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Of Post-Mortems and Autopsies

WHO OWNS HISTORY?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World, By Eric Foner, Hill & Wang: 256 pp., $24

June 23, 2002|STEVEN J. ROSS | Steven J. Ross is professor of history at the University of Southern California and the author of "Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America."

The past matters, and how we choose to remember it matters even more. During the last decade, Americans bitterly debated how to represent the Columbus quincentennial, the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb, public displays of the Confederate battle flag in the South and what themes and groups to include in our basic history standards for public schools.

At the heart of these controversies is the question: Who has the right to control the interpretation of the past? Or, as Eric Foner asks with the title of his new book, "Who Owns History?" "Everyone and no one," suggests Foner, one of the nation's preeminent American historians, "which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery."

Nine previously published essays in this valuable volume address three important aspects of that journey: how historians' life experiences shape their view of the past, the crucial uses of history in the wake of globalization and the rebuilding of nation-states and how misunderstandings about slavery and its aftermath affect contemporary ideas of race and the meaning of citizenship.

Foner begins by looking back on his Jewish upbringing in New York as the child of a politically engaged family and then charts his political and intellectual odyssey with his mentor, famed historian Richard Hofstadter. He follows this with four essays that perceptively explore the role of, as this section is titled, "History in a Changing World."

Foner is at his most instructive when discussing the practical uses of history in a nation's seeking to chart visions for its future. In the wake of perestroika and Nelson Mandela's election as president, Russians and South Africans found that "a history created to reinforce the old regime was being completely rethought, often in surprising ways and not without sometimes bitter debate." In South Africa, new histories gave voice to those previously excluded from the nation's official history, and emphasized how multiracial cooperation led to the overthrow of apartheid.

Rethinking the past, however, can also create fissures in the present. Foner describes the deep divide between young Soviets, who disdained the abuses of the past, and older citizens, who resented having their past struggles forgotten or, worse still, "dismissed by the media and younger generations as pointless." Historians can help bridge this chasm, Foner suggests, by analyzing the "successes as well as failures" of the past and using them to give the Soviet Union "a new future."

Foner's strongest work as a historian is in the area of race, and this book's most provocative section, "The Enduring Civil War," enters into the "history wars" by placing contemporary debates over immigration, affirmative action, racial discrimination and American nationalism in what he believes is their proper historical context. Foner is especially critical of court cases in the late 1980s that sought to overturn affirmative action. A Supreme Court majority decision in Patterson vs. McLean Credit Union (1989), he insists, was based on a faulty historical interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 that "completely misrepresented the Reconstruction Congress" and its efforts "to secure for former slaves the right to compete for advancement in the market place." Similar cases saw the majority of justices distorting contemporaneous reasons behind the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

Foner is equally critical of Ken Burns' public television series, "The Civil War," for reducing the conflict to a melodrama about a "family quarrel among white Americans." Foner chastises Burns for portraying the destruction of slavery as "a side issue" and minimizing the role of African Americans, especially during Reconstruction. He also criticizes the filmmaker for celebrating the "road to reunion without considering the price paid for national conciliation--the abandonment of the idea of racial justice."

A writer and scholar with the rare ability to present complex ideas in a clear and engaging manner, Foner has given us a volume especially vital for anyone concerned with understanding how interpretations of a seemingly long-gone past continue to shape--or misshape, as the author frequently warns--the laws and attitudes of today.

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