The Use and Abuse of History

Critical race theory turns America’s past into a torture chamber and offers no real hope for a better future

A protester walks past a toppled statue of President Theodore Roosevelt on October 11, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. Image Credit: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

The irrelevance of the past has been a fond illusion of most Americans. When we say “It’s history,” we are consigning some event to oblivion. Our eyes are fixed on the future: With the element of time, as with so many categories of thought, we have erected a frontier toward which we are eternally advancing.

The rise to the presidency of Donald Trump blew up that illusion. Trump was an impossibility that needed to be explained. One explanation might have portrayed him as a political mutant—a freak selected by the public to be a weapon in its revolt against the established order. That was not a popular story. Among the intellectual and media elites who loathed Trump, the consensus explanation was racism: his and ours, past and future, inescapable as the air we breathe.

American history, refracted through Trump, became a sordid tale of white supremacy and privilege and nonwhite suffering and oppression. The New York Times’ “1619 Project” injected a “critical race theory” of history into the national discourse. “Our founding ideals were false when they were written,” affirmed Nikole Hanna-Jones, the Project’s guiding spirit. “Black Americans have fought to make them true.” These controversial notions soon found their way into public school classrooms, inaugurating a ferocious new front in the culture wars.

The Black Lives Matter protests ignited by a white policeman’s killing of George Floyd took the assault on American history to the streets. After a brief spasm of anti-police fury, protesters vented their anger on any historical monument within their reach, famously overturning statues of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. The political establishment offered little resistance: It was focused on opposing Trump, and the BLM disorders, like the 1619 Project, assumed the aspect of a strategy in that struggle.

A frenzy of revision and name-changing followed. The name of Thomas Jefferson was purged in his native Virginia. The San Francisco School Board voted to exorcize the memories of Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Lincoln, conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa and Romantic poet James Russell Lowell. “It was a moral message,” one board member said. The wish to purify the past required its obliteration.

Encouraged by the unpopularity of these excesses, Republicans and conservatives counterattacked with equal if opposite fervor: Here was an issue that united Trumpists and Never-Trumpers, libertarians and evangelicals, Ross Douthat and Tucker Carlson. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Republicans have fallen in love with critical race theory—now familiarized by its acronym, CRT—or at least with bringing up the subject, under any pretext, endlessly. The Texas legislature banned the teaching of CRT in public schools. Florida did the same and added a mandate to teach the history of communism.

History has been transformed from an irrelevance into a confused quarrel over what it means to be an American. Republicans clearly believe they have a winning position. Meanwhile, Democrats have started bending to the prevailing winds and downplaying the significance of CRT. The San Francisco School Board recanted its moral message: As I write this, even the European conqueror Balboa continues to boast a high school with his name on it.

The debate has been conducted with the awkwardness and parochialism one might expect from a future-obsessed country. Fundamental questions regarding what history is and what it can do have been avoided. It’s all been about party politics. Ultimately, it’s all been about Trump.

Yet, for now, Trump stands defeated and silenced. George Floyd’s killer has been tried and convicted and is serving a long prison sentence. Any call for a revision of our history must stand on its own merits, not the political passions of the moment. And that assessment is impossible so long as we lack a shared understanding of the methods and purposes and limits of what philosopher Richard Rorty called the “redescription” of the past.

The Divergence of Science and History

The quest for knowledge must begin with humility: that is, with a keen awareness of our limitations. None of us possess a God’s-eye view of the world. None of us can be “objective” in any meaningful sense of the word. Everything we know is known from a particular point of view. That’s true even of the most successful method for aggregating knowledge—modern science. After all, a scientific hypothesis is a point of view.

So we are immediately confronted with a problem of selection. There are an infinite number of facts present in the world, and they can be described from an infinite number of perspectives. Which facts are important enough to merit our attention, and under which aspect? Part of the answer, of course, is personal preference: the researcher’s intuition. But if we fail to offer intelligible reasons for our choice of subject matter, the search for knowledge is liable to degenerate into wish fulfillment, and we risk exile to private dreamlands walled off from the human race—the sort of thing that happens with appalling regularity on the web.

Science deals with the problem of selection by winnowing the infinity of facts down to a handful of universal theories. Specific events—the content of history—are of interest to scientists only when they can be used to test the validity of some theory. The solar eclipse of 1919, for example, lacked any intrinsic meaning but helped confirm Einstein’s ideas about the curvature of light.

Scientific theories are expected to predict and explain specific events, while events, in turn, can falsify a theory. This is a revolutionary feature of science, whose progress has entailed the destruction of one theory of the world after another, caused by an errant experiment or event. Science’s willingness to refute itself has nothing to do with the genius or impartiality of individual scientists. As Karl Popper observed, it’s the result of institutional habits structured around replication and criticism.

