-->
Reviews

Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World by Eric Foner

Valerie MacEwan

Each generation, each separate age of man, writes its own history from that time frame's unique perspective.


Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World

Publisher: Hill and Wang
Length: 233
Price: $24 [US]
Author: Eric Foner
US publication date: 2002-04
Amazon
To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?
-- Cicero Orator

Some people run away screaming when a history book is recommended reading. Part of this must be due to their junior high history teachers, you remember the ones who droned on endlessly about the Etruscans, Columbus, or Piltdown man, rambling for weeks on end about dead people and their influence on absolutely nothing an eighth grader cares anything about. Getting caught reading history also has a fear factor attached to it — someone might think the reader is an intellectual or trying to look like one. But history shapes our lives. Undeniably.

What we may not think about is the way history is presented to us, how it is interpreted — and re-interpreted. Each generation, each separate age of man, writes its own history from that time frame's unique perspective. The next group, while writing their own history, also rewrites the stories of the times before it.

Eric Foner, noted historian and DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, has been writing and lecturing for decades. In his latest collection of essays,Who Owns History, Foner states:

"There is nothing unusual or sinister in the fact that each generation rewrites history to suit its own needs, or about disagreements within the profession and among the public at large about how history should best be taught and studied."

A historian's relationship to the past and outlook on the future greatly influence their interpretation of events. Foner examines the effects of international events on the historical consciousness. Essays discuss the historical impact of globalization, the end of South African apartheid, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He also takes a retrospective look at his own earlier ideas and the work he did with premiere historian Richard Hofstadter. The final essays discuss Ken Burns Civil War documentary and the "often misunderstood legacies of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction." In his essay "Blacks and the US Constitution, Foner discusses the "melancholy history" that served as a background for the most famous pre-Civil War Supreme Court decisions, the Dred Scot decision:

In an age of semiotics and deconstruction, not to mention intense debate among historians about the prevailing ideas of the revolutionary era, there is something refreshingly naive, almost quaint, in the idea that any text, including the Constitution, possess a single, easily ascertainable, objective meaning. Of course, the call for jurisprudence of "original intent" is less a carefully thought out intellectual stance than a political rallying cry, a justification for the undoing of modern Supreme Court decisions that have broadened the definition of constitutional rights, especially for black Americans. Whether the Supreme Court should be bound by the "original intent" of the Constitutional text is a political, not historical, question . . .

. . . What swept Dred Scot into the dustbin of history, of course, was not a reinterpretation of the founder's views but the greatest cataclysm in our history. The Civil War and Reconstruction produced not simply three amendments but a fundamentally new Constitution. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments abolished slavery, established a national citizenship whose rights, enforced by the federal government, were to be enjoyed equally by all Americans, and protected the right to vote of black men. These measures altered the definition of American citizenship, transformed the federal system, and engrafted into the Constitution a principle of racial equality entirely unprecedented in both jurisprudence and political reality before 1860.

Yes, reading over that kind of text might cause someone to break out in hives and re-live those horrible tension-filled essay question moments of long ago, but Foner writes so clearly, precisely, and with such passion, he might just make a fan out of the most reluctant reader.

Foner believes that new scholarship enhances history, creates a long overdue diversification in the intepretation of events. He warns, though, that the rise of what is sometimes called "new social history" could result in a fragmentation of facts, an incoherent narrative with too much focus on one particular phase of an historical event rather than on the event as a whole. He takes Ken Burns to task for Burns' in-depth look at the Civil War battles from personal perspective and for not including Reconstruction as part of the whole story of the War. The current propensity toward globalization, a common theme in modern day historical and political analysis, Foner argues, is often viewed as a contemporary issue and not within the broader scope of a centuries old historical discussion. "The dream of global unity goes back to the days of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan."

While it may not be the easiest book to read, Foner's essays are probably not difficult for the average reader to understand. This is a book that's important, that needs to be read and discussed. History is not boring. Some writers are boring. Foner's not. Pop culture dictates that interpretations of key events be delivered in two minute dialogues spewed from the mouths of historically inarticulate talking heads with carefully coifed hair and well-practised hand movements. In order to access the validity of statements dictated to the masses by governmental spokespeople, we really need to remind ourselves of the real history behind the words and events. Reading Foner's Who Owns History is a step in the right direction.

"Who owns history? Everyone and no one — which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery."

Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less
7

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image