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Citations Needed

Sep 27, 2023

"Hitler was a product of his time," historian Kent Gardner told us in 1975, just thirty years after the end of World War II. "Was Frank Rizzo racist, or just a product of his time?" The Philadelphia Inquirer pondered in 2017 about the city's notoriously racist former police commissioner and mayor just 26 years after his death. "Christopher Columbus, no saint, was product of his time," explained a 2013 commentary in the Staten Island Advance.

We often hear this sentiment in reference to historical atrocities. Slaveowners, colonizers, genocidal tyrants, and right-wing bigots from decades or centuries past didn't know any better. They were simply responding to the time and place in which they lived — a different time, marked by different social mores, moral standards, and laws.

While it's perhaps fair to cite this cliche to explain, rather than justify, awkward song lyrics or offensive language and stereotypes used in movies from decades ago. But it's an entirely different issue with respect to how we venerate and remember the past. Especially since, in the most popular cases, famous people’s bad actions were roundly criticized, at the time.

Long popular as a catch-all to hand-wave away the misdeeds of slaveowners, colonizers and war mongers, Increasingly educational movements on the American right––from Ron DeSantis trying to remake history education to conservative propaganda targeting kids like PragerU — this "product of its time" cliché and its close cousin "don't judge the past by the standards of today" is making a bit of comeback, if it ever went away at all.

The defensive, superficially appealing cliche is a popular go-to for those who think we shouldn't criticize the supposedly sacrosanct secular deities of our past — from George Washington to Ronald Reagan. But the whole concept operates under a glaring double standard: how can we take pride in and venerate the supposedly good things Americans in history did but ignore and dismiss the bad things? How can we pick and choose our moral inheritance at will? How does the need for us to downplay slavery, colonization, and Jim Crow continue to be such a strong political force? And whose interests does this down-playing serve in 2023?

On this episode, we dissect the notion that the reactionary forces of history have just been "products of their time." We'll explore the ways in which this and related concepts are not only inaccurate, but also convenient instruments of right-wing historical revisionism, and how the need to make people feel good about our civic mythology makes for bad history, and even worse politics.

Our guest is historian and museum educator Erin Bartram.