Who owns history? — with Daniel Boorstin (1994) | THINK TANK

Who owns history? — with Daniel Boorstin (1994) | THINK TANK


Ben Wattenberg: Hello. I’m Ben Wattenberg. It’s often said that history is written
by the victors, but today many so-called victims are getting their chance to be heard. Some worry that America’s rich historical
tale is being replaced by a new story with America cast as the villain. Others say that we are simply including new
voices in the ongoing dialogue of history. Joining us to sort through the conflict and
the consensus are Daniel Boorstin, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, the librarian of
Congress emeritus, and author of “The Discoverers”; Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia
University and author of “A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln”; James Horton,
professor of history at George Washington University and author of “Free People of
Color: Inside the African American Community”; and Robert Royal, vice president of the Ethics
& Public Policy Center and author of “1492 and All That: The Political Manipulations
of History.” The question before this house: Who owns history? This week on “Think Tank.” Playwright Oscar Wilde once said the one duty
we owe to history is to rewrite it. Well, for some people, modern historians are
fulfilling that duty a little too well. Today, instead of celebrating the anniversary
of Columbus’ discovery of America, some people mourn. Columbus Day, they say, is a celebration of
a genocidal invasion by white Europeans. A hundred years ago, it was quite different. In 1892, Americans joyously celebrated the
400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. President Benjamin Harrison called him “the
pioneer of progress and enlightenment.” Today some historians call Columbus plain
and simple a murderer. And Columbus isn’t alone. Until recently, the Founding Fathers were
larger-than-life, heroic figures. But over the last 30 years, George Washington,
Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams have been depicted as greedy, sexist, and racist oppressors. American Indians, on the other hand, we were
often portrayed as savage and cruel, but Native American cultures have undergone considerable
reappraisal. Nowadays they are often pictured as peaceful
people living in harmony with the natural environment. More recently, veterans groups objected to
a planned exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution commemorating the 50th anniversary of the
American bombing of Hiroshima. They claim that the museum was rewriting history,
portraying the Japanese as mere defenders of their culture against an imperialist America. The decision to use the atomic bomb in this
version of history was an unnecessary and racist act. Eric Foner, let’s begin with you and go
around the room. Where do you come out on — this is Columbus
Day weekend. Where do you come out on the Columbus question? Was he a great discoverer, or was he a murderer? Eric Foner: Columbus was a great discoverer,
but I think that’s the least interesting and important historical question that you
can ask about him. I think what revisionists, if you want to
call them that, are pointing out is that the historical development set in motion or symbolized
by Columbus’ encounter with the New World produced both great good and great evil for
different peoples in different parts of the world. And no account of that era is complete if
it doesn’t look at both sides of the question. So that’s just the way history is written. It can’t be celebration, and it can’t
be victimization; it has to include, you know, both of these perspectives at the same time. Ben Wattenberg: James Horton? James Horton: Yeah, I — you know, I think
it’s an oversimplification if you want to pose the question as you have. Obviously this is a person who is at the center
of major change in human history. To that extent, he’s tremendously important. But the change wasn’t always good, and it
wasn’t always good for those people whom he — and I put this in quotes — “discovered.” So, therefore, you’ve got to look at Columbus
and his coming to what he called the New World as a major historical event, but one that
had ramifications that were both horrible and progressive. Ben Wattenberg: Robert Royal, do you buy that
— what we’ve heard? Robert Royal: Well, I would put it this way:
Where would we all be today if it wasn’t for Columbus? We wouldn’t be sitting here. I would make a much more forceful case for
him, simply on these grounds: that insofar as there’s been some revision of the picture
of Columbus. I think that’s all to the good. That all the truth we can get on the record
is certainly welcome, but I’d be prepared to argue that there is not a single evil that
the Europeans perpetrated in the New World that wasn’t already here before Columbus
arrived, with the possible exception of religious intolerance that I’m not sure about. It seems to me that the Incans were very vigorous
in their attempts to convert other peoples as well. But I think that’s the perspective we have
to see it in. It isn’t that Columbus has introduced something
new into a pristine American environment. He brought along some evils with him from
Europe, maybe exaggerated some that already existed here. But the result overall, I think, has been
something quite remarkable and for the good for the human rights. Ben Wattenberg: Daniel Boorstin? Daniel Boorstin: Well, I think there’s a