History, in contrast, never aims to replicate the “true facts” of the past—an impossibility, given their infinite number. History is an act of memory, an interpretation, utterly dependent on point of view. The source material, the signals and echoes we still receive from past events, must be arrayed in a plausible account, but from the outset the entire enterprise is mired in subjectivity. Unable to escape the problem of selection, the historian is at the mercy of perspective.

If I hypothesize, “The United States is the land of the free,” someone viewing the same data from a very different place is certain to say, “But what about slavery, Jim Crow and racism?” The question, once asked, acquires the force of a revelation. To save my hypothesis, I must include its perspective into any story of American freedom.

The human vision of the past must remain partial and unstable. Self-indulgence comes easy when filling in the gaps: Heroes and villains can be depicted according to one’s party, ideology or identity. The 1619 Project, in my opinion, fell early into this trap and has never managed to climb out.

Yet every event is a call to reconsideration. Every turn in perspective—for example, between generations—by altering the aspect of the present will require a fresh interpretation of the past. This is both legitimate and necessary. A petrified or sterile history can only be described as a form of memory loss, a pathological condition.

While a scientific theory can only be falsified by events, a historical interpretation is most effectively criticized by a radical change in point of view. If that’s all CRT intended to do—flip the narrative from white to Black—it would be a perfectly responsible attempt at reinterpreting history.

For centuries the historian has felt like the sorcerer’s apprentice to the austere and prestigious scientist. There has been a recurrent impulse to transform history into what David Hume called the “science of man”—to propound grand theories about humanity and society and enter the magical realm of prophecy. Such a quasi-religious use of history had a profound effect on the politics of the 20th century; despite a record of tragedy and failure, the theorizing frenzy has, if anything, intensified in our day.

To the extent that CRT is put forward as a predictive theory of history, we are compelled to ask whether it belongs to this class of prophetic assertion—and, if so, whether it can be reconciled with the messy give-and-take of democratic life.

The Perils of Historicism

Much of Karl Popper’s work as a philosopher was dedicated to a critique of “historicism”: the belief held by certain thinkers that they had cracked the code of history and thus gained insight into future events. Access to such hidden knowledge worked a transfiguration. The historian became a prophet, a revolutionary, a philosopher king.

The mind of the historicist fixated on mystical “forces”—the “World Spirit,” the “master race”—that demanded obedience much as God once did and simplified the muddle of human existence. The mission was no longer to interpret the past but to herd the unenlightened toward the path of the predicted future.

Historicism has flourished on the left as well as the right, and there have been Christian and Islamist varieties. But all are closed systems, disdainful of criticism and intent on shutting down deviant facts and points of view. Opponents are rarely engaged on the merits but are dismissed, in Barack Obama fashion, for being “on the wrong side of history.”

The combination of cosmic claims with dogmatic passion gives these doctrines the appearance of a substitute faith: the cult of transcendental politics. Popper saw in the rise of historicism a revolt against the “strain” and uncertainty of modern society. “It often seems,” he wrote of the meta-theorizers, “as if they were trying to comfort themselves for the loss of a stable world by clinging to the view that change is ruled by an unchanging law.”

A case can be made that CRT is the direct offspring of the most famous and influential of the historicist quasi-religions: Marxism. More precisely, it’s a subset of the neo-Marxist “critical theory” that effectively redirected the anti-capitalist struggle from economics and class to culture and identity. The complexities of this school need not concern us here, but I think it would be useful to trace, briefly, CRT’s specific lineage, because it demonstrates the intimate relationship between political attitudes and the perception of history.

CRT as Marxism’s ‘Paradise Lost’

CRT stands at the bleak end of an intellectual trajectory that began with tremendous optimism. Whatever else it might be, Marxism is a theology of redemption and hope. The proletariat played the part of pure messianic hero. The class struggle made inevitable the triumph of virtue and the classless society. Revolution was a baptism that washed away the sins of the world. Empirically, all of this was nonsense; emotionally, it was powerful stuff. Though a materialist creed, Marxism in its heyday appealed to idealists who yearned to cure the many ills of the human condition.

Critical theory was a long step down from such heady expectations. Faith in revolution and a perfect society had flickered out. Shifting the battleground to culture meant that every aspect of human relations, no matter how fraternal or kind, masked the monstrous face of power. Marx’s dialectics of history opened the gates of paradise; critical theorists preached a “negative dialectics” aimed at erecting an “anti-system.”

Starting in the late ’60s, these dismal European notions were embraced by an American New Left that, in Rorty’s phrase, “reinvented sin.” Imprinted by the moral horrors of racism and Vietnam, this group concluded that the capitalist establishment in the U.S. was too powerful to be defeated and too evil to be redeemed. Democracy was a farce—it was naïve to play politics when change was impossible. The radical’s task, rather, was to expose and condemn. One could always “deconstruct,” “problematize” and overturn an occasional statue.

