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Who Owns History?

Think Tank Transcripts:Who Owns History?

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello. I'm Ben Wattenberg. It's often said thathistory is written by the victors, but today many so-called victimsare getting their chance to be heard. Some worry that America's richhistorical tale is being replaced by a new story with America cast asthe villain. Others say that we are simply including new voices inthe ongoing dialogue of history.

Joining us to sort through the conflict and the consensus areDaniel Boorstin, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, the librarian ofcongress emeritus and author of 'The Discoverers'; Eric Foner,professor of history at Columbia University and author of 'A HouseDivided: America in the Age of Lincoln'; James Horton, professor ofhistory at George Washington University and author of 'Free People ofColor: Inside the African American Community'; and Robert Royal, vicepresident of the Ethics in Public Policy Center and author of '1492and All That: The Political Manipulations of History.'

The question before this house: Who Owns History? This week onThink Tank.

Playwright Oscar Wilde once said the one duty we owe to history isto rewrite it. Well, for some people, modern historians arefulfilling that duty a little too well. Today, instead of celebratingthe anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America, some people mourn.Columbus Day, they say, is a celebration of a genocidal invasion bywhite Europeans.

A hundred years ago it was quite different. In 1892 Americansjoyously celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in theNew World. President Benjamin Harrison called him 'the pioneer ofprogress and enlightenment.' Today some historians call Columbusplain and simple a murderer.

And Columbus isn't alone. Until recently the Founding Fathers werelarger-than-life, heroic figures. But over the last 30 years, GeorgeWashington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams have been depicted asgreedy, sexist and racist oppressors.

American Indians, on the other hand, we were often portrayed assavage and cruel, but Native American cultures have undergoneconsiderable reappraisal. Nowadays they are often pictured aspeaceful people living in harmony with the natural environment.

More recently veterans groups objected to a planned exhibit at theSmithsonian Institution commemorating the 50th anniversary of theAmerican bombing of Hiroshima. They claim that the museum wasrewriting history, portraying the Japanese as mere defenders of theirculture against an imperialist America. The decision to use theatomic bomb in this version of history was an unnecessary and racistact.

Eric Foner, let's begin with you and go around the room. Where doyou come out on -- this is Columbus Day weekend. Where do you comeout on the Columbus question? Was he a great discoverer, or was he amurderer?

ERIC FONER (Columbia University): Columbus was a great discoverer,but I think that's the least interesting and important historicalquestion that you can ask about him. I think what revisionists, ifyou want to call them that, are pointing out is that the historicaldevelopment set in motion or symbolized by Columbus' encounter withthe New World produced both great good and great evil for differentpeoples in different parts of the world. And no account of that erais complete if it doesn't look at both sides of the question. Sothat's just the way history is written. It can't be celebration, andit can't be victimization; it has to include, you know, both of theseperspectives at the same time.

MR. WATTENBERG: James Horton?

JAMES HORTON (George Washington University): Yeah, I -- you know,I think it's an oversimplification if you want to pose the questionas you have. Obviously this is a person who is at the center of majorchange in human history. To that extent, he's tremendously important.But the change wasn't always good, and it wasn't always good forthose people whom he -- and I put this in quotes --'discovered.' So,therefore, you've got to look at Columbus and his coming to what hecalled the New World as a major historical event, but one that hadramifications that were both horrible and progressive.

MR. WATTENBERG: Robert Royal, do you buy that -- what we've heard?

ROBERT ROYAL (Ethics and Public Policy Center): Well, I would putit this way: Where would we all be today if it wasn't for Columbus?We wouldn't be sitting here. I would make a much more forceful casefor him, simply on these grounds, that insofar as there's been somerevision of the picture of Columbus, I think that's all to the good,that all the truth we can get on the record is certainly welcome, butI'd be prepared to argue that there is not a single evil that theEuropeans perpetrated in the New World that wasn't already herebefore Columbus arrived, with the possible exception of religiousintolerance that I'm not sure about. It seems to me that the Incanswere very vigorous in their attempts to convert other peoples aswell. But I think that's the perspective we have to see it in. Itisn't that Columbus has introduced something new into a pristineAmerican environment. He brought along some evils with him fromEurope, maybe exaggerated some that already existed here. But theresult overall, I think, has been something quite remarkable and forthe good for the human rights.

