History Presents A Problem

The day he was appointed Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Bill Lann Lee gave this vision of America’s “long hard road” to equal justice. “It is a path haunted by the ghosts of slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow and internment [of Japanese-Americans in World War II], a path littered with desecrated churches and synagogues, persistent intolerance and bigotry.” “His views on affirmative action,” said President Clinton at the same press conference, “are my views on affirmative action.”

The view of affirmative action, the “long hard road,” and of America that both men share could be called Problem History. It is a common view these days. The history of America is the history of its problems. Columbus Day is a commemoration of the genocide of Indians. Officials of the Justice Department begin their tenure by thinking of slavery, internment and desecrated churches. Steven Spielberg, taking time out from dinosaurs and the Holocaust, turns to American history, which means he turns to a problem: an incident in the history of the slave trade. New Orleans changes the name of George Washington Elementary School. Why? The guy on the quarter had a problem-he owned slaves.

Problem history can generate rancor when problem bearers quarrel over whose problem is most important. (What were the “buffalo soldiers,” the black cavalrymen who served in the West after the Civil War-African-Americans struggling up from slavery, or tools of the Great White Father, pillaging the Indians?) Mostly, though, problem history generates anxiety. You might think that accusing people of perpetuating a problem would generate rancor, but we are so habituated to the mode that we are long past such reactive emotions; mostly, we just feel anxious.

Problem history is probably ineffectual, in the long run, as a stimulus for improvement. If people are going to act, they have to know not only how bad things are, but how good they are. It is worth noting that the American who took the most violent steps to reach the goals enshrined by Mr. Lee’s division of the Justice Department, Abraham Lincoln, did not practice problem history. The abolitionists did-William Lloyd Garrison burned the Constitution as a compact with the devil. Lincoln talked up the Declaration of Independence even though it had been written by a slave owner. Garrison’s solution to the slave problem was to have the North secede from the country. Lincoln’s was to save the country by any means necessary.

There are two ways to get out from under the spell of problem history. One is comparative. Since America is a nation of immigrants, Americans can do this very easily. Bill Lann Lee could take a trip to Nanking and think about the long hard road to equal justice as walked by the Imperial Japanese Army. While there, he could throw in some thoughts on foot-binding. His African-American colleagues could ask for sabbaticals in Africa, watch Amistad on the flight over, then examine the only continent where slavery still flourishes. His European-American colleagues could go to Europe and contemplate that continent’s history of advanced ideas, mass murder and world war.

The other way to be free of problem history is to think about its practitioners and advocates. Since it doesn’t attract Abraham Lincolns, who does it attract? Evidently, two classes of people.

The largest class is the punks-the people who say, I am the problem. By helping me, you solve it. Sometimes the punks have degrees from Yale College and Columbia Law School, like Mr. Lee. Mr. Lee may be a whiz at the bar, a second Daniel Webster. But he is also, as you may have noticed (the White House certainly did), a minority. Ethnic ticket-balancing at that level is probably not such a bad thing. The jobs have to be filled by somebody, and you’re only talking about a few million dollars, across the whole Federal Government, in salaries and pensions. It is when the Government requires this kind of ticket-balancing-via the quotas and preferences supported by President Clinton and Mr. Lee-from all the institutions of society that you start talking about real money and real injustices. Worst of all in the class of punks are the alleged criminals who take refuge in their problem status-Latrell Sprewell, O.J. Simpson, the mothers who beat their children to death and then get off on the grounds that they were not responsible because their husbands or boyfriends beat them.

The smaller class of problem historians-smaller because it requires special skills-are the therapists. The therapists identify and manage our anxiety about the problem. The master of this particular universe is Mr. Clinton. Can you imagine Al Gore sitting on a tall stool, one hand holding a cordless mike, one arm cradling a waif, and asking it (the mike) and her (the waif) how hard it is being a gay Asian-Pacific Islander eighth grader? Love means more than saying you were in Love Story , Mr. Vice President. Your boss has the gift. You do not.

Mr. Clinton represents the latest fusion of television and politics. Ronald Reagan was an earlier fusion, based on movies. President Clinton reincarnates Oprah Winfrey. If only he were as serious as Oprah-because she has a book club, and once people start reading, who knows what they will read, maybe even history that is not problem history.

Americans once turned out quite a lot of such history-the good along with the bad, the good as inspiration to be good ourselves. Literary gents like Washington Irving wrote biographies of famous men, as did famous men such as Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt. Instead of complaining about the retreat of the middlebrow, we could write them again. People want the stuff: Look at the unkillable market for military history and biography, the re-enactors dressing up as militiamen or Confederates and breathing in clouds of gunpowder smoke on weekends, the hordes who have made filmmaker Ken Burns a rich man.

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Lee will probably lose their fight for preferences-too many polls, referendums and legal decisions have been running against him, to say nothing of the Constitution and the Declaration, the legacies of those sly slave owners. But problem history will remain. It is our problem.

History Presents A Problem