The uses and mis-uses of history

I have long held a strong interest in the uses of history.  Historians have made a whole field of it, called historiography, or the study of history.

One of the latest examples of an insightful historical perspective comes from Jelani Cobb, a University of Connecticut history professor, who has written passionately about gun rights and African-Americans in the July 29, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

Cobb uses a new – and quite evocative term – “historical malpractice” – to describe how some American (National Rifle Association – NRA) gun rights advocates are attempting to co-opt African American support, by appealing to their sense of disenfranchisement.  Cobb goes on to write:

As with the recent anti-abortion billboards that targeted African-Americans by alluding to racist roots in the birth-control movement, the error lies in importing the past wholesale into the present. The point of history is to learn from it, not to proceed as if we were still living in it.

Great lessons here for the uses and mis-uses of history.  “Importing the past” without context is wrong, as is the assumption that we are living in a different historical era.  Wise words.


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