By Waitman Wade Beorn
History can be a weapon or a shield. Almost since the first historians, politicians for good and ill have tried to manipulate the past to support their agendas in the present. The first Roman emperor, Octavian Augustus Caesar, appealed to a sanitized version of history to cloak his dictatorship as a republic — a tactic also adopted by Mussolini. In ancient Egypt, Thutmose III hated the pharaoh Hatshepsut so much that he literally attempted to erase her from history by destroying her images and cartouches. More recently, the Southern myth of the “Lost Cause” distorted historical fact to try to rehabilitate a war fought for the right to own others and to justify continued racism. And then there’s Donald Trump. He is, as Eric Alterman put it in the New Yorker, the “king not only of lies but also of ahistorical assertions.”
Historians have been complicit in these misuses of history, but more often they have held the line against simplistic politicization. The Internet age makes this challenging. The abuse of history for present aims is dangerously ubiquitous, and false and manipulated versions of the past can spread easily. It was inevitable that the abuse would migrate to Twitter, a free-for-all of digital lawlessness. Historians have not stood idly by, however. Their Twitter threads have emerged as a response, with scholars countering abuses in multiple series of linked tweets that provide the actual history, context, sources and often additional reading. The phenomenon has grown visible enough that there’s even been a backlash, most recently expressed in an opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by a literature professor who dismisses public engagement by historians as “pedantic.” It is not. It is a valuable public good, a way to “show the receipts” in something close to real time.
Kevin Kruse, a Princeton history professor, has become the face of the phenomenon through his repeated takedowns of conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, a prolific author with no apparent historical training who writes political hit pieces justified by bad history. But Kruse has company…