March 31, 2015

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Well, it might not matter much to the average Starbucks customer, but it needs to matter to historians. And, by extension, it should have mattered to USA Today, ostensibly a respectable paper (well I”€™ll be damned…I typed that with a straight face).

Sadly, though, with historical matters involving race, eventually teaching the facts gives way to using the event, making a lesson out of it. And those who quibble over facts often find themselves on the bayonet-end of those who accuse them of subverting an important message of “€œmulticulturalism”€ with their infernal hair-splitting.

Back in 1988, Peter Novick’s seminal book That Noble Dream explored how impossible it had become for historians to challenge myths and misconceptions regarding slavery and its effects on black Americans. And God knows I”€™ve devoted enough time and effort to making the same points about the Holocaust. Day by day, the list of what constitutes hair splitting grows. Why challenge “€œAfrocentric”€ history? Maybe Cleopatra didn”€™t look like Oprah, but dammit, it helps black self-esteem to think so.

Maybe Matthew Shepard was a meth dealer killed by a former lover. But why say so, if it might lead bullied and desperate gay teens to choose suicide over living in a world in which Shepard wasn”€™t crucified for being gay. 

Once you buy the line that advocating a factually accurate historical record is “€œhair splitting,.”€ before you know it, the size of the things that don”€™t matter begins to grow. Soon enough, hairs become logs, as debate over important issues is dismissed with a wave of the hand, and those who think details do matter are labeled racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic “€œenemies of tolerance.”€

To indulge in a shopworn cliché, it’s a slippery slope. It’s a freefall that leads straight from arguing that a periphery issue or “€œminor”€ detail doesn”€™t matter to claiming that a central issue is irrelevant. And presto, an entire historical field becomes as trivial and factually-bereft as a free corporate-funded newspaper you grab with your morning latte.


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