Speaking to grown ups. Richard Rorty. Image Credit: Steve Pyke

With CRT, we arrive at a gospel of anguish and despair. Like every Marxist offshoot, it attempts the negation rather than the interpretation of history: the point is to break loose from the past. But unlike classical Marxism, CRT betrays an almost depressive pessimism about the outcome of the struggle. The white oppressors are too many and too strong. The racist past will always be with us. The only realistic posture is one of perpetual condemnation.

It’s fair to say that the “CRT” of our political debates is really a cluster of disparate ideas, orbiting around the belief that racism is the “unchanging law” of history. There is no pope: it is, in the original sense of the word, a Protestant denomination. Most practitioners maintain that racism is everywhere, that it is permanent and ineradicable, and that race must become the supreme consideration in all government decisions and policies. Though the devil in this narrative is white supremacy, the immediate target of repudiation is the liberal ideal of equality as exemplified in civil rights legislation and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

Taken as a point of view, these axioms demand a radical reinterpretation, not only of the American creed, but of American history. However, CRT doesn’t claim to be a point of view but a privileged vision of truth: that of a unique “voice of color” incommensurate with white descriptions of reality. The historicist contempt for argument is part of its ideological DNA. Either one accepts the revelations of the voice of color or one runs the risk of being labeled a racist.

At that juncture, CRT, with its non-negotiable claims and demands, becomes an instrument of power. The legitimacy of race as a political weapon, whether wielded on behalf of whites or Blacks, is a question better left for another day. I’m interested in a subject I consider far more important than politics: the legitimate uses of history.

History as Memory and Meaning

The function of memory is to orient the present toward the future. Error and shame are recalled in order to be rectified. Past failure is a sort of falsification of experience: an incentive to try a different approach. Only in this way can childish egocentricity mature into adulthood. A life stuck on the recollection of sin will end in self-revulsion and possibly self-destruction.

The same applies to shared memory, that is, to history. Shameful deeds must linger in the history of a nation as a warning and a spur to change, but change requires that a nation be more than the sum of its moral disasters. Change requires that noble deeds and sacrifices also linger in the national memory, to serve as guides out of the shame of transgression to a moment of reckoning and responsibility, to adulthood. Self-flagellation in the face of injustice is really self-indulgence.

In the case of the United States, a vast number of disgusting crimes were perpetrated in connection with slavery and racism, not just for a day or a year but from the beginning until almost yesterday. They should haunt our collective memory for as long as the nation exists. It may be, as James Baldwin suggested, that they can never be forgiven.

But the question at hand isn’t forgiveness. It’s rectification and moral maturity. If we wish to overcome the impulses behind those horrible crimes, American history must supply examples of how “the better angels of our nature” found the way to justice in the past.

Insofar as CRT is a closed historicist system, its proponents will endure an uneasy relationship with democracy. They must insist that we, as citizens, lack the power to make history: Quite the opposite, it’s our racist history that makes us. That was Popper’s criticism, and I think it remains valid. But the specific claims on which CRT rests, as an interpretation of the American adventure, strike me as exceptionally sterile.

When racism is described as universal, eternal and all-powerful, the struggle for justice becomes a fool’s errand. If all we can do is shake an impotent fist at the system, then there’s no point in doing even that. White Americans are cursed to be oppressors forever. They must suffer for their guilt. Except for a few professors and activists who have deconstructed themselves into a higher state of being, Black Americans are doomed to be victimized forever. They must seethe in their helpless rage. CRT makes history into a torture chamber and the United States into a house of horrors from which there is no exit.

Since the only response is anxiety or anger, and the only means of escape seems to be self-destruction, this brings the political into close proximity to the pathological. I find it suggestive that the generation most eager to adopt CRT’s articles of faith (“zoomers,” or people roughly 25 and younger) suffers from high levels of anxiety, depression and suicide.

The controversy around teaching CRT in the classroom is not without substance. Beyond honest ideological disagreement and opportunistic political posturing, the debate concerns whether we accept or reject the possibility of moral progress. Americans are often mocked for a shallow optimism, and maybe our history has been filtered through that distorting lens. But to plunge into an incurable despair will rob the citizen of agency and abandon the oppressed to their fate.

Banning CRT is a futile gesture: You can’t control memory by passing laws. Instead, we should teach a grown-up understanding of history, crimes and all. And by “grown-up” I mean that telling stories about the past is neither a glad game nor a form of self-abuse but, as Rorty writes, something more fundamental: an attempt to “forge a moral identity.”

If we are to inch our way toward perfection, we must find in history the meaning and inspiration and worthy models of behavior that make us better today than we were yesterday. If we are to continue on the long march away from racism and injustice, we can’t allow the confession of past sins to baffle our purpose and bar the way ahead. The future must be—as we Americans have always dreamed it to be—a wide-open frontier.

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