larger question, really, and that is our capacity to understand human nature. And I think that we should take this opportunity
to celebrate the possibilities of human nature, which is what we do when we celebrate a hero. And I think Columbus was a hero, because he
had those qualities of human nature which made for greatness: opening the world; bringing
the world together and showing courage; an ability to use the knowledge of his time,
which he was well acquainted with; and applying it with the technology available to enlarge
the experience and capacities of the human race. That bringing together was the great thing. And, of course, every great act has a price. And I think in this country we’re rather
inclined to believe that we can have great things cost-free, but there are no discoveries
which are cost-free, and this is just another example. Ben Wattenberg: Why has our view of Columbus
changed so much in recent years? Eric Foner: Well, as you pointed out at the
beginning, previous views of Columbus were as one-sided as perhaps some of the critics
in 1992 were guilty of being. A hundred years ago when there was the celebration
of the 400th anniversary, Columbus was portrayed as unalloyed hero producing pure good for
humanity. The United States was the sort of onward march
of progress and freedom for the world, and that was what history was. And it’s natural that a one-dimensional
point of view like that is going to eventually lead to revisionism and criticism. Robert Royal: I would say that you could regard
the reaction to Columbus in 1992 as sort of a symptom of how we feel as a society. Columbus, in historical fact, was certainly
not an ecological monster the way he was sometimes portrayed in 1992. He certainly did not practice racism or imperialism
any more than many other peoples around the world and in the pre-Columbian Americas practiced. But all those are symptoms of some nervousness
that we feel in our society, and where we felt great confidence in 1892 and thought
of ourselves as a forward-looking society. I think now our basic problem is that we know
that we’ve lost something that we’d like to get back, and as we search for where we
might find those bases, we look elsewhere. I think there’s a lot of projection been
carried out in trying to find the Native American cultures, for example, a kind of a pristine
relationship to the environment that in fact historically did not exist. But that is not to say that the concern itself
is not something that we ought to pay attention to. James Horton: One of the things that I guess
I have trouble understanding is why people don’t understand that there are a variety
of points of views here. I mean, we’ll never know what the history
is. We’ll never know when we have all the evidence
in. We have different point of views, and we certainly
ought to be able to understand that. I mean, after all, if you were an American
Indian standing on — if you were an Arawak Indian standing on the shores watching Columbus
come and you knew that within 100 years you’d be extinct in large part because this presence
was coming, it seems to me that you would not be expected to see this as a new and progressive
thing. On the other hand, if you were in Europe and
you knew that this was going to expand your boundaries in the world, you certainly would
see it as a new progressive thing. So I mean, what we’re talking here are different
points of views, and we certainly can understand that different points of views exist without
— Daniel Boorstin: I think it’s — excuse
me, Jim. James Horton: Certainly. Daniel Boorstin: I think there is a spirit,
which is expressed in the revisionist insistence which I don’t find sympathetic, and that’s
what I would call the arrogance of modernity. It’s always seemed to me — and it’s
one of the themes that I’ve played in my book, “The Discoverers,” which you were
kind enough to mention — that the great obstacle to progress is not ignorance, but
the illusion of knowledge. And I think that illusion is one that the
revisionists are constantly expressing. They believe that they have the final answer
to what virtue should be. And I think that one of the purposes of the
study of history should be to open our minds, to extend our thinking to imagine that things
can be otherwise. And one of the ways of it being otherwise
is that people could have wanted to do — that a great person, an inspired, courageous person
could have wanted to reach out across the world to reach the Indies as it had never
been reached before. Eric Foner: Of course, there is bad history
produced anywhere, you know, on all levels —revisionist, standard history — but the
best of the new histories are actually forcing us to rethink the whole mainstream of American
history. They’re making us — Ben Wattenberg: That’s the rubric called
“the new history.” Eric Foner: Yes, they’re making us think
in new ways about the — they’re not segregating themselves off. The challenge is we have to think in new ways
about the American Revolution. We have to think in new ways about the Civil
War. Once you incorporate the history of women
or of African Americans or of other groups into that story, it’s a different story
then. That’s the real challenge that the new history
is posing, and that’s why it is disturbing to some people. Ben Wattenberg: Let me ask Dan Boorstin a
