A once-revered historian dared condemn revisionism, was attacked for it, then predictably and disgracefully apologized.
"History by apprising [citizens] of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views." —Thomas Jefferson (1781)
Where are the academicians with courage and integrity? There was a time when college and university profs were counterculture leaders, which for decades meant they marched in lockstep with the Left. Today, though, they fancy themselves counterculture protagonists. Now that the socialist oppressors are in control, they continue to embrace the leftist culture in the safety of the academy, which has become little more than a political and cultural echo chamber.
If I had to choose just one intellectual who has most exemplified in recent decades the courage and integrity that all professors should embrace, it would be Marine veteran Thomas Sowell, senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, who is often cited in The Patriot Post. A close second would be our longtime supporter and former distinguished professor of economics at George Mason University, Walter E. Williams, an Army veteran. When Williams passed away in 2020, his friend Sowell wrote about him in remembrance.
There are other exemplars, including historian Victor Davis Hanson, also a senior fellow at Stanford. Fact is, most colleges and universities have a few token outliers whose views don't comport with leftist mainstream academia, but in light of the rise of cancel culture censorship, and particularly the Demo hate hustlers constantly promoting racial division, any time a black intellectual like Sowell or Williams dares to stand for truth, that is a particularly courageous act. I noted previously that, unlike the vast majority of academicians today, both Sowell and Williams are military veterans, which likely has to do with their tenacity and mettle.
Speaking of himself some decades ago, Sowell referenced the observation of others: "People say, 'You're a very tough person.' I'm not tough. Life is tough. I'm merely trying to acquaint you with those facts."
Indeed, life was tough for Sowell, as it was Williams. Sowell's father died before his birth, and his mom, a housemaid who already had four kids, sent her fifth to be raised by a great-aunt. Born in North Carolina, Sowell spent most of his formative years in Harlem. He dropped out of high school to get a job, and only attended college after having completed a Korean War-era tour in the Marine Corps. Then it was Howard, Harvard, and Columbia, where he earned a Ph.D.
He and Williams became two of the most outspoken advocates for individual rights and responsibilities, and the fact they were both black men lent enormous gravitas to that advocacy.
On history, Thomas Sowell wrote: "One of the most important reasons for studying history is that virtually every stupid idea that is in vogue today has been tried before and proved disastrous before, time and again. Do we need to keep repeating the same mistakes forever?"
That is a contemporary version of this observation from 20th century philosopher George Santayana, who concluded in his treatise, The Life of Reason: "Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
English writer and dystopian philosopher Aldous Huxley put it more succinctly: "That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history."
The 1619 Project is a political agenda, not a history curriculum. The accurate history of slavery should be taught in our schools, including the fact that in the 19th century, it was countries under white leadership — Britain, France, and the United States — that abolished slavery within their nations. But what students should also know today is that there are more than 40 million people enslaved worldwide, and the vast majority of black slaves are in sub-Saharan Africa under the control of black slavers — far more than the 388,000 slaves brought to North America between 1525 and 1866. But that is an inconvenient reality that does not fit the leftist narrative.
According to the AHA's mission: "The American Historical Association promotes historical work and the importance of historical thinking in public life. Incorporated by Congress in 1889, its mission to enhance the work of historians also encompasses academic freedom, professional standards and ethics, innovative scholarship and teaching and international collaboration. As the largest membership association of professional historians in the world (over 11,500 members), the AHA serves historians in a wide variety of professions, and represents every historical era and geographical area."
Apparently only when "historical work" and "historical thinking" comport with the Left's historical revision narrative.
In "Is History History?" over the subtitle, "Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present," Sweet, whose day job is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, challenged the leftist orthodoxy, insisting essentially that we need to stop judging everyone in the past by the standards of the present and then erasing our history.
Essentially, Sweet was making the case that it's time to dislodge cancel culture's chokehold on historical truth.
He reasonably observed: "Whether or not historians believe that there is anything new in the New York Times project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project is a best-selling book that sits at the center of current controversies over how to teach American history. As journalism, the project is powerful and effective, but is it history? ... As a historian of Africa and the African diaspora, I am troubled by the historical erasures and narrow politics that these narratives convey. ... If history is only those stories from the past that confirm current political positions, all manner of political hacks can claim historical expertise."
He continued: "If we don't read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues — race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism — are we doing history that matters? This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines. ... The present has been creeping up on our discipline for a long time. Doing history with integrity requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors. ... History is not a heuristic tool for the articulation of an ideal imagined future. Rather, it is a way to study the messy, uneven process of change over time. When we foreshorten or shape history to justify rather than inform contemporary political positions, we not only undermine the discipline but threaten its very integrity."
