Imagine, for a moment, in a state whose politics are dominated by liberals, that an author is scheduled to give a book talk at a publicly run museum. Suppose, now, that an edict comes down from on high that the book talk is to be canceled because the book to be discussed is too patriotic, that it presents the American nation and its white population in too flattering a light, that it doesn’t say enough about the significance of slavery and racism. Can you imagine how much outrage there would be from conservatives, calling it an example of “political correctness,” and that relatively newer term “cancel culture”?
Well, something like that has happened, except that it’s the conservative-dominated state of Texas, and the presentation that was cancelled was on a book that was deemed too unflattering to America–actually, to be more precise, too unflattering to the origins of the state of Texas–and to have too much to say about the significance of slavery.
Before getting to the details, I’d like to say a few words about the whole scenario of being a historian (which I am) and writing a researched book in the field of history (I’ve published two and am working on more). No matter what the topic, no matter what the orientation of the author, the most that anyone can claim about any such published work is that it is a contribution to the conversation about what happened and why. No author can claim to have the complete absolute truth on a subject, nor can any author sensibly claim that his or her book should be the only book that anyone needs to read on a given topic.
The main message of a scholarly work is “here’s what I find to be true when I examine the evidence, and here’s the evidence that I’ve examined that leads me to this conclusion.” That’s the first thing that needs to be understood about any book that has something to say about what happened and why in a particular episode of history. The second thing that needs to be understood is that both before and after it gets published, it gets read by experts in the field who evaluate how well its argument is supported by the evidence presented. Serious flaws in the scholarship can result in its being rejected for publication or, if it gets published, being sharply criticized in book reviews.
It also needs to be noted that, with all the brouhaha about quote-unquote “revisionist history,” the actual term revisionist simply means that a book or article interprets an event differently from what has been written before. That doesn’t make it inherently true or false. The trouble is, there are people who think the old narratives are sacrosanct and that new work that challenges them, especially if such work challenges triumphal narratives that people hold sacred, must be false. Actually, the real trouble is that such people are in a position to close down book talks and write the laws about what public school teachers can teach.
With that in mind, the book that all the fuss in Texas is about is Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford. Forget the Alamo deals with a much-celebrated episode in 1836. At that time, Texas was Mexico’s northernmost province, and a coalition of Anglo Texians and Mexican Tejanos was fighting for independence. From February 23 to March 6, Mexican forces led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana laid siege to the Alamo mission near present-day San Antonio, ultimately killing approximately 200 independence fighters who had taken refuge there. This massacre spawned the battle cry “Remember the Alamo!”
Burrough, Tomlinson, and Stanford argue in Forget the Alamo that the popular story of what happened in those two weeks needs some adjusting. For one thing, their research tells them that, contrary to the standard narrative of these fighters valiantly holding out in the Alamo, many were actually trying to flee when they were shot. It’s not that the authors blame them for this; actually, they consider it foolhardy of these men to have stayed in the mission compound for as long as they did, knowing that the troops were coming and having to realize that their expected reinforcements were not. But probably more provocative to today’s Texas triumphalists is these authors’ assertion that much of the impetus behind Anglo Americans’ determination to separate Texas from Mexico was that Mexico was in the process of abolishing slavery there. That’s what seems to touch a nerve.
Two of the book’s authors were scheduled to give an online presentation on the platform of the Bullock State History Museum in Austin. But the museum withdrew its sponsorship, making it impossible for the authors to hold the scheduled event without a last-minute re-advertising effort for a change of platform, which was unfeasible at that point and thus the event was canceled. The order for the event’s removal from the museum’s platform came from the lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick. As he told his Twitter followers, “As a member of the Preservation Board, I told staff to cancel this event as soon as I found out about it,” because “this fact-free rewriting of TX history has no place @BullockMuseum.”
It would be interesting to know whether Lt. Gov. Patrick actually read the book, looked at the source citations, went back to the primary sources cited, and concluded that the sources didn’t adequately support the book’s thesis, even to the point of making it “fact-free.” But that’s doubtful. For one thing, Mr. Patrick hasn’t put forth any sort of scholarly critique of the book, hasn’t furnished any evidence that the book is “fact-free,” and as far as I can tell he doesn’t have any such training. No, it would appear that all the lieutenant governor and his allies knew was that the book challenged their state’s triumphal narrative, and that was bad—very bad.
It would appear that some Texans (like some people of every state and nationality) feel the need to think and speak of the actions of people who occupied the same soil so many generations earlier with the pronoun we. It would appear that their own sense of identity is riding, not on anything they themselves have done, but on what historical figures did all those years ago. And thus they need to defend their triumphal narrative, because they’ll feel personally slandered if it’s altered. Even this much would be relatively harmless if they merely defended their triumphal narrative by writing letters to the editor and longer articles, and giving talks, letting their point of view on the matters be heard. It’s when they cancel book talks and control public school curriculum that a problem should be seen.
About controlling curriculum: indeed, it should be noted that there is also in the Lone Star State a program titled the “1836 Project,” designed to make sure the triumphal narrative of the Alamo is taught in the public schools, so the generation coming up will know that their state has a proud heritage that they can share in. The governor has also just signed a bill forbidding teachers from making racism or slavery part of the “true founding” or “authentic principles” of the country.
It’s a fact of life, whether a good or a bad fact of life, that civic leaders and others will use history for celebratory purposes and to provide the young generations with heroic role models to be inspired by. Towns will hold events commemorating anniversaries, centennials, and whatnot, at which speakers will recite triumphal narratives and crowds will feel warm fuzzies and cheer. As a historian, I don’t begrudge them their warm fuzzies. But I also say, as a historian and an educator, if I’m writing a book about an event, it’s not my job to feed those warm fuzzies. It’s my job to examine the evidence and interpret it as I see it. I may get it wrong, and if I do, then ideally some critic will write a review that tears my book to shreds. A similar principle holds true when it comes to teaching.
And let’s consider now the mission of history education in the classroom. The same historical event, whether the siege of the Alamo or the road to the Civil War, can have different interpretations, and authors can disagree about what the evidence adds up to. Public school pupils at all levels—that’s right, you heard me, all levels—can be told this. If they’re interested in exploring who’s right, a good teacher will guide them in examining evidence. But how can teachers do their job when laws are passed requiring them to stick to an approved curriculum designed to give pupils warm fuzzies about their state and their nation?
One should find something both sad and scary in these circumstances in Texas. What’s sad is that there are people whose sense of identity is riding on the need to believe that a specific narrative about things that happened 185 years ago, as if somehow it had some relevance to who they are now and how people today should feel about themselves and their state. What’s scary is that people who think this way (if you can call it thinking) are actually being trusted with serious adult responsibilities.
Before you go, I’d like to recommend this article on the same subject by an esteemed fellow historian and one-time classmate of mine in graduate school, John Fea.