“Weaponizing” History to Make Political Arguments is Lazy Historical Thinking

Nick Sacco has a very thoughtful post on the use of history as a weapon by politicians. Or perhaps “misuse of history” is a better way to put it. Needless to say I’m in agreement with Nick’s outlook. The only addition I would make is to point out politicians have deployed historical arguments to make their case for as long as there have been politicians. Our Founding Fathers made use of historical references in their arguments for the US Constitution, referring to Ancient Rome and Greece. The Ancient Romans used historical arguments to persuade people to follow what they wanted done as well.

I know Nick has this perspective as well, and it wasn’t part of his critique so he didn’t mention it, but my critique of journalists includes the fact that their historical understanding is, to be charitable, limited. They think things that happen in their lifetime have happened for the first time, or are the most significant instances of those events. Civil War historian Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia likes to say their historical outlook goes all the way to last Tuesday. That’s a bit hyperbolic, but it’s also emblematic of the poor historical knowledge and understanding American journalists possess. Fortunately, journalists can also luck out by interviewing outstanding historians and thus getting pointed in the right direction. We just need to be careful

As longtime readers of this blog will recall, two groups hard to trust when it comes to getting an in-depth and accurate view of history [with a few notable exceptions] are politicians and journalists. That comes out loud and clear in this terrific post Nick gave us.

Nick’s argument that our study of history needs to take into account such things as change over time [one of the “Five C’s of Historical Thinking”] is well taken and something that needs to be said, especially in light of Senator Ted Cruz’s claim regarding the KKK and the Democratic Party. See an excellent takedown of Cruz’s claim by historian Carole Emberton in this story: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/08/ted-cruz-the-democrats-are-the-party-of-the-ku-klux-klan/?postshare=2001486661601862&tid=ss_tw&utm_term=.d70a53276288

Check out another reason Cruz was wrong here: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/second-klan/509468/

Expect more politicians’ misuse of history, especially with the current administration. See: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/165099

Exploring the Past

The Ku Klux Klan in 1928. Photo Credit: National Archives & Records Administration The Ku Klux Klan in 1928. Photo Credit: National Archives & Records Administration

Over the past few days a good number of historians have been sharing an article from the Washington Post that ostensibly confirms what many of us in the field already know: history is relevant, important, and worth studying. The article, “In Divided America, History is Weaponized to Praise or Condemn Trump,” points out that thousands upon thousands of Americans on social media are using history–or, more appropriately, their understanding of history–to make arguments to “support or oppose” the current administration’s actions.  Moreover, the article provocatively claims that the President’s election has “certainly revived interest in U.S. history.” Many historians on social media are applauding these developments.

I don’t buy it.

While I agree that in our current moment we are seeing more online conversations that invoke historical figures and events, it’s worth asking a number…

View original post 753 more words

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing, Al, and thanks for your additional comments, which I agree with.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Nick. As always, I enjoyed reading your post and thought it should be spread further.

  2. bob carey · · Reply

    Al, ironically as I was perusing this post I was also opening my mail and the latest appeal from the CWT begins with a quote from Harry Truman “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know”.
    I knew that academia was being attacked but I never realized how vicious these attacks have become. I hope that Nicks’ post receives the wide distribution it deserves. This is what happens when people get their information from 140 characters or less, this critique applies to both sides of the political aisle. It is frightening that people are lead so easily.

    1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

      Hi Bob,

      I don’t want to be so presumptuous as to start repeating myself on blogs, but in my response to Nick Sacco’s original post is a passage that agrees very much with what you are saying:

      Knowledge is our most powerful weapon, books are the tools, and intelligence allows us to pull it all together and defend ourselves against those who would beguile the less than armed. History is rife with the consequences of those who believed what they wanted to hear, or heard what they wanted to believe, as it was being delivered by others who possessed an agenda perpendicular to the truth.

      1. bob carey · · Reply

        Shoshana,
        Allow me to take your comment as a compliment. I have read your comments on this and other blogs and found them to be thoughtful and articulate.
        BTW, great minds do think alike. LOL

        1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

          Thank you for the kind words, Bob. It’s a strange world, the blogosphere is. So many people that I almost know, but not quite 🙂

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