Disgracefully but predictably, Sweet was immediately and viciously attacked, and equally disgracefully and predictably, he quickly folded and apologized: "My September Perspectives on History column has generated anger and dismay among many of our colleagues and members. I take full responsibility that it did not convey what I intended and for the harm that it has caused. ... I sincerely regret the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends. I am deeply sorry. In my clumsy efforts to draw attention to methodological flaws in teleological presentism, I left the impression that questions posed from absence, grief, memory, and resilience somehow matter less than those posed from positions of power. Once again, I apologize for the damage I have caused to my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA."
He NEVER should have apologized for telling the truth. In doing so as president of the AHA, he has undermined the integrity of his entire organization. As boldly noted by University of Maryland distinguished historian Jeffrey Herf: "The AHA needs leadership that will defend the autonomy and freedom of historical scholarship from an intolerant Left within the academy as well as the anti-intellectual and censorious Right outside it. ... Professional self-respect and the autonomy and freedom of scholarship demand that historians firmly rebuff and not appease those within our ranks who seek to replace scholarship with politics."
Moreover, Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars and author of 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project, observes in "One Worldview has taken over the historical profession," a rebuttal to the woke mob: "The simple lesson is that Nikole Hannah-Jones wins again. She bestrides the American history profession like a colossus. The other lesson is that the historian profession under the auspices of the AHA is just plain doomed. When it makes a half-hearted attempt to get something right, it then falls back into humiliation."
For a more irreverent take, I leave you with these observations from leftist Bill Maher, who took on the cancel culture mob and its attacks to silence Professor Sweet. According to Maher, "New rule: You can get creative with a novel, a TV show or a movie, but history books — that's not supposed to be fan fiction." He further notes, "Liberals [are] accusing conservatives of wanting to whitewash the past ... but plenty of liberals also want to abuse history to control the present."
As it relates to the history of slavery and cancel culture today, Maher declared: "Everybody who could afford one, had a slave, including people of color. The way some people talk about slavery these days you would think it was in a uniquely American thing invented in 1619. But slavery throughout history has been the rule, not the exception. The Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Arabs, the British, early Americans ... all had slaves. The word 'slave' comes from 'Slav' and [Slavics] were as white as the Hallmark Channel. Who do you think gathered the slaves from the interior of Africa to sell to slave traders — Africans, who also kept their own slaves."
He continued: "The capacity for slavery is a human thing, not a 'white thing' — that's the truth even though it doesn't jive with the current narrative. But in today's world when truth conflicts with the narrative, it's the truth that has to apologize. Being woke is like a magic moral time machine where you judge everybody against what you would have done in 1066 and you always win. Presentism. Yeah this professor [Sweet] is right. It's just a way to congratulate yourself about being better than George Washington because you have a gay friend and he didn't. But if he was alive today he would too. And if you were alive then, you wouldn't."
Giving an example of the academic absurdity besieging elementary and high schools, Maher notes: "Portland public schools has a plan to teach kids that the idea of 'gender' being 'binary' was brought here by 'white colonizers.' The curriculum guide says, 'when the United States was Colonized by white settlers, their views on gender were forced upon the people already living here.' It's like they discovered a unified theory of whiteness, incorporating all their theories about race, gender and colonizers, like the new world was a great big diverse dance club and the pilgrims came in and ruined everything."
He concludes, "Not to say that there isn't some truth to the old rubric that 'history is written by the winners' and it is subjective [but] it's also true that much of history is indisputably factual."
Ironically, sitting next to Maher was his guest, Jon Meacham — whose historical writings are deserving of accolades despite having won a Pulitzer Prize. However, his contemporary perspective is as woke as the worst, as is too often the case with those who become pop celebrities. Ironic, I note also, because Meacham helped craft Joe Biden's obscene hate America speech two weeks ago, an affront to our nation's history.
Of course, the epidemic of "historical cleansing" is not limited to institutions of "higher learning." It is the basis for stripping historic names from buildings and military bases and tearing down statues and other historically significant symbols.
Cultural observer John Daniel Davidson notes of the latest effort to remove a Confederate statue at Arlington: "Removing war memorials from military cemeteries is what happens when the bonds of civic life have all but disappeared. It's a dangerous sign."
Finally, as Thomas Sowell laments, "Racism is not dead, but it is on life support — kept alive by politicians, race hustlers and people who get a sense of superiority by announcing others as 'racists.'" He notes further: "It's kept alive mainly by the people who use it for an excuse or to keep minority communities fearful or resentful enough to turn out as a voting bloc on election day. ... Have we become a country whose leaders are charlatans, and whose people are sheep?"
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776