Remember the Alamo, and Algeria, too

Paris is not the only thing that France and Texas have in common: both have been subject to heavy-handed efforts to turn history to ideological ends. Robert Zaretsky considers the republics' revisionism

April 29, 2010

While Texans ride horses and the French eat them, the two peoples share more common ground than we like to think. Not only do we both indulge in republican mythology, but we are also convinced that we are different from the rest of the world - indeed, "exceptional". Scholars in both countries have made careers assessing these claims, just as demagogues on both sides of the Atlantic have flourished by exploiting them. Be it the revolutionary tradition or l'art de vivre in France, or the populist tradition and the art of the barbecue in Texas, we each believe that we alone are history's chosen people.

This common conviction in our historical uniqueness reveals itself in funny ways. For example, both the French and Texans love to fight among themselves over the past. Strewn across our respective histories are what the French call lieux de memoire, or sites of memory, and what we Texans mostly call "one damn thing after another". In their most indigestible form, these sites become what the French call "un passe qui ne passe pas" and Texans call "a past that sticks in our craw".

Paris and Texas also share a common interest in imperialism. For the Lone Star Republic, imperialism is not about what we refer to as the "Mexican-American War", but our southern neighbour stubbornly describes as the "American invasion of Mexico". It is, instead, the imperialism reflected in what our elected representatives in the national capital, Washington DC, call "federalism", but our elected representatives in the state capital, Austin, describe as the "Yankee invasion of Texas". (In my part of the state, "Secede" bumper stickers are now more popular than those reading "Texas Is Bigger than France".)

French imperialism, on the other hand, means the "civilising mission" that, for most of the 19th century, radiated from Paris to the four corners of the "undeveloped" world. The most prominent corner was Africa, where republican France established a dominant presence. French Algeria, most notably, was home to more than a million European settlers known as pieds-noirs, who enjoyed French citizenship denied to the 8 million or so native Arabs and Berbers. It was only after a long and bloody war between French forces and indigenous nationalists that Algeria won its independence, and the pied-noir community was "repatriated" to France.

Here was a slice of history that stuck in just about everyone's craw, French nationals and Algerian Muslims alike. In 2005, the conservative majority in France's National Assembly passed a law instructing teachers in state schools to emphasise the "positive aspects of French colonisation". In particular, they had to underscore the "positive role of France's presence overseas, notably in North Africa, and give due prominence to the history and sacrifices of French soldiers from these territories".

A political firestorm immediately followed the passage of the law. Political critics declared that it was not the role of the legislature to write history, while history teachers circulated a petition condemning the imposition of an "official lie", particularly in regard to the many crimes, ranging from systematic racism to genocide, committed in the name of France and its celebrated "civilising mission". Within a matter of months, President Jacques Chirac signalled his party's retreat, telling the nation that in "a republic, there is no official history".

History writing, he concluded, ought to be left to historians - a tacit confession that not a single historian had been involved in the writing of the original law. Instead, it was the work of conservative politicians.

Rather than reading scholarly works or archival material, they read the pulse of the small but mobilised pied-noir community. Increasingly uneasy in a France with a growing Muslim population, increasingly unhappy with the "official" account written by professional historians, the pieds-noirs wanted to take back what they regarded as "their" past.

From a historical perspective, however, the affair was inevitably more complex - as was made all too clear by a petition signed by 19 of France's most respected historians. Titled "Liberty for History", the manifesto pronounced a pox on every law that interfered with the objective study of the past. It lumped liberals with conservatives, progressives with reactionaries, denouncing not just the law on teaching the "positive aspects" of French colonialism, but also earlier legislation that criminalised Holocaust denial. (The committee of historians subsequently condemned laws passed by the National Assembly that affirmed the reality of the Armenian genocide and defined slavery as a crime against humanity.)

Needless to say, the French Left, not to mention the Right, was less than amused by this declaration of the fundamental principles of historical scholarship. But the small band of historians behind "Liberty for History" persisted. History "is not a religion", they declared, and the historian is not its priest, but rather someone who must "reject all dogma and taboos".

If it is done properly, they said, the work of history may well disturb us. The discipline, they insisted, is not a morality play, and the historian's role is "neither to exalt nor condemn, but instead to explain".

Just as in France, this prosaic truth has been the first victim of the history wars in Texas. Recently, our State Board of Education voted along party political lines on new standards for the teaching of social studies in our schools. As the world now knows, Christianity, capitalism and conservatism will all bask in 15 more minutes of classroom study. David Bradley, a Republican member of the board, summarily dismissed another "C" term - critical thinking - as "gobbledegook".

As a real estate agent, Bradley clearly believes that in history, as in his own profession, all that matters is location, location, location. In a way, he is right. Despite our goal of critical objectivity, most of us historians recognise the impossibility - the undesirability, even - of ridding ourselves of our present circumstances when we study the past. The philosopher Benedetto Croce once observed that all history is contemporary history, a truth more poetically expressed by Texas' own home-grown sage, Kinky Friedman: "Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder."

But this does not make all histories (or beauties or beers, for that matter) equal. This is where not only Bradley gets it wrong, but also where his liberal opponents err, too.

Take, for instance, the confrontation between white and Hispanic board members over the proposed list of American war heroes to be added to the curriculum. When a Hispanic member demanded that two Tejanos who won Medals of Honor be named, white members refused on the grounds that to do so would diminish the achievements of those who went unnamed. The one issue, it seems, that both sides agreed on was that history's purpose, as one Republican declared, was to find role models that "the children can relate to and emulate".

Never has the distance between Paris, France and Paris, Texas been so short. The French and the Texans have turned history into fodder for their ideological firefights; both have ignored the work of historians and cultivated the politics of nostalgia; both have encouraged politicians and pundits to argue over curricular changes, all too happy to gloss over the social despair and economic plight of the students for whom they are fighting on the barricades. (In France, the law preceded by just a few months the wave of riots by Arab youths that swept the country's blighted suburbs - little fear of such unrest occurring in the gated suburbs marketed by Bradley, of course.)

But here is one difference between the French Republic and the Lone Star Republic, at least for now. While French historians rightly see both ends of the political spectrum as threats to history's credibility, American historians have so far failed to respond in kind. We owe it not just to our students, but to the future of the past, to sound the warning first issued by "Liberty for History": "the state, even when it has the best of intentions, has no role in the politics of history".

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