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American History Captured by the Left

A boy views the flag known as "The Star Spangled Banner" at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington,
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Editor’s note: The following is adapted from Lies My Liberal Teacher Told Me, by Wilfred Reilly, with permission from Broadside Books.


We often, bizarrely, hear the claim that American history is taught mostly from the political right — and that it presents our nation as bucolic. But, in fact, many of the best-selling social-science books of the past few decades focus on the idea that the “real” history of the United States was a virtually unending bloodbath.

A short list of influential texts of this kind would have to include Marxist Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, the New York Times–originating recent best seller The 1619 Project, and . . . well . . . James W. Loewen’s 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me.

This entire body of work draws from and ties into the modern American obsession with racism. A worthy topic of study, to be sure. But at some point, the obvious needs to be said. The argument that the American intellectual class loves the country too much, and consistently slants its work product to the right, is insane.

In reality, the contemporary U.S. national media and academic professoriat lean roughly 93 percent to the left, and this has been the case for some time. Within the secondary schools, two popular curricula currently in use come from the 1619 Project and Dr. Zinn himself. If the old myth beloved of the Manifest Destiny fan club was that America and the West could do no wrong, the new hotness is that every wrong is uniquely Western and American.

To read many leftist scholars, you’d come away thinking non-Western slavery was basically a fun vacation. The opposite is true. The most significant thing that was unique about the practice of slavery in the early modern West was that the nations of contemporary Europe and North America set out to end the institution globally, and largely did so. British oceangoing fleets blockaded slaving ports around the world, sinking at least 1,600 slave ships and freeing 150,000 slaves — in what was explicitly an attempt to minimize or end the so-called peculiar institution. Notably, in sizeable nations of color where trod only briefly the Western galosh, slavery still often endures. The practice exists rather openly in Mauritania, and slavery/chattel serfdom was only banned in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s.

The same historical myopia afflicts representations of European colonialism. Historical European colonialism (although, oddly, not Ottoman, Mongol, Arab Muslim, or Moorish colonialism) is today almost invariably described as an unmitigated evil. In reality, the facts are more complicated. There is little if any evidence that states that were never colonized by Europeans but rather ruled exclusively by local conquerors — think Liberia, Ethiopia, and Thailand — are on average better off today than those that were colonized (India, Nigeria, Indonesia, Kenya, etc.).

I am clearly not arguing that history’s bloody wars of conquest were free of hypocrisy and what we would today consider injustice. But this brings us to a key point, which serves as something of a central theme for this book.

Modern American morality is an aberration. If we don’t understand that, then reading history will be nothing but one long shock to our naïve systems. The past is a foreign country, as the saying goes, with its own laws and customs. We would be wise to familiarize ourselves with those rules before we go adventuring in the texts. The reality is that international law defending human rights and individual liberty and opposing wars of aggression is a distinctly modern concept. The right to conquest was only banned by an international body after World War II. (And if we’re honest, “neutral” international bodies often spend their time obscuring how seldom non-Western countries actually followinternational law today.)

In applying our standards to the past, leftist teachers often try to argue that messy reality should have been more like some improbably pure alternative. But historical actors did not in fact get to make choices between ugly existence and hypothetical perfection — all of their actions must be compared to their real-world alternatives and not to what might have taken place in Utopia. These hard facts prove inconvenient for a leftist, revisionist view of the past, where all non-white peoples lived as noble savages in enlightened Gardens of Eden, before being corrupted by contact with grubby foreign invaders. But, in fact, almost all areas of the world that were conquered by the West were previously under the thumb — or the bootheel — of brutal and unelected “Native rulers,” often external conquerors themselves.

The previous ruling power across most of British India was the Turko-Mongol Moghul Empire, which imposed the state religion of Sunni Islam on the Indian subcontinent (if lightly) and taxed peasants at roughly half the value of their annual crop. The choice for most Nigerians was between the redcoated rule of the Britishers and the Black Muslim Sokoto Caliphate — then the second-largest slave power in the world.

For most ordinary people living through history, war for conquest was normal but brutal, whichever end of the gun you happened to be on. What most people cared about was what society looked like when the gun smoke cleared. For such people, Western societies were often the best bad option. That doesn’t mean that Western conquerors were always “right” to conquer, or that they weren’t often hypocrites even by their own loose standards. However, although normal isn’t the same as good (when it comes to history or any other topic), it’s important to be aware of the norms of the past because they determine the scale and tenor of our judgment of the actors that followed them.

History’s true lesson to us is a simpler and wiser one than “break all the icons.” Perfection is impossible (and the pursuit of it often indeed the enemy of the good), close approaches to it are rare, and any guilt about things that one has not personally done is the profoundest sort of folly. Let us avoid folly, and instead engage the past, learn from it — and keep moving forward.

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Source: American History Has Been Captured by the Left, Not the Right | National Review