Monday, July 18, 2022

Historical facts: Because truth matters

Clocktower of the historic Spurgeon Building, Santa Ana. (Photo by author)

A fellow historian (and all-around good guy) just sent me a link to James M. Banner, Jr's thought-provoking article "All History Is Revisionist History" in Humanities magazine (published by the NEH).

In one sense, of course, the headline is correct. There are always more facts to learn, or some new way to describe them more clearly or to provide more context. That's not really revisionist history. And finding previously untapped sources of contemporary information to shed new light on old stories is also not revisionist history, but rather is the heart of historical work itself.

But I strongly disagree with this article’s claims that, 1) Facts are meaningless in and of themselves, 2) Bringing the historian’s personal biases to bear on said facts is the only way to make them relevant, and 3) There’s such a thing as “different truths.” Let me take those one at a time,...

1) Facts are of primary importance. If one is actually contributing something useful (rather than just regurgitating and offering an opinion), it means one has been dredging up newly-discovered, long-overlooked or neglected facts. At minimum, it means bringing together various *known* facts to assemble a storyline that had not previously been assembled, thereby adding value. 

2) Much like a journalist (or should I say like the journalists of certain publications of old), the goal should be to suppress our biases to the extent possible and tell the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the subject at hand. As imperfect humans, this goal may not be 100% attainable, but that is indeed the goal. It is worth the effort. The idea that we should try to make our biases and modern attitudes part of the story is foolish and does a tremendous disservice to our field. We can never write a perfect description of any episode in history – but the task at hand is to get as close as we can. (If we can’t improve on what’s been done nor add new information, there’s not much point in even picking up a pen.) Many of the complaints I hear about “revisionist history” are rightly aimed at those who simply want to use/abuse history as a platform upon which to grind their own modern political axes. 

3) No less a philosopher than Oprah Winfrey popularized the term “your truth.” But in reality there is only THE truth. Any given statement can only be true, untrue, or so vague as to be meaningless. Again, the facts -- as closely as we can vet them -- are our guiding light. And if we goof we should admit it and make corrections when we can. Getting to as much of the truth as we can and presenting it in a straightforward way is not only enough, it's also the ideal. And if that weren't enough, the truth is usually makes for a far better story than any alternate version we might dream up. 

All this reminds me of something Robert Heinlein once wrote (about the present and future rather than the past, but still…): “What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what ‘the stars foretell,’ avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable ‘verdict of history’ – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!”

I know the pressure is on for some history writers to bend things, cut corners, purposely ignore context, or drift into conjecture. These measures make it easier to gin up shock value, which in turn sells copy. It wins you pats on the back from others who are grinding the same ax you are. It can even give you street cred among certain academics who focus more on political orthodoxy than scholarship.

But being able to look at yourself in the mirror has advantages also.  So take your time, write for quality rather than quanitity, pull from the best sources available (with primary sources when possible), play the ball where it lies, and write it in a clear and engaging way so that someone may actually read it someday. Is that too much to hope for in the 2020s?

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