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The Reactionary Utopian (classic)
January 2, 2014

History and Miss Couric
A classic by Joseph Sobran
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[CLASSIC] — In the land of the blind, they say, the one-eyed man is king. Maybe Americans are now so ignorant of history that they need Katie Couric, the gratingly perky hostess of NBC's TODAY SHOW, to raise their consciousness.

On a recent morning Miss Couric enlightened us with the information that the Wright brothers, before they got around to inventing the airplane, built bicycles. There's history for you. You didn't know that? Stay tuned. There's a lot more where that came from, as Miss Couric, the medium's answer to Gibbon and Toynbee, guides us back into the past in a new series on public television. She's going to tell us how our precious freedoms were won, chiefly, I gather from the previews, through the heroic efforts of women and minorities.

...few things are as annoying as a stale idea that lingers on like an unwelcome guest who doesn't know when to leave and won't stop monopolizing the conversation.



It's a safe bet that "history," as spooned out by Miss Couric, will turn out to mean a series of liberal-feminist milestones, the imposition of a simplified modern perspective on the past, with progressive good guys (and equally good gals) triumphing relentlessly over reactionaries.

Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come, we are told; but few things are as annoying as a stale idea that lingers on like an unwelcome guest who doesn't know when to leave and won't stop monopolizing the conversation.

One such idea is the Progressive view of history, or what the historian Sir Herbert Butterfield called "the whig interpretation of history." Butterfield criticized his fellow historians for their tendency to see the past not on its own terms, but on theirs, sorting historic figures into ill-fitting categories they wouldn't have understood.

For example, it had become customary for "whig" history to treat Martin Luther as a sort of precursor of liberalism and religious freedom, and therefore a historical good guy, since these things had in some way emerged from the Protestant Reformation that began with Luther. But Luther himself would have been horrified by these later developments. He was engaged in a controversy with the Catholic Church over specific theological questions, and neither side believed in religious freedom in anything like the modern sense. Butterfield insisted that in order to see the past truly — it can never be seen completely — we have to try to grasp what both sides, or all sides, thought they were doing at the time. And this usually turns out to be something alien to modern concerns.

...you have to understand [Lincoln] as he actually was, not as you would wish him to be. This can be offensive to modern pieties and prejudices.



An example closer to home is Abraham Lincoln. Those whose understanding of Lincoln centers on the Gettysburg Address tend to reduce him to a champion of racial equality. This is so far from the truth that countless facts about his life and presidency have to be airbrushed out of the picture or strenuously explained away. He has been turned into a forerunner of Martin Luther King Jr., when in fact he had much more in common with the Southern segregationists King battled.

The real Lincoln is much more complex and interesting than the storybook Lincoln. Whether or not you like or approve of him is not the historian's concern; first you have to understand him as he actually was, not as you would wish him to be. This can be
offensive to modern pieties and prejudices; one Republican politician lumped me among "assassins of Lincoln's character" for quoting Lincoln's own words on the desirability of transporting "free colored persons" outside the United States! Removing free Negroes from this country was one of Lincoln's chief passions, yet many biographies of him mention this fact only glancingly, if at all. Lincoln must remain an icon of whig history, even if it means distorting his life and American history itself.

True history has much to teach us, but not if we approach the subject expecting it to yield prepackaged "lessons" that are really nothing more than our own preconceptions. The past is full of surprises, often disillusioning. And this is one of the great values of studying history. Sometimes you're not quite sure what its lessons are, but they don't always confirm what you wanted to believe.

Yet there is an austere joy in facing the past as it really was, in letting it change your mind, in giving up cherished generalizations. If you can bear to do all this, the study of history will give you gifts you couldn't have imagined.

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Copyright © 2014 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, fgfbooks.com.
This column was published originally by Griffin Internet Syndicate on January 9, 2003.

Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio and archives of some of his columns.

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