Victor Davis Hanson on America’s Cultural Amnesia

Writer Mary Kapp attended the Hudson Institute’s symposium yesterday at which Victor Davis Hanson, who received a 2008 Bradley Prize at the Kennedy Center last night, gave a talk. She writes:

Outright contempt for American history and the resultant fallacies in thinking and governance are the focus of Victor Davis Hanson’s essay, “Memory and Civic Education: The Perils of Cultural Amnesia.” Presenting with scholars John Fonte and Andrew McCarthy at Washington, D.C.’s St. Regis Hotel on June 4, 2008 as part of the Hoover Institute’s Bradley Symposium, Hanson discussed the intersection of academia and American character.

He warned against the intellectual swagger of historical dissociation, articulating the importance of gratitude and humility “for a free people, likely to think their present success is all their own, and therefore, in their self-congratulation, prone to hubris and a lack of reflection.”

A society that spurns success as a species of circular oppression is not expected to remind its citizens that they were merely born into fortune and freedom, Hanson contended. A charge of stewardship for America’s economic and human capital for upcoming generations, against the prevailing sense of entitlement, would be just as uncommon.

In truth, Americans should rebuke slander “in fear that [they] might break faith with all those beneath the white crosses of our national cemeteries who died…for the continuance of the freedom and material options that we now take for granted.”

The second inheritance of this cultural amnesia is a failure to identify and categorize what is truly important in collective history. Achievements that resonate with current social agendas are thrust into the spotlight and disproportionately trumpeted.

While Americans “serve the noble aim of racial inclusiveness in the present,” they also unwisely alleviate their own “present guilt about the past by demonizing or ignoring those others who left us the very prosperity and tradition of free speech that has allowed us to caricature them.”

William Tecumseh Sherman, for example, merits considerably less study than the accomplishments of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, according to modern school history texts. Though General Sherman “took Atlanta, saved the 1864 election for Abraham Lincoln, and helped General Grant destroy the Confederate resistance,” playing a sizeable role in Union victory, he is marginalized for the sake of racial and gender sensitivity.

The author sees this tendency as a product of the prevailing preoccupation with oppression studies, the notion that all historical data speaks to “the contemporary goal of victimology” and “equality of result.”

Hanson with fellow panelist James Piereson, author of Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, probed the products of historical revisionism, the first of which was a façade for self-indulgence. Once a culture has denounced its roots as illiberal, it has erected a canvas for self-invention which supposedly allows for the historic margin of error.

Hanson listed the faults of the current generation: depletion of the social security system, a failed war in Vietnam, and a “crass popular culture of conspicuous consumption and self-indulgence.” It is this same society which insists on featuring the sins of prior generations for the apparent disillusionment of future Americans.

Within this intellectual framework, American national identity and success has an uncertain future, Hanson claimed. He added, “the more we demonize the dead, the more we the living are then free to rewrite the rules of our own moral behavior.”  The conclusion is that the wages of historical naiveté is death of identity and ideology, and the remedy involves the logical outworking of reverence for American ancestry.

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