Ta-Nehesi Coates has a terrific essay in The Atlantic about last week’s great National Prayer Breakfast Controversy.
Apparently Barack Obama had been asked to address this annual confab of Christian power-players, and in his remarks he suggested that today’s Islamic fundamentalists aren’t uniquely barbarous, crazy, or evil; in the course of history, Christians– even American Christians!!– had also occasionally killed, kidnapped, looted, and enslaved in the name of their God. Naturally, outrage ensued, with the Best In Class award going to a Virginia politician: Obama’s remarks, he explained afterward, were “‘the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make.’”
Now, I’m assuming readers here don’t need me to underline the ridiculousness of such talk. (On the other hand, the normally sensible Christian Science Monitor presents this as a debate with two more or less legitimate sides, so maybe the underlining is needed; if so, take it as given.)
But the great NPB Controversy does offer a worthwhile reminder of something else, which has been a big theme on this blog: our society needs historical study, and it needs the specific kinds of historical study that historians undertake. Meaning, it’s not enough just to look to the past for data about economic trends, or battlefield success, or the values that led some societies to develop stable democratic governments.
Economists, generals, and political scientists do all those things, sometimes usefully– but we also need more. We need the whole past, complete with its losers and victims, its crimes and craziness, its miseries. We especially need to know about our own crimes, follies, and victims, as well as those of other people. That’s the kind of thing that historians dig up.
We need that kind of knowledge for the most obvious ethical and practical reasons. Even we non-Christians know it’s just wrong to view ourselves as fundamentally superior to other peoples, immune to their criminialities and fanaticisms. It also doesn’t work, as we Americans ought to have learned from our last fifteen years of foreign policy disasters. If we don’t want to learn humility for its own sake or to honor Jesus, how about we do it to avoid another fifteen years of expensive, bloody, planet-wrecking military failure?
The great NPB Controversy also illustrates a second thread running through these posts: we have a collective need for history of this kind, but we can’t expect private individuals to meet it, not unless we provide them way more collective support. The outraged prayer breakfasters didn’t hesitate to trash The Most Powerful Man On Earth ™–are they really going to hesitate to trash untenured academics saying the same thing in stronger terms?
That’s why we historians make a big mistake when we defend our enterprise in terms of its career-making benefits, all those skills that are supposed to get our students good jobs and bright futures. Those benefits exist, but along with them come career-endangering risks; the good jobs aren’t going to go to young people who’ve been accused of negativism by some southern politician or angry blogger. Individualizing the virtues and rewards of historical study means drifting toward feel-good, accentuate-the-positive histories, the kind that will please employers– and it means that history will lose the central place it might have had in national debates.
The great NPB Controversy shows us that feel-good historical culture is already here– it’s time to push back.