The Creep of History

Last week, the historian James Sweet found himself in the middle of one of the confusing messes that pop up from time to time in the highest reaches of academia. As the president of the American Historical Association, Sweet writes a monthly address to his colleagues. His September entry, published on Aug. 17, was titled, “Is History History? Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present.” What followed was a seemingly harmless missive about “presentism,” a phenomenon wherein historians allow the political, identity-based demands of the current day to dictate the focus of their scholarship and inquiry. Paraphrasing one of his predecessors, Sweet asked if students who enter the field with a fixed, identity-first point of view might be better suited to sociology, political science or ethnic studies.

Later in his address, Sweet writes, “If history is only those stories from the past that confirm current political positions, all manner of political hacks can claim historical expertise,” and claims that “too many Americans have become accustomed to the idea of history as an evidentiary grab bag to articulate their political positions.” As an example, he writes about taking a tour of the Elmina Castle in Ghana, a stop in the Atlantic slave trade. Sweet claims that his tour guide at Elmina both overstated the relevance of the site to African Americans (according to Sweet, “less than one percent of the Africans passing through Elmina arrived in North America”) while falsely downplaying the role that Ghanaians played in the slave trade. These elisions, Sweet believes, come from a desire to make history conform to our modern political understandings of race and inequality.

Sweet’s address was met with considerable criticism, and in some cases backlash, from fellow historians, many of whom felt that he was demeaning the work of minority scholars by broadly questioning whether work driven by “identity politics” belonged in the historical tradition. Sweet quickly apologized.

I agree with Sweet on the fundamentals of what he said, but I also understand why minority scholars felt like the integrity of their work was being questioned. An uncharitable reader might accuse him of singling out scholars who write about identity (read: mostly nonwhite scholars) and making unfounded insinuations about the motivations behind their work. This would be more forgivable if Sweet were not the president of the American Historical Association, a position that presumably gives him some influence over where the discipline is headed. There have been times in my own career when someone high up in an institution assumes that because I am not white, my work must be driven by identity politics. It’s an enraging experience.

What interests me most about the Sweet controversy, however, is the idea that history itself might be taking up too much space in the ways that we think about the present not just in the cloisters of the university but also within the broader discourse around social justice. “We suffer from an overabundance of history,” Sweet writes, “not as method or analysis, but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics.”

What does it mean to have an “overabundance of history”? At first glance, the idea might seem ridiculous. The public, in theory, should know about everything from the migration patterns of early man to what happened during Operation Desert Storm and beyond. In a multiethnic country rooted in the genocide of Native Americans and built on the backs of enslaved Africans, all citizens should have some knowledge of how we got to where we are in 2022. But I don’t think Sweet is talking here about historical knowledge or even scholarship, really, but rather the creep of historical writing into other disciplines, especially journalism. (Much of Sweet’s address is a halfhearted swipe at “The 1619 Project.”)

It’s unfortunate that Sweet ultimately seems aggrieved about the sanctity of history as a profession and a discipline, because there is a compelling point hidden somewhere in “Is History History?” Over the past decade or so, history has become the lingua franca of online political conversation. This is a relatively new phenomenon; back in 2010, around the time I began writing on the internet, much of the conversation revolved around cultural criticism. Young, ambitious writers published essays about “Mad Men”and other prestige television shows; pop music criticism took on a weight in political discourse that felt exciting and even a bit dangerous. Today, much of that cultural production has moved to history.

These trends are admittedly difficult to track — there is no start date for the era of online historical writing, nor is there a gravestone for lengthy pop culture criticism — but the shift has something to do with the centrality of Twitter over the past decade (historical documents and photos make for great screenshots) and, more important, the changes in the country itself. Once Donald Trump became president, it was harder to write about “Breaking Bad” and Taylor Swift in such self-serious tones.

“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which detailed the practice of redlining, certainly wasn’t the first piece of journalism that brought in historical techniques, but it was, without question and for good reason, the most influential of its era. History like this — cleareyed, thorough and written toward an explicit political end — showed a generation of young journalists how they might be able to leverage their skills in a new way. I was a young magazine writer when that article came out, in 2014. I recall feeling impressed by the prose and the research while realizing that Coates had raised the stakes for what a magazine story could do. He had, in effect, written a work that felt much more like an object, something that wouldn’t immediately decompose once the next news cycle rolled in.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Coates inspired thousands of imitators and ushered in a new type of journalism in which historical research could take precedence over reportage. (I tried my hand at a couple of historical essays before giving up.) Twitter has also allowed historians to assume a place in the public discourse that would’ve been available to only a select few before the advent of social media. This is ultimately a good thing that has flattened some of the usual hierarchies in the academy. A historian who writes good Twitter thread — say, about the long and sustained effort to end abortion rights in the United States — will be able to present an abbreviated version of his or her work to thousands, potentially millions of people without having to star in a Ken Burns documentary. As a result, history does seem to have an unusual amount of weight in the public discourse.

I don’t believe there’s some perfect mix of academic disciplines that will yield the most fruitful public conversations. But I do agree with Sweet that in today’s discourse, history acts mostly as what he calls “an evidentiary grab bag.” This, as he points out, happens both on the left and the right. Someone can find something in an archive, prop it up in the course of an argument and then declare the issue settled forever because history has acted as the arbiter. Sweet’s mistake is that he seems to believe that there is a type of real history — the exact type that’s produced by credentialed people in lofty spaces — that actually should be used in this hierarchical way, when the better argument would be to simply say that all history, regardless of the pedigree or methodology of its scholar, should be subject to intense scrutiny.

And yet I don’t think it’s particularly debatable that there is, in fact, an overabundance of history. Perhaps stories of the past have always been used to advance modern political goals, but I can’t think of a time in recent American memory where so much history has been fashioned into so many cudgels. All that beating about stuff that happened years ago can sometimes distract us from the injustices of the present, even when the goal of it is to provide some useful allegory about the persistence of one type of oppression or another. Over the past two years, for example, I have been bewildered by how much of the conversation about the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans has been dominated by evocations of history, whether it’s the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or Japanese internment.

These are certainly important conversations that provide an ideological framework that places Asian Americans within a history of violence and oppression. And yet I sometimes find myself wondering what all that history really has to do with Asian people being attacked and even killed in 2022. History, in this moment, has an anesthetizing, diversionary effect; instead of talking about what’s happening to recent immigrants to the United States in 2022, we are talking about what happened to gold miners in the 19th century. The connections we draw between the two might make sense logically, but they ultimately do not go anywhere.

These intellectual flailings are the more compelling evidence that the journalists, thinkers and scholars who set much of the public discourse might be making a bit too much of history. Whenever something bad happens to an oppressed group, there is an impulse to buttress it with the bad things that happened in the past as a way to almost confirm that the present is still terrible. This isn’t a necessarily bad reflex, but it oftentimes feels unnecessary. Most of the time, we can just process what happens as it happens and try to deal with the problem in front of us.

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

Have feedback? Send me a note at [email protected].

Back to top button