Part of this blog is devoted to the discipline of History, and more to the point, History as it appears in the post-modern world. In looking at my chosen discipline, and then back at American society in general, striking parallels rise to the fore, parallels exposed in the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in Tucson.

Since the tragic event of January 8, the media’s response basically has fallen into two camps. The media on the right emphasizes that the gunman acted as a lone and crazed individual, while media pundits on the left point to a culture of guns, hate, and in-your-face militant politics as an equal culprit in the assassination attempt of the Democratic Congresswoman and the senseless killing of six others.

Note, that History is divided along this right versus left genre as well…somewhat. Instead of right versus left, many disciplines divide themselves into different camps or schools. The schools of thought involved in History occasionally rises to the publics’ attention – usually via the media where Lynn Cheney and other conservative historians denounce any other portrayal of History other than theirs. Somehow, that gets media attention (but not the other way around). Lynn Cheney champions a school of historical thought known as “Neo-Whig.” There are many other schools of thought in the discipline of History other than the Neo-Whig point of view. Whig History first appeared in the United States early in the nineteenth century. Since then other schools of America schools of thought in reference to History have emerged and are – in order of appearance – Imperialists and Progressives prior to World War II, and Consensus, Neo-Whigs, Neo-Progressives, and perhaps a new school of thought loosely ascribed as Post-Modernists, since the end of the Second World War.

Neo-Whig historians, like the media on the right, tend to portray the individualistic aspects of human progress. The Revolutionary War, according to a Neo-Whig, occurred largely at the outrage of a few colonial men who held the merit, wit, and leadership abilities to forge a new nation. Post-Modernist historians, like the media on the left, emphasize a combination of other factors that drove society: its culture, its ethnography, and its social stratifications. The Revolutionary War, therefore, is less a conservative reaction to a British tyrannical king, but rather part of a historical groundswell, with roots in the Renaissance, where the masses fought to claim the rights of citizenship.

Loosely and somewhat oversimplified, the Neo-Whig school champions American individualism, whereas Post-Modernists insist upon context, especially cultural contexts as the engine that drives History forward. Neo-Whig historians focus on the founding fathers and ask Americans to consider their examples of disinterested good in the creation of the nation. Post Modernist would focus on the masses, the rope makers, the slaves, the thousand others that fought for American liberty and ideals but whose stories are buried. Post Modernist might also challenge the Neo-Whigs in claiming that the founding fathers were creatures of their culture, many of them educated slave-holders who speculated on property and war bonds – therefore challenging the notion that George Washing fought for purely libertarian reasons.

Unlike the media, however, the many schools of historical thought talk to one another, judge one another, write about History and each other and usually seek historical commonalities rather than instances of in-your-face, I’m right, you’re wrong mentalities. Equally, the scrutiny that these historical schools afford to one another has, by and large, raised the bar and the discipline. Our History is better than ever. Perhaps this is because of the decorum, the conferences, the ability to see and appreciate a well-stated argument – even if it’s not your from your school – and perhaps, even to incorporate those arguments into one’s own research.

Let’s make this point absolutely clear, historians disagree all the time. But the collegiate system and the reality of peer review keeps hyperbolic ugliness from infiltrating Clio’s lair – except the occasional Lynn Cheney television appearance.

The question we now face in the aftermath of Tucson is whether or not such civility could exist amongst our politicians. I tend to think not. As long as the media portrays our American society as wrong versus right, black versus white, cats lovers versus dog lovers – as long as the media portrays life in the United States in these simplistic and unreal terms, uncivil discourse will remain.

 

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