History is written by the dissenters

By way of Rod Dreher’s blog, a thought-provoking extract of Alan Ehrenhalt’s book: "The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America" After describing the indignities heaped upon black Americans, homosexuals and aspiring women in the 1950’s, it continues:

It is a powerful indictment, but it is also a selective one. While it is often said that history is written by the winners, the truth is that the cultural images that come down to us as history are written, in large part, by the dissenters — by those whose strong feelings against life in a particular generation motivate them to become the novelists, playwrights, and social critics of the next, drawing inspiration from the injustices and hypocrisies of the time in which they grew up. We have learned much of what we know about family life in America in the 1950s from women who chafed under its restrictions […] Much of the image of American Catholic life in those years comes from the work of former Catholics who considered the church they grew up in not only authoritarian but destructive of their free choices and creative instincts. […]

I am not arguing with the accuracy of any of those individual memories. But our collective indignation makes little room for the millions of people who took the rules seriously and tried to live up to them […]


If you visit middle-class American suburbs today, and talk to the elderly women who have lived out their adult years in these places, they do not tell you how constricted and demeaning their lives in the 1950s were. They tell you those were the best years they can remember. And if you visit a working-class Catholic parish in a big city, and ask the older parishioners what they think of the church in the days before Vatican II, they don’t tell you that it was tyrannical or that it destroyed their individuality. They tell you they wish they cold have it back.

Those are the voices we don’t hear. Of course, this vision of dissent has a hindsight bias – we remember those dissidents who advocated emancipation, not those who called for a communist utopia or global fascism. But within those bounds, it may explain why we are so willing to condemn individual injustices: those who suffer intensely will express their indignation with scorching words that condemn and ridicule. More general, diffuse injustices will lack passionate champions to bring them to light, and move the world to change.

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  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    More precisely, history is written by today’s winners, who were often yesterday’s losers.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    And a disproportionate number of losers-now-winners have 1) a chip on their shoulder (often rightly), 2) have a better story to tell. The civil rights movement is a dominant portion of a child’s k-12 education. Other good ideas that didn’t have this kind of struggle are relatively diminished, such as many virtues related to classical liberalism that aren’t as sexy.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/andrewgelman/ Andrew

    This sort of anecdote is why people do random-sample surveys: “If you visit middle-class American suburbs today, and talk to the elderly women who have lived out their adult years in these places, they do not tell you how constricted and demeaning their lives in the 1950s were. They tell you those were the best years they can remember.”

    First off, when people go to do interviews they will often find what they are looking for. Sample surveys are hard to do, but people do them to avoid this sort of bias.

    Second, there’s a selection bias: the people who “lived out their adult years in these places” might be more likely to like these places since they stayed there. I’m not saying that this book shouldn’t be written (or read), but we have to be careful about generalizing from these anecdotes.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

    A lot more people report participation in civil rights marches in surveys than actually did historically. Surveys also report a far larger number of people saying they voted for a president now considered popular than the ballot results would lead one to think. Memories are not to be trusted.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Andrew, great comment.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    but we have to be careful about generalizing from these anecdotes.

    Most definitely. But as a claim that “there is another story to tell, and it isn’t often heard” the anecdotes seem very reasonable. They just don’t tell you anything about the extent of that “other story”.

    Memories are not to be trusted.

    Indeed. But happiness survey show equal happiness back in the 1950’s. So someone had to be having a great time while all the victims of the times were being miserable.