MR. WATTENBERG: Daniel Boorstin?

DANIEL BOORSTIN (Librarian of Congress Emeritus): Well, I thinkthere's a larger question, really, and that is our capacity tounderstand human nature. And I think that we should take thisopportunity to celebrate the possibilities of human nature, which iswhat we do when we celebrate a hero. And I think Columbus was a hero,because he had those qualities of human nature which made forgreatness: opening the world; bringing the world together; andshowing courage, an ability to use the knowledge of his time, whichhe was well acquainted with, and applying it with the technologyavailable to enlarge the experience and capacities of the human race.That bringing together was the great thing. And, of course, everygreat act has a price, and I think in this country we're ratherinclined to believe that we can have great things cost-free, butthere are no discoveries which are cost-free, and this is justanother example.

MR. WATTENBERG: Why has our view of Columbus changed so much inrecent years?

MR. FONER: Well, as you pointed out at the beginning, previousviews of Columbus were as one-sided as perhaps some of the critics in1992 were guilty of being. A hundred years ago when there was thecelebration of the 400th anniversary, Columbus was portrayed asunalloyed hero producing pure good for humanity, the United Stateswas the sort of onward march of progress and freedom for the world,and that was what history was. And it's natural that aone-dimensional point of view like that is going to eventually leadto revisionism and criticism.

MR. ROYAL: I would say that you could regard the reaction toColumbus in 1992 as sort of a symptom of how we feel as a society.Columbus, in historical fact, was certainly not an ecological monsterthe way he was sometimes portrayed in 1992. He certainly did notpractice racism or imperialism anymore than many other peoples aroundthe world and in the pre-Columbian Americas practiced. But all thoseare symptoms of some nervousness that we feel in our society andwhere we felt great confidence in 1892 and thought of ourselves as aforward-looking society. I think now our basic problem is that weknow that we've lost something that we'd like to get back, and as wesearch for where we might find those bases, we look elsewhere. Ithink there's a lot of projection been carried out in trying to findthe Native American cultures for example, a kind of a pristinerelationship to the environment that in fact historically did notexist. But that is not to say that the concern itself is notsomething that we ought to pay attention to.

MR. HORTON: One of the things that I guess I have troubleunderstanding is why people don't understand that there are a varietyof points of views here. I mean, we'll never know what the historyis. We'll never know when we have all the evidence in. We havedifferent point of views, and we certainly ought to be able tounderstand that. I mean, after all, if you were an American Indianstanding on -- if you were an Arawak Indian standing on the shoreswatching Columbus come and you knew that within 100 years you'd beextinct in large part because this presence was coming, it seems tome that you would not be expected to see this as a new andprogressive thing. On the other hand, if you were in Europe and youknew that this was going to expand your boundaries in the world, youcertainly would see it as a new progressive thing. So I mean whatwe're talking here are different points of views, and we certainlycan understand that different points of views exist without --

MR. BOORSTIN: I think it's -- excuse me, Jim.

MR. HORTON: Certainly.

MR. BOORSTIN: I think there is a spirit which is expressed in therevisionist insistence which I don't find sympathetic, and that'swhat I would call the arrogance of modernity. It's always seemed tome, and it's one of the themes that I've played in my book 'TheDiscoverers' which you were kind enough to mention, that the greatobstacle to progress is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.And I think that illusion is one that the revisionists are constantlyexpressing. They believe that they have the final answer to whatvirtue should be. And I think that one of the purposes of the studyof history should be to open our minds, to extend our thinking toimagine that things can be otherwise. And one of the ways of it beingotherwise is that people could have wanted to do -- that a greatperson, an inspired, courageous person could have wanted to reach outacross the world to reach the Indies as it had never been reachedbefore.

MR. FONER: Of course, there is bad history produced anywhere, youknow, on all levels --revisionist, standard history -- but the bestof the new histories are actually forcing us to rethink the wholemainstream of American history. They're making us --

MR. WATTENBERG: That's the rubric called 'the new history.'

MR. FONER: Yes, they're making us think in new ways about the --they're not segregating themselves off. The challenge is we have tothink in new ways about the American Revolution, we have to think innew ways about the Civil War. Once you incorporate the history ofwomen or of African Americans or of other groups into that story,it's a different story then. That's the real challenge that the newhistory is posing, and that's why it is disturbing to some people.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask Dan Boorstin a question. Is this 'newhistory' really new? I mean, I've read some of your works on America,and they get far afield from what merely presidents and the Congresshave done. They get into the whole warp and woof of American society,which is what you're talking about. So what's new?

