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History Deserves Defending
The Past is Now Whatever Sounds 'Truthy' for the Present
It can be tempting to dismiss historical illiteracy as irrelevant; what does it matter to, for example, an engineer if they can’t recall who James Madison was, or the building of the Berlin Wall? Yet while it may not matter for an individual’s profession, it does matter for society to have an informed citizenry, and their ability to meaningfully contribute in a participatory democracy.
The current landscape of political polarisation is fuelled by a calamitous combination of historical illiteracy on the Left and historical amnesia on the Right. This unmoors us from the port of reality, and stable meaning of the past is lost adrift. History provides context and perspective to the present, an ability to understand the trajectories of tides that have washed us up on the shores of today. To truly understand that history requires a commitment to the disciplined and rigorous study of the past, to provide a historical perspective grounded in the pursuit of facts, intellectually honest inquiry, and empirical epistemology.
However, since the 1980’s, and accelerated in earnest is the past decade, a malignant tumour of pseudo-intellectualism has metastasised from the most illegitimate corners of postmodern “scholarship” to catabolise the humanities with a cancer of cynicism, relativism, hyper-subjectivity, and moral reductionism. To this cabal of activists masquerading as scholars, history is a tool for their own cultural and political imperatives of the present, to be interpreted in whatever way conforms to their worldview. The 1619 Project provides a visible recent example of this trend. As the historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton wrote of the projects historical inaccuracies:
“No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts. In the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth. That tool is far too important to cede now.”
The 1619 Project served as an example of how using history for current political agendas drives polarisation. Time and energy was wasted fact-checking the claims and attempting to redress the historical inaccuracies. While that tedious process was playing out, the Right capitalised by dismissing the entire, wider context of the issues, and claimed (not without justification) that the Left were devious and biased toward a particular agenda. The Left responded by stating it wasn’t really about the facts in the first place, but that “we need to talk about the issue”, gaslighting any critics by deliberately conflating criticism with denialism. The whole charade descended into a farce, and the actual conversation that needed to happen - in this example, the role of slavery in the early foundational period of American history - didn’t happen. Liberals smugly see this as confirmation that everyone is complicit in “White supremacy”, while conservatives angrily see it as confirmation that “the Woke” reign supreme.
No one has argued the importance of a disciplined and scrupulous approach to the study of the past with more vigour than the brilliant Richard J. Evans of Oxford in his 1997 book, ‘In Defence of History’. The book excoriated the fact that, through the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, postmodernism was “infecting a disturbing number of young historians, above all in the United States.” As most people today have only heard the term “postmodernism” from current Right-wing voices (e.g., Jordan Peterson; James Lindsay), it vital not to assume that this school of thought is legitimate simply because conservatives criticise it (please have a better epistemology than “I think X because The Other Side think Y”).
In fact, postmodernism’s most vociferous critics have been Left-wing intellectuals (e.g., Noam Chomsky; Alan Sokal) precisely because hyper-relativist and hyper-subjectivist, language-based modes of cultural criticism serve nothing and no one that the Left is supposed to work for. All it creates is a lexicon of social justice language soup for liberals to feel self-righteous using to police the thoughts and words of their yuppy friends with. At its best, it is useless gibberish; at its worst, and it is the worst of it we are subjected to now in the academy and in public discourse, it is absurd, divisive, and dangerously undermines reality.
When applied to history, it undermines our collective understanding of how the past shapes the present by introducing what Heather MacDonald called:
“...the characteristic academic traits of our time: narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics...the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin.”
Postmodernists responded to Evans' In Defence of History with their usual apoplexy, to which he updated the book with an afterword in 2000. In addressing criticisms from the postmodernist Keith Jenkins (who argued in ‘Why History’ that postmodernism was radical and anyone who criticised it was a conservative), Evans wrote:
“...the fundamental fact that postmodernist hyper-relativism isn't necessarily radical or emancipatory at all is not addressed in any way by Jenkins, who continues, like other postmodernists, to assume without any justification that it necessarily is. This assumption leads to the belief that everyone who dares to criticise postmodernist theory must be conservative. In fact, as the book points out, extreme relativism opens the door to fascists and racists as well as radicals and progressives by allowing any body to claim that their view of history, their reading of a document, is as valid as anybody else's, and by making it impossible to refute their arguments on anything but political grounds. Perhaps it is because it challenges this self-designated left-wing radicalism of postmodernists that In Defence of History has made so many of them so angry.”
