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THE CULTURE WARS : A House Historian Who Was Anything But

<i> Daniel T. Rodgers is a professor of history at Princeton University</i>

The two-day reign of Christina Jeffrey as historian of the House of Representatives won’t get much play in history books of the future. As scandals go, this one was, in most respects, small potatoes: In an appointment rife with old-fashioned cronyism, there was the mildly awkward fact that this historian of the House wasn’t actually an historian at all.

There was, to be sure, the embarrassment of a college teacher who, in describing her qualifications to evaluate a classroom project on prejudice focused on the Nazi destruction of the Jews, could remark that she “didn’t know anything about the Holocaust.” And she had also criticized the program because, “The Nazi point of view, however unpopular, is still a point of view and is not presented.” In a variation of the sort of spoilsmanship that the House’s turn-of-the-century “czar” Thomas B. Reed of Maine once honed to perfection, it was an open question, indeed, whether anything had ultimately mattered in Jeffrey’s appointment but conservative correctness.

But for those who care about how Americans keep their past, there was something deeper to worry about in the two-day farce over Speaker Newt Gingrich’s choice for House historian. That deeper issue is the privatization of the past.

Not so long ago, if one wanted to change the way history was written, one did so by entering the great public commons of historiographical debate. Starting with evidence, grubbing the neglected or distorted experiences of the past out of musty letters and crumbling newspapers, one built evidence into arguments--and entered the fray of public debate. To be an historian was not to spin the facts but to contend over them.

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The current style, by contrast, is to buy history already packaged in one’s preferred flavor. If “they” have their historians, let “us” have ours. It’s a big country. Let each political party, each piece of the American mosaic, have whatever version of the past it likes and can pay for.

This possessive sense of history comes in a multitude of guises. It is revealed in its extremes in the self-encapsulated fringes of Afro-centric history or the industry of Holocaust denial: “Our” history with a vengeance, so incommensurable with “yours” that there is not even a starting point for profitable debate.

In less strident form, a similarly possessive sense of the past saturates the curricular wars over American history teaching in the schools. In a battle waged in symbols of territoriality, what actually happened in the American past is curiously distant from the center of debate. What counts is how often the symbolic carriers of “our” side are mentioned.

Hence, the furor over the number of mentions of Christopher Columbus, George Washington or Harriet Tubman. As if these notches on Clio’s scoreboard mattered more than helping school children get straight the consequences of the European conquest and resettlement of the Americas; or the politics of revolution and nation formation; or the genesis and consequences of a system of racial slavery in the New World.

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In a game in which symbols supplant substance, what matters is who possesses the past. With these territorial tendencies, Gingrich’s hunt for a House historian he could agree with was all of a piece.

Can working historians be said to do things differently? For all their show of facts and footnotes, for all the hours spent deciphering a spidery handwriting, the dirty secrets or the aspirations of another age, do not professional historians, too, write their politics into the past?

No one, after all, doubts the effect of the civil-rights movement on the rediscovery of slavery and race’s importance in the American past. The women’s rights movement and the assertion that women, too, have a history--one worth making room for in textbook accounts of America--were just as tightly linked.

To imagine that historians should hoist themselves out of the passions of their current age is to ask the impossible. As the present fractures and changes, the way the past appears fractures and changes as well. There is no point of reference outside of history itself. There is no uncontested past.

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But if the hand of interpretation lies all across history-making, only history’s privatizers would leave the matter there. What holds the centrifugal forces of relativism in check is the existence of an arena of open, public argument. The historiographical commons, let us call it.

Let no one imagine it as a peaceful cow meadow. It is a plain full of contention, debate, disagreement and, indeed, politics. Enter it and you find historians trying to get straight everything from the everyday lives of masters, slaves, wage workers, statesmen, cooks and kings to the engines of historical change itself.

But it is not territory to be conquered. It is the arena in which historians submit their evidence and measure their arguments against each other’s scrutiny--where Marxists and market conservatives, liberals and reactionaries, do more than shout at each other competing family stories. On this commons, minds are changed, facts exchanged, interpretations made truer and more encompassing.

If public historians are worth public funding, it can only be because they act as participants in this commons and respecters of it. Otherwise, it’s just your history against mine. Otherwise, the past is just another spoils of office.

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