Reflections on Conservatives Doing Public History

After skimming the titles of the required posts for this week, I landed on Klugewicz’s article, “Hungry Souls and Brave Hearts: Heroism, History and Myth,” and I thought it would be an interesting read. In studying the history of the American West, I have learned to acknowledge the challenges of reconciling the dichotomy of the region’s actual history with that of the “Imagined West” (which is characterized as paternalistic, individualistic, timeless and placeless etc.). I figured that this article would promote a similar approach and would encourage readers to question their perceptions of the past, especially those perceptions clouded in myth. I thought the author would be reiterating the importance of recognizing the convoluted relationship between the history and myth. I was so wrong.

How can anyone seriously advocate telling “history as a great myth?” This approach creates so many problems, and I think this is why students dislike history to the extent that they do. They have grown up with a mythic understanding of the past, and at some point in their academic careers they are introduced to a less exaggerated, less epic, uglier version of the past, and I think they feel cheated. Why would they be interested in studying something that in no way resembles what they thought they knew about history? At this point, it is easier for them to disregard a truthful interpretation of the past and stick with the version of history that Hollywood created.

Western American historian Richard White provides a thorough explanation of the role that the “imagined West” plays in Western American history. While White acknowledges that it is difficult to separate the mythic West from the historic West, he recognizes that the two do need to be identified as distinct entities, both capable of providing insight into the past. But this insight is only visible when both versions are made available. While this is rather a long explanation, I think it is so well written and phrased. To not include it in this post would be most unfortunate.

Richard White writes, “Myth means falsehood; however in a second, deeper sense, myths are not so much falsehoods as explanations. Mythmakers draw from history: they use real people or actual incidents. They have no compunctions, however, about changing details, adding characters, and generally rearranging events in order to make the meaning of their stories clearer. Historians also draw from history, and they, too, are selective. Historians necessarily select from among numerous available facts in order to create a story about the past. Historians, by the code of their discipline, put great store in facts, but facts are rarely at the heart of historical disputes. Instead, historians argue over the relationships between largely agreed upon fact, for it is the relationship between facts that differentiates one historian’s story from another historian’s story. Historians and mythmakers thus both seek to order the past in a way that conveys meaning. Both tell stories. But, historians, also by the code of their craft, cannot reorder facts or invent new one. Historians are thus more cramped and constricted than mythmakers in their attempts to explain what the past means.”

“If we differentiate history from myth solely on the basis of facts, we will, however, run into conceptual difficulties over what a fact is, and more significantly, miss a larger difference. For a good historian, as the cliche goes, the past is another country. People in the past operate in a different context than we in the present. Any lessons the past teaches are those about processes and change. Myth, for all its attention to the past, denies this and thus denies “history” itself. Myth refuses to see the past as fundamentally different from the present. In myth, time brings no essential change. The past and the present are not only connected, they are also metaphorically identical. Myth rips events out of context and drains them of their historicity. How a cowboy acts in a myth is how an American male should act regardless of time or place. A man has to do what a man has to do. Myths thus are antihistory, for history above all depends on context.” (White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West, 615-616.)

Aside from the lunacy of Klugewicz’s support of myths as an acceptable form teaching the past, he has the audacity to further explain his asinine approach. He writes, “We understand that though good and evil most definitely exist, men themselves are neither black nor white but rather some shade of gray.” Teaching history as a myth creates a justification for ignoring these gray areas. In the classic “Western” movies of the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of Hollywood’s reign on Western American history, directors and screenwriters depicted Cowboys and Indians as the poster children for the quintessential Western myth. It was apparent that film makers expected audiences to aspire to be John Wayne and grow to despise the “uncivilized, dangerous, and savage” Indians. The plot of good versus evil is about as black and white as it gets; and in this story there is no room for grey. Audiences are supposed to ignore the realities behind these stories; realities of natives being killed, marginalized, and herded onto reservations; among other realities about the region. History tells us that living in the American West was not an easy feat, nor was it as fun as Hollywood pretends. All of these nuances stories disappear when the only version of history that is made available is the myth. I cannot even believe that Klugewicz would be advocating that we teach kids history this way without at least providing (and thoroughly explaining) that there is another version of the story that is a more truthful portrayal of the past!

 It is also an utter shame that at the end of the post, Klugewicz writes, “Scholars must compose sweeping narratives of the past that will appeal to a general audience…. And, finally, let us not forget to include humor in telling the story of America to the young, which will help to avoid boring them. Kids like people who can be funny.” It is people like Klugewicz, who advocate using backwards methods to teach history thus disgracing the discipline, who make good historians and scholars shy away from using humor and engaging narrative. When Klugewicz supports an approach to providing historical knowledge that completely disregards, in the words of Richard White, the “code of the discipline,” no one is going to side with him when it comes to writing techniques and style. He should have stopped while he was …behind, and left giving useful advice to the historians who are credible and know what they are talking about!

And on a side note, I think the emphasis on African American history, as seen through this week’s articles, stems from the fact that many of the nation’s conservatives and liberals involved with politics are based on the East Coast. There is less of an emphasis on the West and the West’s role in American history simply because of the legacy of the geographic bubble where these people live and work. In the East, the turning point in American history was the Civil War and all comes with that (slavery v. state’s rights, discrimination etc.). They need to take a lesson from Frederick Jackson Turner and recognize that the importance of the history of the American West in the larger narrative of American history. I think that would result in more discussions on broader topics from both liberals and conservatives alike.

