On history and politics

A quote from a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

to acknowledge that history is political is not to say that it necessarily favors any particular politics, nor that historians are propagandists. To the contrary, while many historians are politically active and committed, they are less frequently strident. Historians usually see historical outcomes as contingent and often unexpected. People intend one thing and produce another. America’s so-called founding fathers hated political parties yet created a country that soon produced a rigid party system. People with righteous goals can become oppressors in the name of those values. The French Jacobins cried "liberty, equality, fraternity" and created a bloody dictatorship. Those who seek to end injustice are themselves flawed people. And many whom our society now chooses to honor suffered in their own time. Martin Luther King Jr., the closest thing to a secular saint that the United States has, was profoundly unpopular at the time of his death, and the FBI apparently tried to goad him to commit suicide.

To think historically is also to see things from multiple perspectives; it is a necessary skill to think through the actions of others. When we look into the past, we see that people held views that were compatible with the way they lived. We see that their outlook on the world was a product of their time, their position within society, and their character. What seemed right and what seemed wrong to them had a great deal to do with their time in history, the society in which they lived, and the kind of power they had, or did not have. Historical thinking demands that we recognize that the same is surely true of us. Our present will soon become someone else’s past, and nothing puts us outside the influence of the social forces of our own time. We too will one day be judged as flawed, and as products of our own time, just as we now see those who lived in past decades, centuries, and millennia.