“FDR was a piece of shit. If you disagree, you don’t know history.” That is what someone said to me during a stream of articles last month about President Roosevelt’s attitude and policy toward Jews during World War II.
While everyone piled on the president, I pointed out that his attitudes toward Jewish people was not some anomaly, but was indicative of the times. The Nazis did not invent anti-Semitism, but it has been evident in European culture at least since the Crusades, and even before. I was not justifying FDR’s actions, but instead trying to demonstrate that it took a world war to change the attitudes of the world.
No matter how I explained it, I became the target, the defender of FDR, if you will. I am not even a Democrat!
The problem was I forgot people have much to lose or gain by seeing FDR tarnished or glorified. Many figures and events from history have become so politicized that we cannot see past the popular opinions of our own groups.
Many discussions about history devolve into people yelling past each other. Historians are graded on whether they agree with our preconceived notion of history, not on their ability to research, analyze, and present the past. Notice how some of the bestselling history books come from people such as Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow. If they wrote about the same topic, we might be able to gauge which political party was more interested in history.
The result is something akin to a professional wrestling match. FDR comes up in the conversation, and then people cheer or boo him, never anything in between. Reagan comes up in the conversation, and then we either give him credit for defeating Communism single-handedly or decry him for screwing the poor.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we want to learn about history or we want to learn the single perspective of history that fits in with our groups. The latter forces us to face uncomfortable questions while the latter makes us feel good.
I am tired of feeling good.