Historians, like journalists, are in the business of manipulating facts. Some use facts to tell truths, however unpleasant. But many more omit, highlight and at times distort them in ways that sustain national myths and buttress dominant narratives. The failure by most of the United States’ popular historians and the press to tell stories of oppression and the struggles against it, especially by women, people of color, the working class and the poor, has contributed to the sickening triumphalism and chauvinism that are poisoning our society.
Historians are rewarded for buttressing the ruling social structure, producing heavy tomes on the ruling elites—usually powerful white men such as John D. Rockefeller or Theodore Roosevelt—and ignoring the underlying social movements and radicals that have been the true engines of cultural and political change in the United States. Or they retreat into arcane and irrelevant subjects of minor significance, becoming self-appointed specialists of the banal or the trivial. They ignore or minimize inconvenient facts and actions that tarnish the myth, including lethal suppression of groups, classes and civilizations and the plethora of lies told by the ruling elites, the mass media and powerful institutions to justify their grip on power. They eschew transcendental and moral issues, including class conflict, in the name of neutrality and objectivity. The mantra of disinterested scholarship and the obsession with data collection add up, as the historian Howard Zinn wrote, “to the fear that using our intelligence to further our moral ends is somehow improper.”
Historians who apologize for the power elites, who in essence shun complexity and minimize inconvenient truths, are rewarded and promoted. They receive tenure, large book contracts, generous research grants, lucrative speaking engagements and prizes. Truth tellers, such as Zinn, are marginalized. Friedrich Nietzsche calls this process “creative forgetfulness.”
“The mythology of the West is deeply rooted in our culture,” Foner said, “whether it’s in Western movies or the idea of the lone pioneer, the individual roughing it out in the West, and of course, the main lie is that the West was kind of empty before white settlers and hunters and trappers and farmers came from the East to settle it. In fact, the West has been populated since forever. The real story of the West is the clash of all these different peoples, Native Americans, Asians in California, settlers coming in from the East, Mexicans. The West was a very multicultural place. There are a lot of histories there. Many of those histories are ignored or subordinated in this one story of the westward movement.”
…as Foner points out, King is effectively “frozen in one speech, one sentence: I want my children to be judged by the content of their character, not just the color of their skin. [But] that’s not what the whole civil rights movement was about. People forget, he died leading a poor people’s march, leading a strike of sanitation workers. He wasn’t just out there talking about civil rights. He had moved to economic equality as a fundamental issue.”
The political squabbles that dominate public discourse almost never question the sanctity of private property, individualism, capitalism or imperialism. They hold as sacrosanct American “virtues.” They insist that Americans are a “good” people steadily overcoming any prejudices and injustices that may have occurred in the past. The debates between the Democrats and the Whigs, or today’s Republicans and Democrats, have roots in the same allegiance to the dominant structures of power, myth of American exceptionalism and white supremacy.
Those who challenge these structures, who reach for the impossible, who dare to speak the truth, have been, throughout American history, dismissed as “fanatics.” But, as Foner points out, it is often the “fanatics” who make history.