The postmodern assumption that their project is radical and emancipatory is always evident in the language-based mode of criticism, rather than fact-based, that is applied to questions of the past. By utilising a very particular dialect - “White supremacy”; “colonialist”; “hegemonic”; “intersectional”; “imperialist”; “justice” - claims to be “re-examining” and “interrogating” the past are presented as conclusions, as if the statement itself sufficient evidence of the interpretation. The problem is that these words deserve to have stable meaning and force. But in the postmodern language-based mode of critique, where everything can be anything and anything can be nothing, these words are applied so ubiquitously that the stability in their meaning is lost.
This is just one example of how the postmodern hyper-relativist lens of viewing history leaves us with an unfocused blur; it takes concepts that should have meaning - colonialism, imperialism, White supremacy - and strips them of their explanatory power. History becomes whatever interpretation can be self-justified by framing the past around that particular rhetoric, rather than by any rigorous examination of evidence. And because of the primacy of hyper-subjectivity, where the validity of interpretations are dependent on the individual’s “positionality” to an issue, as Sokal stated, “moral or aesthetic values displace cognitive ones as the criterion for evaluating assertions of fact.”
This was all once again on display in the liberal responses to the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. A seemingly wilful refusal to engage with basic facts (e.g., who exercises power in a parliamentary monarchy; voluntary membership of the Commonwealth), combined with a litany of fallacies that render the conversation another time-wasting exercise in error correction, rather than a fruitful discourse of the role of monarchy, both historically and for contemporary Britain. The predictable op-eds were an inevitability of operating from an asinine postmodern epistemology, one which from a historical perspective falls prey to presentism, or the fallacy of “nunc pro tunc” (Latin for “then for now”).
To illustrate the issues with presentism, and why historians try to avoid it, let me pose you a question first put to me by my Classics tutor in college: how democratic was Athens? The salient facts are that in Athens, every citizen could vote; but “citizen” was defined as a male over 20 years of age, freeborn, with two Athenian parents. If you look at this criteria and your first instinct is to take to Twitter to berate the Athenians as “fascists” for not allowing women and non-binary folx to vote, congratulations, you’re engaging in presentism: using your moral values in 2022 to judge a society over 2,000 years before you.
The correct interpretation is that Athens was highly democratic; based on their criteria of citizenship at the time, every single citizen could vote. And it is equally correct to state that their criteria for citizenship would not be acceptable to our ideals of democratic participation today. Both of these are true. In a time where, particularly in the U.S., political parties are attempting to deprive citizens of their voting rights, the appropriate interpretation of history becomes illuminating for the present; engaging in presentism takes us further away from seeing that while the criteria evolved as society evolved, the principle remains; every citizen should have the right to vote.
Presentism was on full display with the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, particularly with regard to a monarchical system that stretches back ~1,200 years. This presented monarchy as if it was an unchanging entity, as if the role both of monarchy and the society in which it existed was the same for Henry II as it was for Queen Victoria. As if England has not already once had a grand reckoning with monarchy (one that resulted in a King’s beheading), before the Restoration and the emergence of a constitutional monarchy. Ask an Englishman in the 1650’s whether they would prefer to live under Cromwell’s Puritanical parliament or a monarch, and we could expect a very different answer to that question than asking a British citizen today. Strangely, I saw no reference to King Cnut being a “coloniser”, despite being the only Viking to claim the throne of England.
The designation of responsibility to the office, independent of the individual holding office, was also a historical fallacy on full display. This ramifications of this kind of error are in fact evident in history; the process of “denazification” after the Second World War was predicated on holding individuals to account, independent of rank or uniform. After all, if the Allies assumed that any German in uniform was a diehard Nazi, there wouldn’t have been anyone left to rebuild the country, in a nation that almost totally mobilised. Rather than learn from this historical example, in the alternate reality universe that was the George W. Bush administration, all members of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party were to be excluded from the “nation building” process; but because membership was all-but mandatory, it effectively excluded all former Iraqi military and public sector employees. The stroke of a pen ignorant of history created an army of insurgents overnight. When we examine history - indeed the present - through the primacy of moral and aesthetic values, people are evaluated not for who they were or are, but what they represent. This reflects the postmodern concept of moral reductionism.
