctively sense that memory, which is sentimental and prudential, summons experience and perspicacity rather than cultivating virtue. So it has to go.

The Pitfalls of ‘Presentism’

When not destroying history, awakened zealots try to manipulate it to ratify what they already believe. Thus they embrace several misguided principles.

The awakened believe that the past is just like the present and its inhabitants should be judged by contemporary standards. This is mistaken. Early on, the student of history learns to beware of “presentism,” or judging the past by the standards of the present. If not, you end up condemning Charlemagne for not endorsing women’s rights or Susan B. Anthony for insensitivity to transgenderism. The awakened believe that the past is a pantheon of heroes and villains to be lionized or condemned.

Although a few angels and devils flitted through its corridors, the past was inhabited largely by human beings just like us, complex creatures filled with virtues and flaws, insights, and blind spots. For example, civil rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr., relentlessly womanized with dozens of female “parishioners,” and Margaret Sanger, the iconic advocate of access to birth control, promoted eugenics and cultivation of the “new race.”

The awakened believe that the past unfolds according to conscious decisions and intent, and historical actors must be held to account. Yet, even the novice student of history quickly sees that historical evolution often produced unintended consequences. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, for example, launched well-meaning welfare initiatives to stem the tide of single-parent families in the 1960s. Yet instead, those programs economically incentivized single mothers to remain unmarried and promoted a steady rise of illegitimate children and fatherlessness.

The awakened believe that the past is a morality tale to be ransacked for lessons illustrating good and evil. Yet even a cursory look at past events discloses a whirl of motivations, often conflicting or ambiguous, at work in shaping outcomes. Henry Ford’s adoption of the assembly line in 1911, for instance, a move that reshaped the modern world, combined idealism (lowering costs to make the automobile available to average people), interest (boosting profits from an increased volume of sales), and unforeseen developments (such as overly repetitious labor workers often resented or rejected).

The awakened, however, believe that an overarching theory — class conflict or modernization not long ago; whiteness, the patriarchy, heteronormativity, intersectionality currently — offers a tidy explanation for everything. This is mistaken. The incredible complexity of human history demands multicausal explanations and vigorous debate among competing interpretations, not a conga line of liberationist theorists sent snaking through the past shimmying and shaking to the rhythm of revolution.

‘Interrogate the Past, But Don’t Bully It’

Judicious students of the American experience steer clear of these mistakes and approach it cautiously, seeking wisdom, not weaponization. They understand that history does not repeat, but instead unfolds as a process that produces the present. They understand that historical facts matter to provide credible evidence in support of reasonable judgments along with all the facts, not just those cherry-picked for ideological reasons.

Careful and thoughtful students of the past understand history is constantly rewritten to meet the needs of the present, but reject the wholesale extrapolation of present circumstances into archaic contexts. They understand that historical evolution does not always mean progress; change can bring loss as well as benefit. They understand that while objectivity is probably impossible in examining the past, fairness in judging historical actors is not. Interrogate the past, but don’t bully it.

So as Americans search our national heritage for help in solving modern problems, we should embrace humility, not hubris. Being on “the right side of history,” as the awakened often say, does not mean being on the left side of history. It means realizing that our past, like our present, is imperfect. Approaching it with condescending arrogance, as the woke movement does, merely highlights the smallness of the examiners.

Edmund Burke observed that human society is a contract between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born,” and urged citizens to beware those who “should act as if they were the entire master.” In that spirit we should ponder American history as a pursuit of political participation, individual equality, constitutional order, social opportunity, and economic freedom, however imperfectly realized and full of ambiguities it has been.

We should celebrate what is worthy in our past and chastise what is reprehensible. We should submit our history to rigorous, fair-minded analysis and see what it can tell us about the human condition and how we got where we are.

This important task demands thoughtful examination and nuanced judgments, not a frenzied kangaroo court convened by wokesters jacked up on ideological amphetamines and spouting slogans. Confronting the imperfections of the past — as well as the human beings who inhabited it — should heighten an awareness not of our superiority but our shortcomings. In the end, such a careful investigation of history can provide the key inspiration for us to overcome them.

Steven Watts is a Professor of History at the University of Missouri and the author of seven books, and many essays, on the American past.

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