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This title in other editions

Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World


Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World Cover


Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

Who Owns History? testifies to Eric Foners lifelong personal commitment to writing histories that advance the struggle for racial equality and economic justice.” —David Glassberg, The Sunday Star-Ledger

History has become a matter of public controversy, as Americans clash over such things as museum presentations, the flying of the Confederate flag, and reparations for slavery. So whose history is being written? Who owns it?

Eric Foner answers these and other questions about the historians relationship to the world of the past and future in this provocative, even controversial, study of the reasons we care about history—or should.

About the Author

Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. He is the author of many highly acclaimed works in American history, notably The Story of American Freedom and Reconstruction. He lives in New York City.

Table of Contents

Part I: The Politics of History and Historians

1. My Life as a Historian

2. The Education of Richard Hofstadter

Part II: Rethinking History in a Changing World

3. American Freedom in a Global Age

4. The Russians Write a New History

5. "We Must Forget the Past": History in the New South Africa

6. Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?

Part III: The Enduring Civil War

7. Who Is an American?

8. Blacks and the U.S. Constitution

9. Ken Burns and the Romance of Reunion



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OneMansView, September 1, 2009 (view all comments by OneMansView)
History – facts and their “interpretation” (4.25*s)

There may be those who simplistically view history as no more than gathering and presenting “facts” about the past, but noted historian Eric Foner would respond that history involves the interpretation of facts and is subject to change. But history is not pure subjectivity; historical truth is a “reasonable approximation of the past.” Despite the title of the book, the author does not directly address the issue of “ownership” of history. There is the question of who produces history. Is history mainly produced by academic historians, which slowly filters into the public’s consciousness? Or is historical understanding dominated by large institutions such as the mass media, think tanks, and the education industry, many of whom are inclined to promote an historical agenda? The author acknowledges that “for years historians have been aware that historical traditions are invented and manipulated. In addition, “forgetting some aspects of the past is as much a part of historical understanding as remembering others.” This may be due simply to ignorance or poor scholarship. Or more disturbingly, historical distortion may be a sinister effort by various social and economic elites to dominate and manipulate social understandings.

The United States is a nation founded on the ideals of liberty, political equality and democracy. We are not a traditional society where unquestioned myths passed down from generation to generation are the glue of society. Openness and informed debate about all matters, including those historical, are essential in a society based on rational decision making. Not understanding our principles, how we have lived up to them, and where we need to go is not an option. Yet, it is clear that the injection of bogus historical views into our national understandings has plagued our society in the past and continues to do so today.

Three essays deal with the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction. A determined Southern elite and a complicit Supreme Court essentially negated the citizenship rights that blacks had achieved in landmark legislation after the Civil War. But that history is often buried or distorted. Prominent Northern historians of the times validated the Jim Crow era by suggesting that blacks lacked the capacity for self-government. The focus on nationalism, or the right of white Anglo-Saxon America to become an imperial power at the end of the 19th century, further obscured the suppression of rights for some American citizens.

It is this decades-long willful amnesia of the Reconstruction era that has permitted the Supreme Court in the modern era to see unfairness in racial preferences while ignoring the history of racial injustice. Conveniently, judicial decisions are now supposedly rendered on the basis of “original intent” or “strict construction.” However, the author notes that the language of the Fourteenth Amendment was purposely “broad and indeterminate” to give maximum leeway to the judiciary in the implementation of the amendment. The narrow legal judgments of today in this area actually ignore original intent in their rush to yield to political exigencies.

In one of these essays, the author critically examines Ken Burns’ nine-part PBS series on the Civil War. The author finds that “Burns recapitulates the very historical understanding of the war ‘invented’ in the 1890s as part of the glorification of the national state and the nationwide triumph of white supremacy.” For Burns the Civil War was a “family quarrel among whites, whose fundamental accomplishment was the preservation of the Union.” The abolition of slavery is scarcely mentioned, not to mention the failure of Reconstruction to secure civil rights for former slaves. In the final segment Burns focuses on the friendly reunion in 1913 of white veterans of Gettysburg. In a devastating comment, the author notes that in that same year President Wilson segregated federal office buildings in Washington D.C. As the author says, “Accurately remembered, the events of Reconstruction place the issue of racial justice on the agenda of modern life – but not if the history of that era and the costs paid on the road to reunion are ignored, misrepresented, or wished away.”

In another essay, the author examines the impact that globalization is having on the definition of the long-cherished American ideal of freedom. Transnational institutions and corporations through their think tanks and control of the media have redefined freedom as participation in a global free-marketplace. Gone are the “elements of freedom such as self-government, economic autonomy, and social justice” that were a part of the republican tradition in America. Strong national governments attempting to regulate economic matters are portrayed as impediments in a global economy. The author admits that freedom is constantly subject to redefinition, but freedom defined as merely competing in global production ignores American traditions of freedom. It may not be an overstatement to contend that “the relationship between globalization and freedom may be the most pressing political and social problem of the 21st century.”

In other interesting essays, the career of historian Richard Hofstadter is examined and the oft-asked question concerning the absence of socialism in American is reviewed. Hofstadter gets tagged as a “consensus” historian because he noted that the “virtues of individual liberty, private property, and capitalist enterprise” were broadly agreed upon by most Americans. The author notes that Hofstadter did not celebrate this uniformity, finding it to be a “form of intellectual and political bankruptcy,” which echoes the findings of Tocqueville one hundred years earlier. Yet consensus theories do have resiliency. The absence of class-based activism and turns to socialism are partly answered by the existence in varying degrees of republicanism or “producerism,” the absorption or cooptation of protest, the substitution of consumption as empowerment, the divisions and stratifications of the working class, and winner-take-all elections.

Clearly the concept of history is hardly as straightforward as may be thought at first glance. “Who Owns History?” is an excellent attempt at getting a handle on historical interpretation and the ramifications thereof.
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Product Details

Foner, Eric
Hill & Wang
New York
United states
United States - General
World history -- Historiography.
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
Notes, Index
8.21 x 5.5 x 0.66 in

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » US History » General
History and Social Science » Western Civilization » Historiography
History and Social Science » World History » General
History and Social Science » World History » Historiography

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