question. Is this “new history” really new? I mean, I’ve read some of your works on
America, and they get far afield from what merely presidents and the Congress have done. They get into the whole warp and woof of American
society, which is what you’re talking about. So what’s new? Daniel Boorstin: Well, I would — I hope
my writing has done what you’ve suggested, but I think what we should aim at is a human
history. Eric Foner: Absolutely. Daniel Boorstin: And I think that, insofar
as the champions of different minority histories have set up their own departments and their
own lectureships and courses, they have tended to divide history — to separate us from
one another. James Horton: But can I interrupt here for
a second? Daniel Boorstin: Yeah. James Horton: Because those departments have
not been set up because people said, “Geez, we ought to have a separate department.” They’ve been set up because the history
has not been included traditionally in what we have been told is American history. Daniel Boorstin: Well, I — James Horton: I mean, for most of what we
— most of the teaching of the American history has been the history of a tiny minority of
Americans who generally are presidents, heads of corporations, and generals. There are only a very few Americans that have
ever been that. So the vast majority — Daniel Boorstin: I don’t know whom you mean. Mention a major historian of whom that’s
true. I can’t think of one. James Horton: In terms of what history was
about? For example, we have our Revolutionary era,
our Jacksonian era, our Jeffersonian era, our Civil War era. Those eras take their name from great events
or great — and this is not by accident — men. Now, the point is that there were important
things going on among the majority of Americans during that period, some of whom were black,
some of whom were Indian, some of whom were poor, most of whom were women. The point is that, if this history is not
being included in the traditional telling of history, how are you to get it into the
curriculum unless you do this in a separate — Daniel Boorstin: I think what I would call
the divisive or so-called minority approach — what Arthur Schlesinger calls the disuniting
of America by the rewriting of our history. I think that is — moves in the wrong direction. One of the reasons — you see, you can’t
have it both ways. You can’t both say, which is what I believe,
that for the most part women and lots of other people, including blacks and others, have
been deprived of their place in American political — in American politics and yet say that
the chronicle of American political life must give those people equal space, because it’s
not true. There were no blacks, to my knowledge, in
the Constitutional Convention — James Horton: But maybe we’re defining — Daniel Boorstin: — and yet the Constitutional
Convention was a great — was one of the great achievements of Western civilization. James Horton: Certainly. Daniel Boorstin: So I think to minimize that
achievement in order to maximize the role of people who were being deprived of opportunities
is not to enlarge our sense of human nature. Eric Foner: Yes, the Constitutional Convention,
of course, was a great achievement. On the other hand, it’s not — it’s only
fairly recently that historians have devoted, I think, sufficient attention to the role
of slavery in the Constitutional Convention debates. To the fact that, for most African Americans,
the Constitution and its adoption was actually a step backward: that it solidified the institution
of slavery, it strengthened the institution of slavery, it gave slave owners greater political
power than they had had. Now, what is the purpose of saying that? It’s not to beat our breasts and say, “Oh,
well, look at the evils in American history.” It’s to try to develop a nuanced, complicated
view of history in which we are not — that our history is not just an onward and upward
waggish progress. It’s not a straight line of “On, Republic.” Ben Wattenberg: Just moving up in a straight
line — I mean, we polished off Columbus. You are now saying that the Founding Fathers,
too, are people we ought to look at with much greater scrutiny and that they were not — Eric Foner: Yeah, I’m not — yes, of course. Ben Wattenberg: — they were not heroes necessarily. Eric Foner: I am not saying, as you suggested
before, you know, metaphorically that the Founding Fathers should be viewed as greedy,
racist, blood — whatever you said. Ben Wattenberg: Right. Eric Foner: They were human beings with flaws
and with greatness, and their achievements were human achievements. And — Robert Royal: But I think, even if you look
at traditional history, whether they’re other traditional histories of Columbus, traditional
histories of America, you find some of that ambivalence built into them. Certainly if you go back — Eric Foner: Certainly. Robert Royal: — and look at them, you’ll
see that the very questions that you’re talking about are not quite given the prominence
that they are. But even if there was a step backward in fact,
in power relations, after the Constitution, which I think we could all admit is kind of
a debatable point, clearly the trajectory has been set for something that we all generally
applaud now. That however much that document took a while
to work itself out and to be extended to other people and awaits to be extended to other
people even today — James Horton: Let me just jump in here. Robert Royal: — it’s an important step
