Paul A. Kramer’s article “History in a Time of Crisis” addresses these contradictions and inequalities of power. Kramer asks a crucial question: “What use is history in a time like this?” He focuses on three “particular knacks” of historians that serve us in “countering authoritarian politics.” Kramer asks, “What are historians good for?” He responds with three answers: “disrupting inevitabilities, digging out lost alternatives, and widening the horizons of empathy.”1 Framing the purpose of historians’ work with these skills breathes life into our work with teenagers. Developmentally speaking, it is the what ifs, the what could have beens, and the why should we cares that hold appeal for students.
This approach leads to the creation of several questions to use in the International Issues classroom. To begin, what really was inevitable in the history of U.S. imperialism and international relations? Did the U.S. take charge of the Western Hemisphere with the Monroe Doctrine in 1823? To what extent did the United States have to intervene in the Spanish American War in the late 19th century? When did the United States become the world’s policeman? Does the world need a policeman? What kind of world would it be if mid-20th century land reforms in Central America were allowed to flourish? What political, economic, and foreign policy decisions could have led to the establishment of self-sufficient democracies around the world? And to bring these tools to the present human rights crisis: What if people didn’t have to leave their own countries to live in freedom and safety?
Kramer argues that “Authoritarian politics relies upon narratives of inevitability” and that “good historians know this is hooey.” These “fundamental, bedrock patterns...came out of somewhere...even as their architects offered assurances that they had always been there.” Peeling back these layers creates space to find something new (to us), specifically the voices of resistance. “Here our task is...rediscovery. What possibilities in the past have closed over? What emancipatory energies might lay trapped beneath layers of accumulating sediment?” What stands out is the potential strength of these lost possibilities. The dominant narrative justifies imperialist outcomes. The shift with this unit is the act of digging out with our ear to the ground. What if? What could have been? Why should we care?
Kramer asks questions that reach into the heart of our work: “Whose past matters? Which characters get speaking parts? Who is authorized to tell the story?” With these questions and counternarratives, students will analyze the voices of resistance to U.S. imperialism. Students will also examine examples of American racism globally and in the communities of people who found solidarity with anti-imperialist struggles throughout the world. The silencing of the victims of American racism is a tool to normalize and perpetuate white supremacy. The acceptance of this reality as inevitable further normalizes and perpetuates white supremacy. A focus on the voices of resistance pushes students to consider lost alternatives, question power dynamics, and situate themselves within a tradition of talking back to empire.