MR. BOORSTIN: Well, I would -- I hope my writing has done whatyou've suggested, but I think what we should aim at is a humanhistory.

MR. FONER: Absolutely.

MR. BOORSTIN: And I think that, insofar as the champions ofdifferent minority histories have set up their own departments andtheir own lectureships and courses, they have tended to dividehistory, to separate us from one another.

MR. HORTON: But can I interrupt here for a second?

MR. BOORSTIN: Yeah. MR. HORTON: Because those departments have notbeen set up because people said, 'Geez, we ought to have a separatedepartment.' They've been set up because the history has not beenincluded traditionally in what we have been told is American history.

MR. BOORSTIN: Well, I --

MR. HORTON: I mean, for most of what we -- most of the teaching ofthe American history has been the history of a tiny minority ofAmericans who generally are presidents, heads of corporations, andgenerals. There are only a very few Americans that have ever beenthat. So the vast majority --

MR. BOORSTIN: I don't know whom you mean. Mention a majorhistorian of whom that's true. I can't think of one.

MR. HORTON: In terms of what history was about? For example, wehave our Revolutionary era, our Jacksonian era, our Jeffersonian era,our Civil War era. Those eras take their name from great events orgreat -- and this is not by accident -- men. Now, the point is thatthere were important things going on among the majority of Americansduring that period, some of whom were black, some of whom wereIndian, some of whom were poor, most of whom were women. The point isthat, if this history is not being included in the traditionaltelling of history, how are you to get it into the curriculum unlessyou do this in a separate --

MR. BOORSTIN: I think what I would call the divisive or so-calledminority approach -- what Arthur Schlesinger calls the disuniting ofAmerica by the rewriting of our history -- I think that is -- movesin the wrong direction. One of the reasons -- you see, you can't haveit both ways. You can't both say, which is what I believe, that forthe most part women and lots of other people, including blacks andothers, have been deprived of their place in American political -- inAmerican politics and yet say that the chronicle of Americanpolitical life must give those people equal space, because is nottrue. There were no blacks, to my knowledge, in the ConstitutionalConvention --

MR. HORTON: But maybe we're defining --

MR. BOORSTIN: -- and yet the Constitutional Convention was a great-- was one of the great achievements of Western civilization.

MR. HORTON: Certainly.

MR. BOORSTIN: So I think to minimize that achievement in order tomaximize the role of people who were being deprived of opportunitiesis not to enlarge our sense of human nature.

MR. FONER: Yes, the Constitutional Convention, of course, was agreat achievement. On the other hand, it's not -- it's only fairlyrecently that historians have devoted, I think, sufficient attentionto the role of slavery in the Constitutional Convention debates, tothe fact that for most African Americans the Constitution and itsadoption was actually a step backward, that it solidified theinstitution of slavery, it strengthened the institution of slavery,it gave slave owners greater political power than they had had. Now,what is the purpose of saying that? It's not to beat our breasts andsay, 'Oh, well, look at the evils in American history.' It's to tryto develop a nuanced, complicated view of history in which we are not-- that our history is not just an onward and upward wiggishprogress. It's not a straight line of 'On, Republic.'

MR. WATTENBERG: Just moving up in a straight line -- I mean, wepolished off Columbus -- you are now saying that the FoundingFathers, too, are people we ought to look at with much greaterscrutiny and that they were not ---

MR. FONER: Yeah, I'm not -- yes, of course.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- they were not heroes necessarily.

MR. FONER: I am not saying, as you suggested before, you know,metaphorically that the Founding Fathers should be viewed as greedyracist, blood -- whatever you said.


MR. FONER: They were human beings with flaws and with greatness,and their achievements were human achievements. And --

MR. ROYAL: But I think, even if you look at traditional historywhether they're other traditional histories of Columbus, traditionalhistories of America, you find some of that ambivalence built intothem. Certainly if you go back --

MR. FONER: Certainly.