in human history, not only in American history. James Horton: Yeah, let me just jump in here
again. I mean, I don’t think we should assume that,
because things did happen in a certain way, they were scheduled to happen in a certain
way — that they had to happen in a certain way. Part of the reason that we made some progress
— and I will certainly say that there was some progress — I mean, after all, we did
bring slavery to an end in 1865. But part of the reason that we made some progress
is because those people who were left out of that convention — I’m now talking about
people who took part in the reform movements which ultimately led to the Civil War, which
ultimately led to the end of slavery — because those people refused to be quiet. Daniel Boorstin: May I just add that I think
that to take a proportional representation approach to history seems to be, to me, misguided. If we’re going to — if we’re concerned
with civilization and culture and the tradition of rights embodied in the common law and in
our Constitution, we cannot apportion the role of people to people according to the
number of them who exist. It’s not a demographic question. It’s a cultural question. And if we say, as I think most of us would
agree, that for much of Western history certain groups have been deprived of their opportunities,
we can’t also say that the story of Western culture must give them an equal position. Because the great works of literature and
painting and music and the arts in the West have been done by people who had the opportunity
to do it. Eric Foner: I don’t really think anyone
is debating proportional representation. I think what is — the really subversive
result of the new history, as I said before, is that it leaves us to rethink open questions
about some of these unquestioned achievements. Let us take the common law, for example. It does make us think differently about that
great tradition of common law when we emphasize, as women’s historians do nowadays, that
under the common law women had no legal existence. They were subordinated into the legal standing
of a father or a husband. Now, again, what is the purpose of saying
that? It’s not to say, “Look how bad the common
law was.” It’s to say, “If you’re going to look
at the legal tradition in its full implications for the whole of society, not just for some
part of it, you have to put that at the center of your analysis along with the rights and
privileges which the common law also gives.” It’s a complicated situation. I think introducing complexity is what historians
ought to be doing. Daniel Boorstin: I think it’s important
that we not be Utopians, and I think — Eric Foner: Yeah — Daniel Boorstin: — that one of the troubles
with the feminist critique of the common law is that it assumes that the alternative to
this rounded system, which deprived women of their opportunity to own property in certain
circumstances and so on — the alternative to that is a perfect system in which everyone
is equal to everyone else and everyone is flourishing in peace. Eric Foner: No, I think their point is not
that we ought to have a perfect utopia. I think their point is that the very rights
that we celebrate — correctly and justly — as the foundation of our constitutional
definition of rights were founded in some respect on the deprivation of others’ rights. If you add that into the equation, you get
a much more interesting, I think, and complicated view. Daniel Boorstin: But that’s a truism; that’s
not interesting at all. Eric Foner: It’s a truism, but it’s fully
ignored in most studies of that subject. Ben Wattenberg: We could take this — let
me just ask something, I mean, about the United States of America. I mean, we talk now after the end of the Cold
War — at least people like me talk about it — that there is an “Americanization”
of the world going on, that that has something to do with democracy and a market economy
and individualism and tolerance and pluralism and civil liberties. The things we are most proud of, albeit in
an imperfect society — that we are the number one political, military, scientific, educational,
linguistic, and economic power in the world at this moment — quite remarkable. What on earth are we doing trashing ourselves? Eric Foner: This is not trashing. This is exactly what I think is wrong in this
critique. We are not trashing the United States to point
out the pros and cons. What you’re asking for by posing it that
way is to say we should celebrate, the role of the historian is to be the drumbeater,
the celebrator, of the nation-state. In fact, one of the wonderful things about
Professor Boorstin’s histories — Ben Wattenberg: Well, is it — Eric Foner: — is that it is not — they
are not confined to the nation-state. “The Discoverers,” for example. The world is becoming more international and
more interdependent, and yet historians are still locked into the nation-state as the
premise of all our studies. We ought to be studying — James Horton: Let me — Eric Foner: — worldwide processes in which
maybe the United States wouldn’t look so unique in a way. James Horton: Let me make a point here. And that is that, as historians, when we look
at our culture, what we see is that not in 1994, but for the broad range of our history,
we have been a multicultural, multiracial society. Now, that means that we have been neither
