by Andrea Widburg
The old year saw the passing of one of America's preeminent historians and moralists, who was a strong voice for teaching honest history, without a Marxist filter.
We have lost a warrior, a truth-teller whose clear-eyed insistence on telling the truth about Marxism is neded now more than ever. Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb leaves a legacy that we ignore at our peril. Hardcore Leftism, under the guise of Progressivism and so-called Democratic Socialism, has made huge strides in the United States in significant part because committed Leftists have long controlled how we view history. Marxists have understood much better than conservatives that he who defines the past interprets the present and controls the future.
As only the most recent example of historic manipulation, Pete Buttigieg, a Red Diaper baby who holds a history degree from Harvard, told a credulous group of elementary school children that "It's an embarrassing thing to admit, but the people who wrote the Constitution did not understand that slavery was a bad thing."
Conservatives swiftly schooled Buttigieg that the Founders understood completely that slavery was a moral wrong, but were forced to allow its continuance as one of the many compromises necessary to create a new nation. Ted Cruz, a fellow Harvard grad, offered a series of contemporaneous quotations showing that the preeminent Founders had a strong moral aversion to slavery:
“Slavery is an evil of Colossal magnitude & I am utterly averse to the admission of slavery into the Missouri Territories. It being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by law.” John Adams, founding father, 2nd POTUSThat kind of historic wisdom, though, is useless if your goal is to tear down American institutions. For that reason, America's educational institutions, from colleges on down, have opted to view history, not through the prism of actual events playing out in real time, but through a variety of deconstruction filters.
“Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature.” Benjamin Franklin, founding father, abolitionist
“…Neither my tongue, nor my pen, nor purse shall be wanting to promote the abolition of what to me appears so inconsistent with humanity and Christianity.” Benjamin Franklin, founding father, abolitionist
“Who talks most about freedom and equality? Is it not those who hold a bill of Rights in one hand and a whip for affrighted slaves in the other?” Alexander Hamilton, founding father, first Secretary of the Treasury, abolitionist
For many decades, the person standing most loudly atop the barricades when it came to teaching Marxist history was Gertrude Himmelfarb, an American historian specializing in 19th Century British history. Within the context of that history, Ms. Himmelfarb put special emphasis on the virtue of traditional morality, especially in the public sphere. Unsurprisingly, Himmelfarb viewed with dismay the growth of moral relativism, which seemed to culminate with much of America giving Bill Clinton a pass for seducing a young intern in the Oval Office and then lying about it under oath.
Ms. Himmelfarb did not confine her work to this narrow area, however. Instead, for decades, Himmelfarb consistently and persuasively argued that traditional historic methods were the best way to make sense of the past. She roundly rejected all of the new schools of history, whether Marxist economic history, so-called "scientific" history, social histories that substituted amorphous mass movements for the power brokers of the past (i.e., Caesar and Henry VIII were not just privileged actors unknowingly driven by larger economic movements) and, most especially, postmodernism that viewed history in a purely Shakespearean vein -- namely, as a vehicle to advance current political goals.
Instead, Ms. Himmelfarb persuasively argued that the past must be viewed on its own terms in order both to understand it and to make sense of its effects on the present. Moreover, as I figured out 40 years ago when earning a history major at Berkeley, Marxist history is always boring. It's also ridiculous, as was the case when one of my children was required to write an essay about 17th century America from a perspective of race, sex, or gender identity. (Thinking about it, that professor was an early advocate of what's now known as the New York Times' 1619 Project.)
Along with her husband, the late Irving Kristol, Ms. Himmelfarb was an important voice in the neoconservative movement. That is, both she and Mr. Kristol were former Democrats who became disenchanted with their party's ideology and turned back to core American principles.
Himmelfarb passed away on December 30, aged 97, from congestive heart failure. She is survived by her son William "Bill" Kristol, the founder and editor of the now-defunct Weekly Standard. With her death, America has lost an important voice for a clear-eyed and honest view of Western civilizations history and values.
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