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    To forget and, I will venture to say, to get one's history wrong are essential factors in the making of a nation.
        -Ernest Renan (1823-92)

The answer to the question in Mr. Foner's title is, of course, that whoever's ideas dominate the culture dictates our perception of our history.  For much of Mr. Foner's life this was a pretty good deal for him.  From the Great Depression until well into the 80s, and maybe even the 90s, America, like much of the rest of the world, was in the thralldom of Liberalism, the belief that government should be used for egalitarian purposes, to spread wealth and power as evenly as possible in society, without much regard for personal freedoms.  As the son of a Communist, or at least fellow-traveling historian (we can't be sure which since his father refused to testify about his affiliations), Mr. Foner was immersed in the Left and "progressive" causes growing up and when he became a historian himself he focussed on America's racial history, particularly slavery and Reconstruction.  His "social history" portrayals of America as a nation predominantly shaped by its racism fit well with the generally anti-Western, anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-democratic zeitgeist and made him a part of the intellectual elite who defined the culture.

But then a curious thing happened, beginning with the rise of Ronald Reagan this self-loathing conception of America and of ourselves began to be eclipsed.  The obvious failures of communism, socialism, and liberalism to create and sustain healthy economies called into doubt the idea of letting government run the economy.  Meanwhile, the horror of Communist rule in Vietnam and Cambodia, the hostage crisis in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the takeover of Nicaragua by Marxists, made people wonder whether it was really the United States that was the world's bad guy.  Out of the Left's crisis of confidence emerged a resurgent conservative patriotism. As Mr. Foner notes, the Right went on the counterattack and actually began to win public support for its campaigns against Political Correctness and the negative portrayals of Christopher Columbus's discovery of the Americas and the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan in WWII.  Even so steadfast an ally of the Left as PBS was soon showing a Ken Burns' Civil War series which failed to focus obsessively, as it would have in earlier decades, on slavery.  By 1995 America had won the Cold War, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, Republicans had gained control of Congress for the first time in decades, the judiciary was returning to a more literalist reading of the Constitution, and even a liberal Democrat President was forced to acknowledge that "the Era of Big Government is over".  If, as Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751) said, "history is philosophy teaching by examples", then it is hard to imagine a tougher time to be a liberal historian, because all of the examples seem to be teaching us the truth of your opponents philosophy.
One can almost sympathize with Mr. Foner's angst.


But, unfortunately, any tender concerns one might feel are quickly extinguished by this collection of essays, in which Mr. Foner returns again and again to the by now thoroughly discredited arguments for big government and for viewing America as a force for evil in history.  So, we are treated to Mr. Foner fulminating against the aforementioned Ken Burns for treating the Civil War as a clash between white people (Ken Burns and the Romance of Reunion) and Mr. Foner castigating Russian historians who now view Communism as an unmitigated disaster and Ronald Reagan as being more important than Mikhail Gorbachev in chucking the Soviet Union onto the ash heap of history (The Russians Write a New History) and Mr. Foner chastising South Africa for moving toward reconciliation without first wallowing in recriminations to the degree that he thinks would be appropriate ('We Must Forget the Past') and, in an essay of almost breathtaking obtuseness, we get Mr. Foner asking, not thankfully but plaintively, "Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?"

To take just one example of the dilemma that Mr. Foner must confront as the Left loses control of history and of our institutions, let's look briefly at his essay "Blacks and the U.S. Constitution".  Here he argues against the idea that judges should be bound by the text of the Constitution, arguing instead that it should be an "active advocate for the rights of disadvantaged Americans" as it basically was in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  Unfortunately, he contradicts himself so baldly as to render his point incoherent.  Here he is rejecting adherence to the text :

    In an age of semiotics and deconstruction, not to mention intense debate among historians about the prevailing ideas of the revolutionary era,
    there is something refreshingly naive, almost quaint, in the idea that any text, including the Constitution, possesses a single, easily ascertainable,
    objective meaning.

On its face this is fairly unobjectionable.  Were we still in an age when deconstruction and other Leftist philosophies, that seek to deny the plain meaning of language and to expose the secret oppressive messages that straight white Christian males placed there, and were there a significant national debate over what the ideas of the Revolution were, then it would indeed be possible to say that the meaning of the Constitution is unknowable.  It is, of course, a considerable impediment to Mr. Foner's argument that the basic concept of deconstruction is practically unknown outside of the humanities departments of elite universities and that average Americans seem to feel that they pretty well understand the ideas of the Revolution, chief among which was that the laws that govern us should be made by our elected representatives.  But even more troublesome for Mr. Foner is his own admission a few pages later that :

    To those who came of age during the era of the Warren Court, it is easy to forget that the Supreme Court, expected by the founding fathers
    to be the most conservative branch of the government, has amply fulfilled that role throughout most of our history.  And today the Court
    appears poised to revert to its traditional function.

Lo and behold, here's the good professor himself informing us that, far from being quaint or naive, the Right's belief that the judiciary was intended to be a fundamentally conservative institution is consistent with both the expectations of the founding fathers and with long-standing tradition.  In fact, as these contradictory statements reveal, the problem is not that history can't reveal to us the purposes of the drafters of the Constitution but that those purposes are at odds with Mr. Foner's purposes and at odds with the liberal departure from tradition that characterized the past several decades.  