This moral reductionist reasoning suits today’s so-called progressives, however, because their postmodern worldview is predicated upon the concept of Original Sin. The world is divided into a binary of oppressors and victims, and as this is defined by identity, it means that no one belonging to the oppressor identity group is innocent; guilt is timeless, independent of state, trait, and place. One article I came across was emblazoned with a title about how Queen Elizabeth II was not innocent of the sins of empire; the article proceeded to focus on Queen Elizabeth I, the 16th Century Caribbean plantations, and a litany of events that occurred 200-300 years before Elizabeth Windsor was born. You would be forgiven for thinking that the author just got his Queen Elizabeth’s mixed up, but alas this was not the case; the reasoning was deliberate. Is Barack Obama to be held responsible for the genocide of Native Americans, the orders for which came from the Oval Office? This is the most specious of historical reasoning, one which modern liberals with their postmodern lens are all too happy to engage in because it suits their current worldview.
Two common defences to this historical illiteracy were that “people are entitled to a point of view”, and that “people are entitled to feel how they do”. Each of these are true, but they do not justify whatever interpretation of an issue someone wants. Being entitled to a point of view is not an entitlement to ones own facts; this is the hyper-relativism that Evans was decrying in ‘In Defence of History’ when he wrote: “a postmodernist might find nothing wrong in doctoring a sentence in a text to make it support the argument; I do.” This idea of being entitled to a point of view conflated with an entitlement to a different set of facts leads to the championing of narratives over the disciplined study of the past.
And while people are entitled to their feelings, we live in a culture where feeling has supplanted reason; if our feelings must be valid, that must justify whatever take someone’s feelings lead them to. But feelings are not the paramount determinant of validity; again, people are entitled to whatever feelings they may have, but not to their own facts. Both of these concepts - entitlement to a point of view and feelings as the determinant of validity - flow directly from the postmodern epistemology of hyper-relativity and hyper-subjectivity. And for once the Right is not to blame here; this is a Leftist pathology, particularly in the U.S. where this pontificating ideology has perverted not only the humanities, but the sciences.
Yet we have arrived at a moment - particularly in the West - where we should, and need to, talk about history, particularly as it relates to entities like the British Empire or American history. We have an opportunity to rigorously examine the past to inform our present, and guide our future. But instead of taking history as the disciplined study of the past, the self-styled ‘progressives’ calling for us to “talk about history” are interested in replacing history with subjectivist theory-based relativism. This amounts to little more than firing broadside salvos in a culture war.
Leftists will say that the Right gloss over the unsavoury aspects of the nations history, and this is true. But that doesn’t give liberals carte blanche to read the cultural and political imperatives of their current agenda into history. If you want to speak truth to power, to “talk about history”, what use is obscurantism and obfuscation? The light of history is cold and hard enough that it needs no embellishment or spin. There is no need to dress up hard issues like the legacy of slavery and empire in obscurity, because it ultimately undermines the task of understanding the reality of these issues. To quote Sokal and Bricmont:
“There is a huge difference between discourses that are difficult because of the inherent nature of their subject and those whose vacuity or banality is carefully hidden behind deliberately obscure prose.”
All the postmodern lens of history achieves is a blurring of the past by smearing the lens with verbose, ‘truth-y’ sounding rhetoric. The insistence on looking at the past as part of a cultural-political project of the present undermines our collective ability to understand history in a way that makes conversations about difficult subject matter fruitful. This is a profoundly anti-intellectual movement that emboldens its unthinking adherents with pseudo-sophisticated language soup, giving it the pretence of value and the trappings of academic inquiry, without a shred of the substance. And there will be no reckoning with history so long as liberals insist on viewing the world through the lens of postmodern absurdity.
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