History 'from Below' Is for the Pits


May 02, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington -- The two most important months in Washington's history were June 1790, and June 1987. In June 1790, Jefferson and Hamilton met in Manhattan and agreed: Jefferson would support Hamilton's plan for national assumption states' debts, Hamilton would support Jefferson's plan for moving the capital south from New York. In June 1987, Bea Kristol moved here from New York with her husband Irving.

He is a one-man critical mass, whose move symbolized the movement of the nation's center of intellectual gravity from New York and to the right. She is a distinguished historian who writes under the name Gertrude Himmelfarb.

In this year's Jefferson Lecture, the 20th sponsored annually by the best part of the government, the National Endowment for the Humanities, she delivered a timely rebuke to those historians who jeopardize our political future by devaluing the politics of the past.

The devaluation is done in the name of ''democratic'' values against ''elitism.'' But it deprives mankind of elevating truths about individual greatness. Himmelfarb's point is pertinent to this city today because the style of history she deplores demoralizes nations and makes leadership difficult.

The title of her lecture, ''Of Heroes, Villains and Valets,'' comes from Hegel's amplification of the dictum that ''no man is a hero to his valet.'' Hegel said, ''No man is a hero to his valet, not because the former is no hero, but because the latter is a valet.''

Schoolmasters, said Hegel, delight in demonstrating that Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were motivated by base passions, therefore their deeds were not heroic, and therefore the schoolmasters are superior to their subjects. Ms. Himmelfarb says Hegel's schoolmasters are today's professors, particularly practitioners of the ''new history.''

These historians believe that ''elitist'' varieties of history focusing on political, diplomatic and intellectual events condescend to the common people. Such historians think democratic values make it mandatory to explain the past with reference not to the extraordinary actions and ideas of a few, but rather to the ordinary activities of the many.

Thus one of them says - I'm not making this up - ''Mickey Mouse may in fact be more important to an understanding of the 1930s than Franklin Roosevelt.'' Not only elites but elitist themes great ideas and books from great minds are moved to the margin of the human story. In their place is put history written to fit the mentality of historians mesmerized by race, gender and class, today's trinity of obsessions that supposedly explain human behavior and history's past.

But, says Ms. Himmelfarb, ''history from below'' or ''history with the politics left out'' is itself the real condescension to common people. It denies that ordinary people have any ideas, motives or interests other than those of their ordinary lives. If race, gender and class are the categories that decipher historical determinism, then the new history must disabuse ordinary people of their understanding of their past.

Ordinary people think princes and presidents and villains - Louis XIV, FDR, Hitler have been event-making individuals. But in the hands of the new history, such individuals become mere ''reflections'' of deeper forces deciphered by the new clerisy - the historians.

It is particularly perverse that such writing of history flourishes at the end of a century so shaped by event-makers Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Churchill, Roosevelt, DeGaulle. But implausibility is a price the new historians gladly pay for ideological correctness that (not coincidentally) enhances their status.

The new historians are like ''deconstructionist'' literary critics who displace authors, explaining what the particular authors were ''really'' doing when they wrote whether the authors knew it or not. The new history elevates the historian to the role half priest, half artist of explaining history's meaning to the masses who obdurately persist in thinking that politics matter.

If political events are mere ''epiphenomena,'' then politics loses its history-shaping grandeur, and ordinary people lose the dignity that attaches to those who participate in the human pageant through self-government. If, as the new historians insist, social ''structures'' and impersonal ''forces'' make history, both individuality and freedom are discounted.

When historians deny that a pre-eminent few may have disproportionate impact on the destinies of the many, the historians also deny the people's ability to rise above determinism and modify their fate. Thus does the new historians' anti-elitism breed fatalism and pessimism about the very possibility of leadership.

This style of history abolishes man as a political animal who uses reason and responds to rhetoric to seek fulfillment in civic life. If you discount the importance of individuals and their utterances choices, and the rhetoric that justifies and elicits support for them you discount the importance, and perhaps the possibility, of real democracy.

To a country dismayed by the valet-soul of today's politics and servile state, Ms. Himmelfarb says: A grander future requires better history books. They teach us how to think about ourselves and our polity and hence they are pregnant with our future.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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