Wall Street Journal: The Weaponization of History
By Wilfred M. McClay
JMC faculty partner and board member Wilfred McClay was featured in the Wall Street Journal on August 25, 2019:
“History is the most humbling and humanizing of subjects. It opens reality to us in all its gorgeous variety, from the earthbound lives of ordinary peasants and servants to the rarefied universe of the mighty and wealthy, and the astonishing range of human experience in between. It seeks to provide a balanced and honest record of humanity’s achievements and enormities alike, generous enough to acknowledge the mixture of motives that every one of us flawed humans bring to life’s tasks.
That, at any rate, is how it ought to be. But instead of expanding our minds and hearts, history is increasingly used to narrow them. Instead of helping us to deepen ourselves and take a mature and complex view of the past, history is increasingly employed as a simple bludgeon, which picks its targets mechanically—often based on little more than a popular cliché—and strikes.
The best example may be the evergreen argumentum ad Hitlerum, in which every evil from bigotry and militarism to vegetarianism and appreciation of Wagner’s operas is referred to the transcendentally evil standard of Nazism. The detention centers on America’s southern border should be called “concentration camps,” according to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. When questioned, the young, irrepressible Democrat advised Americans: “This is an opportunity for us to talk about how we learn from our history.” But that history isn’t ours. By invoking such an emotionally laden term, she was playing on a potent theme, but in a way that underscored the limited range of her historical reference, as well as the public’s. A more disturbing example is the pell-mell rush to pass judgment against heroes of the past and tear down or rename the monuments to them—including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. Are we really so faint of heart that we can no longer bear to allow the honoring of great men of the past who fail in some respects to meet our current specifications?”
Wilfred McClay has just published a best-selling American history textbook that provides an alternative to the standard AP-level texts. In McClay’s words:
“We have a glut of text and trade books on American history. But what we don’t have is a compact, inexpensive, authoritative, and compulsively readable book that will offer to intelligent young Americans a coherent, persuasive, and inspiring narrative of their own country. Such an account will shape and deepen their sense of the land they inhabit, and by making them understand that land’s roots, will equip them for the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship in American society, and provide them with a vivid and enduring sense of membership in one of the greatest enterprises in human history: the exciting, perilous, and immensely consequential story of their own country.”
Wilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. His research interests focus on the intellectual and cultural history of the United States, with particular attention to the social and political thought of the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of American religious thought and institutions, and the theory and practice of biographical writing. A recipient of many teaching awards and honors, he has been the recipient of fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Academy of Education. Professor McClay previously served on the National Council on the Humanities, the advisory board for the National Endowment for the Humanities. His most recent book is Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. He is also the author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, which won the 1995 Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians for the best book in American intellectual history, and The Student’s Guide to U.S. History, Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America, Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past and Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Public Life in Modern America.
Professor McClay is a JMC board member.
Want to help the Jack Miller Center transform higher education? Donate today.