MR. ROYAL: -- and look at them, you'll see that the very questionsthat you're talking about are not quite given the prominence thatthey are. But even if there was a step backward in fact, in powerrelations, after the Constitution, which I think we could all admitis kind of a debatable point, clearly the trajectory has been set forsomething that we all generally applaud now, that however much thatdocument took a while to work itself out and to be extended to otherpeople and awaits to be extended to other people even today --

MR. HORTON: Let me just jump in here.

MR. ROYAL: -- it's an important step in human history, not only inAmerican history.

MR. HORTON: Yeah, let me just jump in here again. I mean, I don'tthink we should assume that, because things did happen in a certainway they were scheduled to happen in a certain way, that they had tohappen in a certain way. Part of the reason that we made someprogress, and I will certainly say that there was some progress -- Imean, after all, we did bring slavery to an end in 1865 -- but partof the reason that we made some progress is because those people whowere left out of that convention -- I'm now talking about people whotook part in the reform movements which ultimately led to the CivilWar, which ultimately led to the end of slavery -- because thosepeople refused to be quiet.

MR. BOORSTIN: May I just add that I think that to take aproportional representation approach to history seems to be, to me,misguided. If we're going to -- if we're concerned with civilizationand culture and the tradition of rights embodied in the common lawand in our Constitution, we cannot apportion the role of people topeople according to the number of them who exist. It's not ademographic question. It's a cultural question. And if we say, as Ithink most of us would agree, that for much of Western historycertain groups have been deprived of their opportunities, we can'talso say that the story of Western culture must give them an equalposition, because the great works of literature and painting andmusic and the arts in the West have been done by people who had theopportunity to do it.

MR. FONER: I don't really think anyone is debating proportionalrepresentation. I think what is -- the really subversive result ofthe new history, as I said before, is that it leaves us to rethinkopen questions about some of these unquestioned achievements. Let ustake the common law, for example. It does make us think differentlyabout that great tradition of common law when we emphasize as women'shistorians do nowadays that under the common law women had no legalexistence, they were subordinated into the legal standing of a fatheror a husband. Now, again, what is the purpose of saying that? It'snot to say, 'Look how bad the common law was.' It's to say, 'Ifyou're going to look at the legal tradition in its full implicationsfor the whole of society, not just for some part of it, you have toput that at the center of your analysis along with the rights andprivileges which the common law also gives.' It's a complicatedsituation. I think introducing complexity is what historians ought tobe doing.

MR. BOORSTIN: I think it's important that we not be Utopians, andI think --

MR. FONER: Yeah --

MR. BOORSTIN: -- that one of the troubles with the feministcritique of the common law is that it assumes that the alternative tothis rounded system which deprived women of their opportunity to ownproperty in certain circumstances and so on -- the alternative tothat is a perfect system in which everyone is equal to everyone elseand everyone is flourishing in peace.

MR. FONER: No, I think their point is not that we ought to have aperfect Utopia. I think their point is that the very rights that wecelebrate -- correctly and justly -- as the foundation of ourconstitutional definition of rights were founded in some respect onthe deprivation of others' rights. If you add that into the equation,you get a much more interesting, I think, and complicated view.

MR. BOORSTIN: But that's a truism; that's not interesting at all.

MR. FONER: It's a truism, but it's fully ignored in most studiesof that subject.

MR. WATTENBERG: We could take this -- let me just ask something, Imean, about the United States of America. I mean, we talk now afterthe end of the Cold War -- at least people like me talk about it --that there is an 'Americanization' of the world going on; that thathas something to do with democracy and a market economy andindividualism and tolerance and pluralism and civil liberties -- thethings we are most proud of, albeit in an imperfect society -- thatwe are the number one political, military, scientific, educational,linguistic and economic power in the world at this moment -- quiteremarkable. What on earth are we doing trashing ourselves?

MR. FONER: This is not trashing. This is exactly what I think iswrong in this critique. We are not trashing the United States topoint out the pros and cons. What you're asking for by posing it thatway is to say we should celebrate, the role of the historian is to bethe drum beater, the celebrator, of the nation state. In fact, one ofthe wonderful things about Professor Boorstin's histories --

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, is it --

MR. FONER: -- is that it is not -- they are not confined to thenation state -- 'The Discoverers' for example. The world is becomingmore international and more interdependent, and yet historians arestill locked into the nation state as the premise of all our studies.We ought to be studying --

MR. HORTON: Let me --

MR. FONER: -- worldwide processes in which maybe the United Stateswouldn't look so unique in a way.

