Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Jacob Oliva’s David Irving Moment
Poor history is bad enough. Bent history is worse.
The state of Arkansas has re-entered the national conversation with the Arkansas Department of Education’s decision to de-list the pilot AP African American Studies course from its supported courses. The state has since argued that the course risks violating a new law prohibiting “indoctrination” and “opinion” in classroom curriculum. Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders has gone on to argue that the course content is part of a “propaganda leftist agenda teaching our kids to hate America and hate one another.” Jacob Oliva, the secretary of education for Arkansas, added that AP African American Studies is not a history course.
In her book The Wrath to Come: Gone With the Wind and the Lies America Tells, Dr. Sarah Churchwell argues that we have been living with the denialist view of American history since the end of the Civil War itself. She writes:
Denial was the fundamental mechanism of American reconciliation, as white America agreed to pretend, in effect, that it had all be a dreadful mistake. Insisting they fought not over slavery but over principles of sovereignty, confederate leaders actively rewrote history to suppress the sordid truth of how hard they fought to perpetuate slavery.
I find Churchwell’s centering of denial in the American historical imagination compelling, and I want to carry that idea forward here a little with respect to what is unfolding in Arkansas. In doing so, I want to relate this to another form of denialism, that of the Holocaust, and one of its most famous advocates—David Irving.
The purpose of this article is to argue that this sort of motivated approach to history is poisonous by nature and to stress that we have been practicing a form of this in America for a very long time.
Revisionism All the Way Down
The state says that this is not a history course, and that is true in the literal sense that it is distinct from the AP African American History listing. But the interdisciplinary curriculum is absolutely an endeavor in historicism. And it’s intellectually dishonest to suggest otherwise.
But the disciplinary question is a dodge. The crux of the state’s objection to the course content is the now-pervasive notion that deeply critical accounts of America’s racial past have no place in the classroom.
The real trick is in pretending that their preferred narrative is merely sanitized fact and that the stories that disrupt these truths are the product of ideological excess.
There is a more general fallacy at play here: what I informally call the stone tablet theory of history. In this way of thinking, history is merely a collection of simple facts—names, places, dates—that offer us a clear and fixed understanding of the past. People implicitly talk as if the study of history is as simple as unearthing a tablet for every year, on which is etched the key events in chronological order.
But history is a thing that’s done just like any other academic discipline. And, as is always true with those fields concerned with human activity, there is a great deal of interpretation and contestation. Fuller understandings of the past require that we expand rather than narrow the parameters of inquiry. A quality historical education is neither the goal of the state’s law on controversial material nor the desire of the people who support it. Despite their claims to the contrary, this is strictly about identity protection.
It’s the objection to “indoctrination” and “opinion” that gives the game away. For Sanders, Oliva, and the rest of the MAGA cohort running Arkansas, opening up conversations about the country and the state’s racial history risks delegitimizing their own deeply ideological revisionism.
I do not hold that institutions born of a particular time are permanently disfigured by the prejudices and enmities of their architects. But what Oliva, Sanders, and the many others attacking curriculum that attempts to look antebellum slavery and Jim Crow oppression squarely in the face are doing is proposing a theory of history so relativistic as to be totally morally degenerate.
And it’s here that I want to turn back to David Irving.
Irving is, of course, famous for being a Holocaust denier and for having lost a libel trial against historian Deborah Lipstadt for having rightly castigated his scholarship as the bigoted bunk that it is. In his response to the criticisms made against him, Irving bemoaned the decline of “pure history,” not troubled by partisan curation:
I inevitably investigated the extent to which Hitler participated in or had cognizance of the Holocaust. … To my utmost distaste it has become evident that it is no longer possible to write pure history, untrammeled and uninfluenced by politics, once one ventures into this unpleasant field.
In a particularly powerful scene from the film Denial, a biopic adaption of Lipstadt’s trial experience, Lipstadt’s barrister, played by Tom Wilkinson, excoriates Irving on the stand, asserting his shoddy research is the product of a hateful, ideological agenda: “It’s not because you’re a rotten historian. It’s because you’re a bent one as well.”