a European society nor an African society, but a blend of both those societies. And if you look in places like 18th-century
South Carolina, where the majority of people were Africans — people of African descent,
and some people who had come directly from Africa — what you see is the unmistakable
impact of Africa on America. When Europeans in the 19th century came to
America to look around and see this new democracy, one of the things they recognized was how
different America was from what they had known in Europe. And part of that difference was the fact that
we are in part an African country, too. Daniel Boorstin: I think you’re failing
to take account of the fact that the great elements of our Western civilization are those
which are mostly inherited from Europe. That includes the common law. It includes our language, literature, our
religions, and so on. James Horton: But it does not — Daniel Boorstin: So that the fact that there’s
no doubt it, there were a lot of people who had come from other places, and they were
living their lives here. And we should know about them, as you’re
trying to help us learn, which I’m glad of. But what has built our culture and made us
tolerant of one another, made it possible for us to sit here and talk together, which
might not have been the case in Africa or elsewhere — that — what makes that possible
is the high culture which we inherited, our European heritage, which is the heritage of
civil rights, of the common law, of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and these are all transplanted. Robert Royal: I would have to argue, though,
that there is something unique on American soil, that there is some richness and some
carrying to a higher level of certain ideas that were present in Europe, but certainly
had not existed. I mean, there’s been a new experiment that
began here, began later in France, and has really started a different moment in world
history, which we could call sort of a democratic age. Ben Wattenberg: I have one last question. Who owns history? Does everybody own history? Eric Foner: Everybody — Daniel Boorstin: Yes, sure. Eric Foner: — yes, does and is owning history. Daniel Boorstin: Sure, I think we can all
agree on that, can’t we? Eric Foner: The people who made “Gone with
the Wind” are presenting history. The people who are making — James Horton: Everybody is history. Eric Foner: — television shows are making
history. James Horton: We all own history. We all make history. It’s just the traditional way in which history
has been taught that leads us to believe that only famous people make history. But the fact of life is — Daniel Boorstin: I don’t know where you
got that idea. Excuse me. I don’t — James Horton: Because that’s who dominate
the pages of most of our traditional textbooks. Robert Royal: It strikes me this is a very
American question: Who owns history? As if it’s a cultural property that whoever
pays the highest — James Horton: A commodity. Yeah, we are history. Robert Royal: — the highest advance for
it owns. I think that history owns us in a way. I mean, we have a responsibility to history
— Daniel Boorstin: We need to know what it is. Robert Royal: — to be as truthful, to reject
as many false contemporary urges as we possibly can. We can see that Columbus was quite clearly
idealized in 1892. I think we can quite clearly see that he was
demonized in some unfair ways in 1992. And, insofar as we care about the truth, which
I think all people who study history ought to care about, it doesn’t matter who owns
it. James Horton: Every generation rewrites history
so that it can make sense of its present. That’s exactly what is happening now, and
it’s no different than what happened in the time of Jefferson when they were writing
a history that would make sense for a new country. Ben Wattenberg: Daniel Boorstin, finish it
off for us. Daniel Boorstin: Well, I think we’ve perhaps
illustrated here today that the — that perhaps the great value of history is in the seeking. And if we can seek together, that brings us
together in spite of or because of all our disagreements. And I’ve always thought that a free society
is not an orderly one — not one with a new world order — but a society like ours of
creative chaos. And we’ve been giving a little bit of this
on this program, but that’s encouraging to me. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Thank you, Daniel Boorstin, Eric Foner, Robert
Royal, and James Horton. And thank you. We enjoy hearing from our audience a great
deal. Please send your comments and questions to
New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC, 20036. Or we can be reached by electronic mail at
[email protected] For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc. in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

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2 Comments

  1. Professor Arthur Marwick of the Open University (UK) wrote a book entitled The nature of history / Arthur Marwick. – London; Macmillian Press, c1989, 3rd edition, in which he defends traditional historical methodology against the postmodernist and modernist methodologies refuting their misguided attempts to re-interpret history and the historical process. I am sure there may be a later edition, the book is extremely educational. Things must be seen in context and not through incorrect revisionist historical interpretations.

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