MR. HORTON: Let me make a point here. And that is that, ashistorians, when we look at our culture, what we see is that not in1994, but for the broad range of our history we have been amulticultural, multiracial society. Now, that means that we have beenneither a European society, nor an African society, but a blend ofboth those societies. And if you look in places like 18th centurySouth Carolina, where the majority of people were Africans -- peopleof African descent, and some people who had come directly from Africa-- what you see is the unmistakable impact of Africa on America. WhenEuropeans in the 19th century came to America to look around and seethis new democracy, one of the things they recognized was howdifferent America was from what they had known in Europe. And part ofthat difference was the fact that we in part an African country, too.

MR. BOORSTIN: I think you're failing to take account of the factthat the great elements of our Western civilization are those whichare mostly inherited from Europe. That includes the common law. Itincludes our language, literature, our religions, and so on.

MR. HORTON: But it does not --

MR. BOORSTIN: So that the fact that there's no doubt it, therewere a lot of people who had come from other places and they wereliving their lives here. And we should know about them, as you'retrying to help us learn, which I'm glad of. But what has built ourculture and made us tolerant of one another, made it possible for usto sit here and talk together, which might not have been the case inAfrica or elsewhere -- that -- what makes that possible is the highculture which we inherited, our European heritage, which is theheritage of civil rights, of the common law, of the Judeo-Christiantradition, and these are all transplanted.

MR. ROYAL: I would have to argue, though, that there is somethingunique on American soil, that there is some richness and somecarrying to a higher level of certain ideas that were present inEurope, but certainly had not existed. I mean, there's been a newexperiment that began here, began later in France, and has reallystarted a different moment in world history, which we could call sortof a democratic age.

MR. WATTENBERG: I have one last question. Who owns history. Doeseverybody own history?

MR. FONER: Everybody --

MR. BOORSTIN: Yes, sure.

MR. FONER: -- yes, does and is owning history.

MR. BOORSTIN: Sure I think we can all agree on that, can't we?

MR. FONER: The people who made 'Gone With the Wind' are presentinghistory. The people who are making --

MR. HORTON: Everybody is history.

MR. FONER: -- television shows are making history.

MR. HORTON: We all own history. We all make history. It's just thetraditional way in which history has been taught that leads us tobelieve that only famous people make history. But the fact of life is--

MR. BOORSTIN: I don't know where you got that idea. Excuse me. Idon't --

MR. HORTON: Because that's who dominate the pages of most of ourtraditional textbooks.

MR. ROYAL: It strikes me this is a very American question: Whoowns history? As if it's a cultural property that whoever pays thehighest -- MR. HORTON: A commodity. Yeah, we are history.

MR. ROYAL: -- the highest advance for it owns. I think thathistory owns us in a way. I mean, we have a responsibility to history--

MR. BOORSTIN: We need to know what it is.

MR. ROYAL: -- to be as truthful, to reject as many falsecontemporary urges as we possibly can. We can see that Columbus wasquite clearly idealized in 1892. I think we can quite clearly seethat he was demonized in some unfair ways in 1992. And, insofar as wecare about the truth, which I think all people who study historyought to care about, it doesn't matter who owns it.

MR. HORTON: Every generation rewrites history so that it can makesense of its present. That's exactly what is happening now, and it'sno different than what happened in the time of Jefferson when theywere writing a history that would make sense for a new country.

MR. WATTENBERG: Daniel Boorstin, finish it off for us.

MR. BOORSTIN: Well, I think we've perhaps illustrated here todaythat the -- that perhaps the great value of history is in theseeking. And if we can seek together, that brings us together inspite of or because of all our disagreements. And I've always thoughtthat a free society is not an orderly one, not one with a new worldorder, but a society like ours of creative chaos. And we've beengiving a little bit of this on this program, but that's encouragingto me.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you, Daniel Boorstin, Eric Foner,Robert Royal and James Horton.

And thank you. We enjoy hearing from our audience a great deal.Please send your comments and questions to: New River Media, 115017th Street, NW, Suite 1050, Washington, DC, 20036. Or we can bereached by electronic mail at thinktv at

For Think Tank, I'm Ben Wattenberg.

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