The question on the cover of the book may ask "Who Owns History?", but the question that drives these essays is much more "why don't we (The Left) own it anymore?".  But Mr. Foner doesn't really make an honest attempt to answer either question and so the utility of the book is fairly limited.  What we get instead is a rather disconnected series of essays which in sum seem to argue merely that those who are now retaking ownership of history shouldn't be allowed to--whether they be non-communist historians in the former Soviet Union, black South Africans who are more interested in making social progress than in rehashing the past, PBS filmmakers seeking to honor the nation's bloody struggle to end slavery, or judges who think they should be bound by the Constitution.    Ultimately, Mr. Foner's argument appears to be with American people themselves who "often 'forget' that our history is not a Whiggish progress toward greater and greater freedom and equality but a far more complex story..."  Or it may be that since so many Americans (and I) believe it to be the case that our history does in fact demonstrate just such Whiggish progress, that Mr. Foner's argument is with history itself.


Grade: (F)


Eric Foner Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Eric Foner
    -REVIEW: of What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party by Michael Kazin (Eric Foner, LRB)
    -REVIEW: of Who Owns History? (Herman Belz, Claremont Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Seeing Red: Philip Foner influenced a generation of young labor historians, but critics call him a plagiarist who helped himself to their research (SCOTT McLEMEE, June 27, 2003, Chroniclke of Higher Education)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Faculty: Eric Foner | History Department | Columbia University
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of The Story of American Freedom
    -ESSAY :  The Most Patriotic Act (Eric Foner, October 8, 2001 , The Nation)
    -ESSAY :  Italy's 'House of Freedoms' (Eric Foner, June 18, 2001, The Nation)
    -ESSAY : Partisanship Rules (Eric Foner, January 1, 2001, The Nation)
    -ESSAY : Rebel Yell (Eric Foner, February 14, 2000, The Nation)
    -ESSAY : Impeachment 1868/1999 (Eric Foner, January 1999, History Matters)
    -ESSAY : The Amistad Case in Fact and Film (Eric Foner, March 1998, History Matters)
    -LECTURE : American Freedom in a Global Age (Eric Foner, American Historical Review)
    -LECTURE : Liberalism and the Left: Rethinking the Relationship : Common Origins, Different Paths (Eric Foner)
    -LECTURE : Common Origins, Different Paths (Eric Foner)
    -REVIEW : of  LINCOLN'S VIRTUES An Ethical Biography. By William Lee Miller (Eric Foner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Race and Reunion The Civil War in American Memory. By David W. Blight (Eric Foner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Rituals of Blood Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries. By Orlando Patterson (Eric Foner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Amistad Slave Revolt and American Abolition, by Karen Zeinert (Eric Foner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Lies Across America by James Loewen (Eric Foner, The Nation)
    -INTERVIEW : with Eric Foner (Daniel Snowman, Jan, 2000, History Today)
    -INTERVIEW : A LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF ELECTIONS 2000 : Republicans are going to federal court today to try to block hand counts by Florida election officials in several counties - an ironic twist for a party that usually takes the position that the federal government should not interfere with states' rights. How will these elections be considered by historian years from now? We turn to the perspective of radical historian Eric Foner. (Pacifica Radio)
    -DISCUSSION : Who Owns History? (Think Tank, Aired 10/7/94, PBS)
    -DISCUSSION : Who is Abraham Lincoln? (Think Tank, PBS)
    -OBIT :    Jack D. Foner, Historian and Pioneer in Black Studies, Dies at 88 (WILLIAM H. HONAN, December 16, 1999)
    -OBIT : Jack Foner (Spring 2000, Colby Magazine)
    -ESSAY : Betty Friedan's Secret Communist Past (David Horowitz - Jan 18, 1999, Front Page)
    -ESSAY : Booknotes' Slanted Shelf  : C-SPAN slights left-wing authors (John F. Cowan, July/August 2000, Extra)
    -ARCHIVES : Eric Foner (
    -ARCHIVES : Eric Foner (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : Eric Foner  (The Nation)
    -ARCHIVES : "eric foner" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of Who Owns History? by Eric Foner  (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW : of Who Owns History? (David Glassberg, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Who Owns History? (Cornel Bonca, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Who Owns History?  (Valerie MacEwan, PopMatters)
    -REVIEW : of Who Owns History?  (Laurie Edwards , Culture Dose)
    -REVIEW : of Who Owns History? (Hilary Williamson, Book Loons)
    -REVIEW : of The Story of American Freedom (Robert H. Ferrell, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Story of American Freedom (James Nuechterlein, Commentary Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of The Story of American Freedom (James Morris, CivNet)
    -REVIEW : of The Story of American Freedom (Larry Pahl,
    -REVIEW : of The Story of American Freedom (Lew Rosenbaum, People's Tribune)
    -REVIEW : of The Story of American Freedom (Harvey J Kaye, Progressive)