Defining “Patriotic History” – Education Next

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“History, Criticism and Patriotic: Americans Need a History that Educates but Also Inspires,” in the Spring 2020 issue of Education Next, prompted a response from the director of policy research at the Jerusalem, Israel-based Kohelet Policy Forum, Yitzhak Klein:


For the publisher:

I read with interest Eliot Cohen’s article on the uses of patriotic history, yet something essential to Cohen’s argument is missing. It is not only the historical relationship common to the citizens of a particular country at a particular time that makes patriotic history; after all, as Cohen points out, the events of America’s first eighty years were not part of his family’s history. For the writing to be truly patriotic, it must reach two foundations deeper than the events described: it must be true and it must be faithful to true moral values. To illustrate my point, allow me to mention two phenomena of historical writing in a very different national and historical context: the historical novel by Vasilii Grossman Life and fate and contemporary Russian historical writing which – if it is to be published – portrays Stalin and Stalinism as a good thing.

Russia (and Germany) has a bigger problem than the United States in making their history useful. For significant times these nations were dominated by monstrous regimes, ruled by monsters, who did monstrous things to their own people and to others. It’s hard to argue that America is grappling with such a monstrous history, although there are no doubt people who would.

Grossman is one of those novels which is at least as faithful to the story as the true historical accounts. It revolves around the great and decisive experience of Soviet Russia in 1942 and 1943: the victory at Stalingrad which foreshadowed the ultimate national liberation and the extinction of the Nazi predator. To have participated in this event, to have died in it or to have survived it, was to make a noble contribution to a just cause that lovers of freedom will be able to admire in a thousand years. And yet Grossman does not neglect to explore the terrible aspects of life under Stalin: the crushing of freedom, widespread injustice, the anti-Semitism that Russian society shared with Germany and which could have resulted in a second Holocaust less than a decade after the first if Stalin had not died in 1953.

What makes Grossman’s writing patriotic are its roots in true virtues and its measurement of what is done, good and bad, in light of those virtues. Russian readers of Grossman’s account of Stalingrad may decide to devote themselves to the values ​​that those who fought there so nobly promoted, and at the same time – essentially in the same act – avoid the evils Grossman portrays. Contemporary Russian glosses on the history of the Stalinist era, which are supposed to justify Putin’s regime by justifying that of Stalin, cannot accomplish such a thing.

Cohen’s discussion of Jill Lepore’s writing is instructive. Faced with a contemporary moral challenge, Lepore abandons history-derision and turns to American history to defend the values ​​she feels the election of Donald Trump threatens. But in fact, the opposite is happening: the values ​​Lepore loves, and hopes to share with her readers, validate the story as she now chooses to tell it. Perhaps Lepore’s original error lay in a form of vanity, being too enamored of his skillful ability to use historical perception to ridicule his subjects. Perhaps no story is ripe unless the historian recognizes and reports such positive ideals that motivated the subjects of their study. On the one hand, such a prospect can elevate mockery to a higher mode of writing, that of tragedy. On the other hand, it adds a dimension to history as events and as culture: history as a record of people’s attempts, successes and failures, to bring worthy virtues to life. to be prosecuted. It is this kind of story that makes it possible, for example, to see Lincoln as a hero worthy of being emulated, and at the same time to appreciate the virtues embodied by Robert E. Lee, even by passing a lucid judgment on the cause that Lee served. .

This mode of history is out of fashion. It demands from the recorder not only historical accuracy but moral sensitivity. It can easily be abused to become a story-as-propaganda, a poutinized story. But it is essential to the writing of a story which is more than an entertainment, which satisfies the search of the men of models of life worthy to be lived. The object of patriotic history is to benefit and humanize one’s society by making people aspire to such lives.

Yitzhak Klein

Last updated on February 20, 2020

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