This captures my feelings when I survey the most vociferous advocates against so-called Critical Race Theory. And it’s why I think arguments over academic meanings are moot. What Secretary Oliva, Governor Sanders, and their allies in this effort—from Christopher Rufo to Ron DeSantis—are engaged in can and should be called denialism. To seek to suppress such content is to seek to eliminate an entire vista of history from the imaginations of young learners. To call the content “propaganda” and to suggest it spreads “hate” is to engage in a long tradition of victim-victimizer reversal that the Lost Cause and myriad other denialist myths rely upon to confuse and agitate the casual observer.
A key distinction between our situation here and the one in Europe is that we have only recently begun to develop a more robust public culture of memorializing American slavery and racism in their true and awful terms. We owe our delay in this process of remembering to the fact that we spent far too long granting an embarrassing deference to the perpetrators and their defenders.
State of Denial
Denialism is the air we breathe in the South. Denial of the factors behind the choking heat that grows worse each summer. Denial of the daily ways in which democracy is subverted and devalued in backwoods towns and state capitols alike. Denial of the unremitting barbarism of chattel slavery and its role as the central catalyst of the Civil War. Denial that the failure of Reconstruction means we have never fully reconciled the forces of insurrection and the slave power to our modern-day stated vision of a democracy with liberty and justice for all. Denial, now, of the validity of the 2020 election and the motivation and reality behind the January 6 insurrection.
Much of this is rooted in a toxic mixture of shame, projection, and fantasy. Turning again to Churchwell, she writes how in the aftermath of the Civil War:
Overcome with resentment, furiously refusing blame, the South started telling a fable about the end of slavery that evolved out of the tales it had long told to justify slavery’s existence. That fable did not question white supremacy or the South’s motives. Instead, it questioned the causes and consequences of the war, rewriting the conflict as one sovereignty and states’ rights. The invidious North destroyed the gallant South, who had never fought a war over slavery. And anyway, they’d add, slavery was a benevolent system in which everyone was happy.
Denialism is how so many young Arkansans grow up never knowing that one of the worst pogroms in American history was perpetrated in our state. In 1919, white locals, aided by federal troops, murdered what some historians estimate to be 200 black Americans in and around the area of Elaine, a farming town in the far eastern portion of the state. These included black men who had just returned from service in World War I. As Dr. Nan Elizabeth Woodruff wrote for The New York Times in 2019, marking the 100th anniversary of the massacre:
Elaine was probably the largest massacre of black people in post-Civil War history, yet no federal investigation was ever conducted. This neglect by the government came in the face of people who merely sought to exercise their basic rights to secure a lawyer to defend their property. America cannot address the inequality, poverty, inadequate education, the racially biased criminal justice system, and the limited life chances of black people that define contemporary society until the nation confronts and acknowledges this history.
We can have different ideas about the substantive ways race interacts with our current institutional and social environments. But interventions like the one in Arkansas do not facilitate rigorous and reflective thought about our national story. Rather, they obfuscate and elide the history for ideological purposes, maligning discomfiting narratives as partisan hate-mongering. And this is in the context of a present where far too many are already uninformed about the past.
Indeed, it’s not even entirely unheard of for Arkansans in some corners to have grown up with little knowledge of our most iconic civil rights fight, the integration of Central High School and the Little Rock Nine. A number of the Nine recently expressed their dismay at what they call the state’s attempt to “erase” black history.
The Lost Cause of the Trumpian era insists that the fall of Jim Crow was also the end of racism in the South, that the increasing diversity of America since the 1960s has been a source of weakness, and that Americans are right to feel that something has been taken from them and that their government is not truly theirs whenever it is in the hands of the very liberals who ushered in this period of multiculturalism. And yet it also projects its worst sins onto its opponents. Figures like Senator Ted Cruz regularly take to the airwaves to assert that the “Democrats are the party of the Ku Klux Klan,” as if the realignment of the civil rights era never occurred and, incredibly, as if the Republican Party is not now the one receiving the adulation and support of noted white nationalists.
A course dedicated to a richer understanding of the African American experience can only be understood as hateful and divisive when we understand what it threatens: the carefully constructed but precariously positioned myths of both the original Lost Cause and the new Trumpian one. And the efforts in Arkansas to eliminate the course are not in the service of some cleaner form of history but a bent version, one which will in turn leave us bent as well.