Letters to the Editor

On "Is History History?"

Allan J. Lichtman | Oct 31, 2022

To the Editor:

Whether intentionally or not, AHA president James H. Sweet’s misguided critique of “presentism” in historical study (“Is History History?,” September 2022) plays into the hands of “presentist” politicians who are censoring the teaching of history.

Like Sweet, the right-wing politicians who would erase racial issues from American history have assailed both identity politics and The 1619 Project. Texas and Florida have banned outright the teaching of The 1619 Project; since 2020, 35 states have enacted or proposed laws that broadly restrict our teaching about the history of race in America. Former president Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission’s report on guidelines for teaching American history devotes four of its 40 pages to a diatribe against “identity politics,” which Trump denounced as “toxic propaganda.” In a statement co-signed by 47 other organizations, the AHA itself condemned the commission for failing “to engage a rich and vibrant body of scholarship that has evolved over the last seven decades.”

Despite these right-wing attacks on history, Sweet devotes but one brief paragraph to right-wing efforts at controlling history teaching. He fails to balance his lengthy critique of The 1619 Project with a single word on the 1776 Commission. The only white person targeted (briefly) in his statement is US Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, white nationalist leader Richard Spencer praised Sweet’s statement as “reasonable in the extreme.” Sweet further creates a false equivalence between a privately produced study—The 1619 Project—and politicians dictating our teaching by law. In a preface to the 25th anniversary edition of his iconic book, Orientalism, Edward Said warned about the dangers of state censorship. “Above all, critical thought does not submit to state power,” he wrote.

Sweet subtly blames the victim for right-wing censorship, writing, “Conservative lawmakers decided that if [The 1619 Project] was the history of slavery being taught in schools, the topic shouldn’t be taught at all.” Yet conservative attacks on alleged left-wing bias in education long predate the project’s emergence in 2019. John K. Wilson wrote 27 years ago in The Myth of Political Correctness about conservatives who claim they “are the victims of a prevailing leftist ideology in American universities, oppressed by radical students and faculty determined to brainwash them.”

In a purported apology, Sweet does not retract anything from his statement. Instead, in a deflection typical of politicians, he apologizes for his audience’s reaction: “I take full responsibility that it did not convey what I intended and for the harm that it has caused.” He never explained what he really intended or how and why it was misunderstood. In a thinly disguised version of the old chestnut that “some of my best friends are Black,” Sweet says, “I sincerely regret the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends.” Sweet implies that he offended only Black colleagues. I am not Black and am profoundly offended.

Allan J. Lichtman
American University

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