In Donald Rumsfeld’s famous taxonomy of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, the History That Matters (HTM) occupies its own special niche. That niche consists of mythic knowns.
All history is selective and interpretive. In the HTM, mythic knowns determine the process of selection and interpretation. Chief among the mythic knowns to which most Americans (academic historians excepted) subscribe are these:
● that history itself has an identifiable shape, direction, and destination;
● that history is purposeful, tending toward the universal embrace of values indistinguishable from American values;
● that in the interests of propagating those values, history confers on the United States unique responsibilities and prerogatives.
By no means purporting to tell the whole story, the HTM reduces the past to its pith or essence. Like the Ten Commandments, it identifies specific shalts and shalt nots. Like the Sermon on the Mount, it prescribes a code of behavior. In doing so, the HTM makes the past usable. Endlessly reiterated in political speech and reinforced by popular culture, the "lessons" of this usable past prescribe what the United States — the indispensable nation — is called upon to do and what it must refrain from doing.
This usable past finds expression in a straightforward narrative depicting the 20th century as the first American Century, shaped throughout by the actions (or inaction) of the United States. Although incorporating setbacks and disappointments, the narrative culminates in reassuring triumph. On balance, things are headed in the right direction.
The prevailing version of the usable past is worse than unusable. In the United States, it obstructs serious debate over the use and misuse of power. No less than was the case in the 1920s-30s and 1960s-70s, the times call for revisionism. The task for historians this time around is to reframe the entire 20th century, seeing it for the unmitigated disaster that it was and recognizing its profound moral ambiguity without, however, succumbing to moral equivalence.
To cling to the History That Matters is to make real learning impossible. Yet for academics to critically engage the HTM in a way that might affect public understanding of the past requires a revival of fields that have become decidedly unhip. The HTM is essentially a war and politics narrative, and the present-day historical profession does not emphasize political, diplomatic, and military themes. Today it’s race, class, gender, and sexuality that claim pride of place. The effect, whether intended or not, is that comforting fantasies go unchallenged and lodge themselves ever more deeply in the public consciousness. So the "Good War" remains ever good, with the "Greatest Generation" ever great.
Not without reason, members of the historical profession tend to view the HTM as a caricature or cartoon. Yet their very disdain provides one explanation for why it persists. In effect, the myths sustaining this fatuous narrative go unchallenged. For ordinary citizens, "history" becomes what they see on TV — the History Channel! — or what they hear from agenda-peddling politicians....