It has come to my attention that an English professor with a forthcoming book to sell has been Working on His Brand by publishing an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that pooh-poohs historians for our quaint infatuation with facticity.
In turn, the Chronicle has been working on its traffic numbers by alternately blurbing this article on Twitter as critiquing historians for our fondness for “potted facts” or for our “fact-grubbing.”
You see, historians who spend time in the public sphere citing and explaining archival evidence which refutes the fatuous and false narratives of, say, Dinesh D’Souza are simply wasting our time, the article argues. We have obviously never heard of Hayden White, who – you all will be amazed to learn! – had key insights about the work that narrative does in shaping accounts of the past for particular ends. So, for example, historians of Medieval Europe who seize upon the erroneous proclamation that Walls Were the Solution to Social Ills in order to offer a better informed and more nuanced explanation of what life in the Middle Ages was actually like are missing the point entirely. Nobody cares whether these polemical assertions are true, and fact-checking them will do nothing to halt their power.
Other recent polemics aimed at historians have followed a similar line. There was the “Theory Revolt” flash-in-the-pan manifesto, which mocked the field for its infatuation with empiricism and its privileging of archival evidence over Theory – a term the manifesto never bothered to define, either because it was addressing only initiates to the mystery or because, like obscenity, Theory is something we all know when we see it.
Then there was the highly-acclaimed historian and public intellectual who recently suggested that historians have lost our way by giving up on telling big stories, ceding the field to the Dinesh D’Souzas, Bill O’Reillys, and David Bartons of the world. What we need, you see, is Narrative Sweep.
And of course there was that Washington Post column, published within the past month, written by some walking fedora with a Yale degree but perhaps not a Yale education (see Jeremiah Day for further explanation), regurgitating this decades-old falsehood: nobody teaches military history or diplomatic history any more.
I am so tired of this bullshit. It’s not new, it’s not true, and it’s not helpful to historians or to a reading / viewing / Tweeting public that needs and deserves good, solid, dependable, sound, well-argued, well-considered history.
At a time when malevolent polemicists without an ethical care in the world are crafting patently false narratives about the past in order to provide cover for a global white supremacist movement, there is something frankly heartening about the workmanlike empiricism of historians who challenge the lies and fabrications embedded in such narratives at every turn.
All that fact-grubbing! Don’t those fools know that people believe these narratives because they want them to be true?
Yes, we know. And we persist in our thankless and frankly quite hopeless task of crafting an account of the past that demonstrates an ethical commitment to veracity, to evidentiary soundness, to an honest accounting of evidence that might contravene or undermine the overall thrust of our arguments. And when we see others pushing accounts that are bristling with falsehoods, fabrications, and intentional avoidance of plain facts that contradict their claims, we pause from our own work to point that out for the benefit of the occasional reader who may actually be interested in what Medieval Times were really like or in why the Republican Party platform of 1860 would be unrecognizable to the Republican Party of today.
At a moment when everyone with something to sell or someone to shill for is scrambling to get the right history, we fact-grubbing historians are working hard to get the history right.
The stories we end up telling may be forgettable from the outset. Most of them will likely be forgotten. And most of us will be forgotten too.
But we do the work anyhow.
Any fool with an agenda can come up with the right “history” to serve their polemical aims. Our task is much harder, and our calling is higher, because we have to get the history right. If we’re lucky, it will sound good in the telling. But, good or not, it must first of all be true. Our job is to tell only true stories about the past.
This is our witness to the world: things may not always be as we wish, but we must deal with them bravely and honestly as they really are.
Pity the fool who views such commitment with contempt.