Readings for April 29: Conservatives do public history

As requested, this week’s readings represent history written for the public, from a conservative perspective.  As usual, I broadened the definition of “public history” to include how amateur historians and members of the public “do history.”

A note about my method for finding these pieces: I intentionally kept my searches for readings party-neutral; I did not search for “Republicans,” “Tea Party,” or terms like “extremist” or “right-wing.”  I simply searched for variations on “conservative history,” and these articles and blog posts were in the top several pages of results—or they were linked to in one of the top results.  (Exception: Beck’s black history discussion, which I used in my last History 502 section.)  Although the subject may seem over-represented in the list below, I did not look for pieces on black civil rights or African Americans, but many were in the search results, demonstrating, I think, the significance of this topic to the current conservative movement in the United States.

All of the people represented here fall into at least one of these categories:

  • self-described conservative,
  • writing for a  conservative website,
  • liberals or moderates writing about conservative history.

The authors are diverse in their opinions, from a fiscal conservative who is socially left of center to deeply socially conservative (self-described) Christians. Their life experiences and occupations also vary; represented in this list are veterans, professors, teachers, fellows in conservative initiatives, and average bloggers.

This is a long list, and I encourage you to read as many items on it as possible.  That said, I know your time is not unlimited, and so that we have some common articles to discuss, I have starred required readings.  Following the list, you’ll find some questions for discussion.   Please add one of your own discussion questions to the comments section of this post.


The History of Conservatism

* Carlson, “Learning from the History of Conservatism”


Republicans, Democrats, and the Constitution/Founders

Scott, “WANTED: Democrat Leaders Who Forthrightly Support the Constitution”

“DO We Have the Right to Disobey Islamic Law?” 

Taylor, “Gun Control – Not According to George Washington”

Barton, “American History: Bachmann v. Stephanopoulos” 

Taylor, “Thanksgiving and Our American Heritage”



*Postel, “Lincoln’s Conservative Vision”

“Teddy Roosevelt Revisited”


Conservatives, Civil Rights, and African Americans

* Pete, “The Historical and Social Barriers to Expanding the Conservative Vote among African Americans”

Minor, “A Focus on Freedom for Black History Month”

* Voegeli, “Civil Rights and the Conservative Movement”

Morel, “The Soul of W.E.B. DuBois”

* Anderson, “Blacks Were More Than Slaves”

Swimp, “What, to Black Americans, is the 4th of July?”

* Beck, “America’s Black Founding Fathers,” Part I and Part III

* Williamson, “The Party of Civil Rights” and its follow-up, “Yes, the Party of Civil Rights”

* Jackson, “King’s Real Legacy”

* Garris, “Martin Luther King’s Conservative Legacy”

Spalding, “Martin Luther King’s Conservative Principles”


Recent History

Erickson, “From Melting Pot to Pressure Cooker”

Longstreet, “Who Murdered America? What Comes Next?”


Public History/Public Memory

* Almasi, “Chavez Monument Proclaimed by Obama Over Project 21 Member’s Warnings”


History Education: Educational Resources, Posts by Teachers, Posts about Education

“Reflections from High School World History Students”

“The last Samurai is. . . Me?”

“How State Standards are Indoctrinating Our Youth with Marxist Views on the Great Depression”

“McCarthyism Lecture Notes from a Liberal Teacher” 

“Bill of Rights in the News: Gun Rights in the 21st Century”

* Potter, “Why Teach the History of Modern Conservatism? Because It’s Fun” 

* Klugewicz, “Hungry Souls and Brave Hearts: Heroism, History, and Myth” 


Hitt, “A Conservative History of the United States”

Barton, “Guns, Kids, and Critics”

Would, “‘Conservative’ Historians Refuted”

* Hensatri, “Conservative History”

* Strickland, “Anthony Bradley’s Black Tribalist Attack on Doug Wilson”

Hawkins, “Conservative Bloggers Select the 25 Worst Figures in American History”



(for class–blog about whatever you wish in regards to these posts)

1. As noted in the introduction, there is a good deal of diversity among these authors’ views and life experiences.  Despite this diversity, do you see some common themes, beliefs, or language/rhetoric?  For example, are there words that appear frequently?  Do the authors seem to define them similarly to each other, or are the definitions slippery?

2. What might explain the frequency of posts about civil rights and African Americans?

3. At least as represented in these posts, what do conservatives value in the teaching of U.S. history?  What, for these writers, is the purpose of teaching U.S. history in K-16?

4. Are there patterns in how the authors use sources?  What do you think about how individual authors use and cite sources?

5. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, chances are you agreed with some of the writers’ points or at least found them compelling.  Which ones appealed to you as a historian, and why?

6. As represented by these authors, do conservatives “do history” differently from progressive writers? If so, what are the differences?  If not, how might you explain the similarities?

7. Aside from African-American history, there isn’t much history of people of color represented in these posts, nor is there much women’s history.  Imagine you were hired to address this history by creating a museum exhibit or series of blog posts for a conservative audience (perhaps for the bloggers whose work we read today).  Your goal is to interest them in the history and make them want to learn more.  What concepts would you highlight to spark their curiosity and desire to learn? What kind of language would you use? If it’s a museum exhibit, what kinds of artifacts might you include? (Would your approach be different than if you were writing for a progressive audience?  Why or why not?)

 Remember: please add one of your own discussion questions to the comment section of this post.