Bill O’Reilly Is America’s Best-Selling Historian
And other problems we need to solve before we can get out of this mess.
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Jun 22 2017
Forgive me for complaining, but recent decades have not been easy ones for my peeps. I am from birth a member of the WHAM tribe, that once proud, but now embattled conglomeration of white, heterosexual American males. We have long been—there’s no denying it—a privileged group. When the blessings of American freedom get parceled out, WHAMs are accustomed to standing at the head of the line. Those not enjoying the trifecta of being white, heterosexual, and male get what’s left.
Fair? No, but from time immemorial those have been the rules. Anyway, no real American would carp. After all, the whole idea of America derives from the conviction that some people (us) deserve more than others (all those who are not us). It’s God’s will—so at least the great majority of Americans have believed since the Pilgrims set up shop just about 400 years ago.
Lately, however, the rules have been changing in ways that many WHAMs find disconcerting. True, some of my brethren—let’s call them 1 percenters—have adapted to those changes and continue to do very well indeed. Wherever corporate CEOs, hedge-fund managers, investment bankers, tech gurus, university presidents, publishers, politicians, and generals congregate to pat each other on the back, you can count on WHAMs’—reciting bromides about the importance of diversity!—being amply represented.
Yet beneath this upper crust, a different picture emerges. Further down the socioeconomic ladder, being a WHAM carries with it disadvantages. The good, steady jobs once implicitly reserved for us—lunch-pail stuff, yes, but enough to keep food in the family larder—are increasingly hard to come by. As those jobs have disappeared, so too have the ancillary benefits they conferred, self-respect not least among them. Especially galling to some WHAMs is being exiled to the back of the cultural bus. When it comes to art, music, literature, and fashion, the doings of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays, and women generate buzz. By comparison, white heterosexual males seem bland, uncool, and passé, or, worst of all, simply boring.
The Mandate of Heaven, which members of my tribe once took as theirs by right, has been cruelly withdrawn. History itself has betrayed us.
All of which is nonsense, of course, except perhaps as a reason to reflect on whether history can help explain why, today, WHAMs have worked themselves into such a funk in Donald Trump’s America. Can history provide answers? Or has history itself become part of the problem?
Paging Professor Becker
“For all practical purposes history is, for us and for the time being, what we know it to be.” So remarked Carl Becker in 1931 at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Professor Becker, a towering figure among historians of his day, was president of the AHA that year. His message to his colleagues amounted to a warning of sorts: Don’t think you’re so smart. The study of the past may reveal truths, he allowed, but those truths are contingent, incomplete, and valid only “for the time being.”
Put another way, historical perspectives conceived in what Becker termed “the specious present” have a sell-by date. Beyond their time, they become stale and outmoded, and so should be revised or discarded. This process of rejecting truths previously treated as authoritative is inexorable and essential. Yet it also tends to be fiercely contentious. The present may be specious, but it confers real privileges, which a particular reading of the past can sustain or undermine. Becker believed it inevitable that “our now valid versions” of history “will in due course be relegated to the category of discarded myths.” It was no less inevitable that beneficiaries of the prevailing version of truth should fight to preserve it.