Fiction and the Right Side of History


August 24, 2018

John Maynard Keynes famously noted that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” That’s putting it mildly. My experience is that of Peter Hitchens:

I am ceaselessly amazed, as I look at our media, political parties, schools and universities, how formerly conservative people and institutions have adapted themselves to ideas, expressions and formulations which they once rejected and confidently mocked. Almost everything that was once derided as the work of the “loony left” or “political correctness gone mad” is observed daily in grand, expensive private schools and is the official policy of the Conservative and Unionist party, or soon will be.

Liberals think they’re on the right side of history, the side of inevitable, enlightened progress, often at the expense of religion (or “superstition”). Conservatives and Catholic, alas, have done little to dissuade them.

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Take Chelsea Clinton’s astonishing—or perhaps not so astonishing—assertion that legalized abortion has been a boon because it coincided with a massive influx of women into the workforce.

To a Catholic, sacrificing lives to Mammon and Moloch is barbaric. But if the United States is on “the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science” (as Winston Churchill said of Nazi-dominated Europe), then its court historians will praise her. Don’t forget, a decade ago, the book Freakonomics, written by a journalist and an economist, tied legalized abortion to lower crime rates. That book was a bestseller.

The progressive conceit is shared by liberals and unthinking conservatives when they use “medieval” as a term of abuse—a synonym, indeed, for a Catholic dark age, out of which the secular-minded enlightenment finally led us. That would be the dark age of Giotto, Dante, Chaucer, Chartres cathedral, the Magna Carta, the Song of Roland, and the foundation of universities (which didn’t offer degrees in victim studies).

Distance does not always bring clarity, and it is not only our European and Catholic past that is growing opaque to many Americans, so is our own history. America has so many streets, schools, forts, and statues commemorating Confederate heroes because until seemingly yesterday we understood our Civil War as an American Iliad, a tragedy with heroic figures on both sides. President Theodore Roosevelt spoke of America’s “proud right to claim as its own the glory won alike by those who wore the blue and by those who wore the gray, by those who followed Grant and by those who followed Lee; for both fought with equal bravery and with equal sincerity of conviction, each striving for the light as it was given him to see the light.”

That was the consensus view. Confederate heroes were American heroes, and they were also often—certainly in the case of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee—Christian heroes.

Many no longer see it this way, as witness the recent toppling of Silent Sam—a formerly much-beloved statue honoring University of North Carolina students who fought and died for the Confederacy—in an act of repulsive, bike-chain-wielding Bolshevism on the UNC campus.

The iconoclastic fervor of the Left against Confederate memorials has inevitably spread to any American who owned a slave or fought an Indian or, for that matter, represented Western Civilization as superior in any way, which is why a statue of Saint Joan of Arc was vandalized in New Orleans and the Left has disparaged the sanctity of Fr. Junipero Serra.

The Left’s fury is based on no new historical discovery, no new attempt to actually understand our past. It is based on a blunt desire to desecrate or obliterate it. To the iconoclasts, America’s old heroes are false gods from a hateful dark age. The radicals who lead this charge do so in the name of progress—and the pusillanimous bien pensants and politicians don’t want to fall behind.

Leftist “progressives” prey on young people who think history is a bore; they flatter them by dismissing the past as a dark age of racism, sexism, ignorance, intolerance, and inequality, unlit by cell-phones. They praise the young as contrastingly tolerant and virtuous, unbound from religious bigotry, a generation that will live as unimpeded autonomous individuals—that is, in reality, disproportionately alone, unmarried, and childless, but connected electronically and living the life of Narcissus.

Traditional historians likely won’t reach young people who buy this snake-oil. Their chronicles are not so easily digested. But it is possible, just maybe, that these young people can be reached by historical fiction. They still have imaginations—and for some, computer-generated imagery won’t be enough.

Granted, historical fiction can be as tendentious as straight history. Communist and liberal agitprop is proof enough of that.

But it must be historical fiction that approaches the past with sympathy, not supercilious judgment; one replete with heroes and heroines, and occasional villains, caught up in lives of action and adventure, comedy and tragedy, is more likely to get things correct than not—and it is more likely to be popular—because it touches on our fundamental human nature. Novelist, screenwriter, and historian George MacDonald Fraser wrote that while the old Hollywood took dramatic liberty with the facts, its classic adventure films where surprisingly accurate in capturing the spirit of history.

A lot of what passes for history today is really just politicking by other means. Sometimes you can find truer history between the pages of a novel, whether it’s The Killer Angels or Gone with the Wind. That is certainly better than what most leftist historians, peddling cultural Marxism, have on offer.

History is our shared understanding of who we are. We would all be better off if we remember our own American story—full of blood, toil, tears, sweat, and, yes, injustice—as an heroic story, part indeed of a divine drama. That’s how our ancestors saw it when they lived it, and they were largely right.


  • H. W. Crocker III

    H. W Crocker III is a popular historian and novelist. His classic history of the Catholic Church Triumph, updated and expanded, has just been reissued in hardcover.

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