Is History Inherently Ideological?
As I have said previously (here), the word history contains the word story, and history is just that. It is not a thorough recounting of past events. It is a story, a narrative that is built from conscious decisions about what to emphasize and what to exclude. It is a narrative with a purpose, which is why there are constant battles over it. What we emphasize and what we exclude shapes our understanding of how we got to where we are and where we might be headed.
A recent interview in Vox, Sean Illing asks Harvard historian Jarvis Givens about the ongoing controversy over Critical Race Theory. He says, “the complaint is that it’s not really an academic discipline or an approach to education — it’s a political ideology.” Givens points out, rightly so, that ALL history is ideological: “Any approach to framing history is going to have some political commitments baked into the narrative. The choices we make about what to highlight or omit, all of that reflects certain values and biases. It’s just that we often take these for granted when it’s the ‘preferred’ or ‘dominant’ history. In the end, I don’t see how you can completely remove politics from the work of education or the production of history. I don’t think it’s ever fully possible, and that’s something that isn’t usually acknowledged in these conversations.”
History has a PURPOSE. Givens more or less assumes that one of the most basic purposes of an educator in a democracy is to promote justice and equality. But this really gets at one of the most fundamental divides in America, between 2 very different visions of what America is and what it should be: 1) America is a culture. America looks a certain way, dresses a certain way, speaks a certain language, has a certain sexual preference, worships a certain god. To the extent that you do not conform, you do not deserve to be considered a genuine American. 2) America is not a culture. It is a set of values. The values of justice, equality, and tolerance. If you are willing to embrace these values, you deserve to be called an American. Everything else is irrelevant.
Many if not most of the ugly episodes in American history can be traced to the first of these visions. Slavery. Jim Crow. Lynchings. The genocide against Native Americans. The internment of Japanese Americans. The propping up of dictators during the Cold War. The suppression of America’s ugly past is all about cultural supremacy. This is precisely why those who want to expose the ugliness are branded “America-haters.”
Recently an article appeared on the site time.com entitled “We’ve Been Telling the Alamo Story Wrong for Nearly 200 Years. Now It’s Time to Correct the Record.” What is the “Alamo story”? That “settlers” moved into the northernmost province of Mexico, called Tejas, and faced oppression from the Mexican government. They revolted and demanded independence. The Mexican government tried to suppress the revolt. A small group of Texians and volunteers faced an overwhelming force of the Mexican army at the Alamo. They defended the fort bravely but were massacred to the last man, buying time for Sam Houston to marshall his forces and ultimately defeat the Mexican army in the Battle of San Jacinto, resulting in Texas independence.
Here is a different version. Anglo slave owners invaded a foreign country which threatened to outlaw slavery. Unwilling to give up their slaves, they instigated a rebellion. Supported by American money and volunteers, they shot Mexican soldiers who tried to collect taxes. Ignoring warnings that the Mexican army was on its way, a small group of rebels found themselves trapped at the Alamo. Most of them were killed there but a sizable number tried to flee and were hunted down. A small number surrendered but were executed. The delay was irrelevant to the subsequent victory of Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto.
Both of these are stories. They are interpretations. There are documented facts associated with the Texas Revolution, but many things will probably never been known for certain. Did Davy Crockett die fighting at the Alamo? Written testimony from some of the Mexican soldiers tells us that he surrendered and was subsequently executed. This of course has been vehemently contested. Like so much historical “documentation,” it is subject to challenges about its authenticity and accuracy. Did the siege at the Alamo actually buy time for Sam Houston to raise an army? That is very much a matter of interpretation. After the attack on the Alamo, Sam Houston steadily retreated from the Mexican army’s advance and seemed to be losing the fight. The new Texas government now considered him a coward and was forced off the mainland with no way to communicate with him. At San Jacinto the tables were suddenly and unexpectedly turned. The Mexican army made a terrible blunder and were completely taken by surprise. Sam Houston’s men massacred them mercilessly.
It could be argued that a slightly different scenario would have produced a very different result. The revolutionaries might well have failed. On the other hand, only 10 years later America was at war with Mexico over the disputed southern boundary of Texas. So it could be argued that Texas would have become part of America within fairly short order regardless of the events at the Alamo and San Jacinto. The particular historical facts are not mainly the point. There are 2 very different stories America tells itself about Texas. One is that America’s westward expansion was the bringing of civilization and freedom to an untamed wilderness. The other is that white Americans, often supported by slavery, shamelessly invaded other countries and Native American lands, driving their residents nearly to extinction.
What is “the truth”? Well, history cannot be extricated from ideology. If you see America as a culture, you are going to justify westward expansion as a greater good. If you see America as a set of ideals, you will see the subjugation of African Americans, the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans, and the shameless invasion of other countries as ugly reminders that the country has never lived out the true meaning of its creed. The bottom line is that history is not merely the recitation of facts. Yes, facts are important, and any attempt to cover them up should be fiercely resisted. But we should never try to delude ourselves that history is an exercise in objectivity.