History and Miss Couric
January 9, 2003
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 NBCs Today Show, to raise
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. Theres history
for you. You didnt know that? Stay tuned. Theres a lot more
where that came from, as Miss Couric, the mediums answer to
Gibbon and Toynbee, guides us back into the past in a new series on public
television. Shes going to tell us how our precious freedoms were
won, chiefly, I gather from the previews, through the heroic efforts of
women and minorities.
Its 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 doesnt
know when to leave and wont 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 wouldnt have understood.
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.
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 historians 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 Lincolns
character for quoting Lincolns own words on the
desirability of transporting free colored persons outside
the United States! Removing free Negroes from this country was one of
Lincolns 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 youre not
quite sure what its lessons are, but they dont 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 couldnt have imagined.