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By:Clyde Wilson | April 30, 2014

Quite a while back I annoyed the readers of this site with a long series of quotations:  “What is History?” My intent was to provide thought on the vast and complicated question of how we understand and best make use of the past.

As a kind of belated conclusion to that series, I quote myself—with a  few ideas about “history” that I have promulgated from time to time. I make no claim that my ideas are original. Probably all of them have been said before and better:

The great poet and classicist A.E. Housman remarked that a scholar searching into the past is not like a scientist examining a specimen under a microscope, but more like a dog scratching for fleas.

This is an example of tough historical thinking (than which nothing is more truly “relevant” to the present) such as we would have taken for granted half a century ago as widespread among those training in the vocation. But it is rare in this day when a weird combination of deterministic social science, on the one hand, and uncritical romanticism toward favoured causes, on the other, dominates historical writing and teaching.

In my own observation the corps of professional historians are far gone in esoterica and onanism, perhaps too far to return. Certainly it will take a long time, given the slowness of institutional change (in no discipline slower than in history) and the tendency of academic mediocrity to nurture and reproduce itself. Never have historians had more influence and never have they been so remote from the common body of citizens.

History repeats itself—but not exactly.

Statistics can help us establish some empirical facts, but there is no really important question in history to which the answer is a number.

One of the few certain things one learns from history is that nobody can predict the future.

Character is destiny, and that is as true of peoples as of persons.

It is quite possible to write a history in which the facts presented are accurate but the story told is false. It happens all the time.

People have a genuine desire to know the truth, but it is not as strong a priority as other desires.

We should never under-estimate the power of inertia and cultural lag in public life.

If we obeyed the injunction to speak no ill of the dead, we could write no history. I think the admonition must originate in paganism—to speak ill of the dead might bring their reprisal. It was not so much a rule for good conduct as a warning to avoid bad vibes. I have always thought it was morally dubious advice. Evils often live beyond the lives of those who perpetrate them and need to be condemned.

Among American academic historians one can make a celebrated new interpretation by simply pointing out the obvious. Most  never see what is there until it is showed to them. They believe they have shown superior wisdom by memorising the currently fashionable idea of what is supposed to be there.

Something of the moral condition of the academic profession of history today is illustrated by the number of plagiarists who are among the most celebrated and highly-paid.

Honest history is one of the many casualties of the ethnic spoils competition that now dominates American society.



4/30/2014 03:44 PM

  "It is quite possible to write a history in which the facts presented are accurate but the story told is false. It happens all the time." I honestly believe it is because Clio is grave yard dead in the hearts of men and has been for a long long time. It is related to, but not an explanation for, your other observation "it is rare in this day when a weird combination of deterministic social science, on the one hand, and uncritical romanticism toward favoured causes, on the other, dominates historical writing and teaching.

Bryan Fox
4/30/2014 07:04 PM

  To speak no ill of the dead. Do just that on MLK in the public arena the long knives will come, one could even go to prison. Speak ill of FDR in academic circles and you will lucky to teach at junior college. Speak ill of Lincoln and you will be ignored while lying plagiarists are anointed premier Scholars.

Nicholas MOSES
Paris (FR)
5/1/2014 11:56 AM

  I'm not sufficiently trained in classics to be of much help on not speaking ill of the dead. I remember Dr. Fleming commenting on these pages about that maxim holding up to the extent that even banal politicians and slum lords have more or less well-intentioned families and friends who will be grieving them and communities who are shaken by their departure. Still, it seems that there are some, whose evil and/or incompetence was so well-known and so acidic throughout their lives, and whose deaths are made so pompously tasteless by people who should know better that impulsively one wants to counterbalance, and ideally not have to wait. Is this just partial and uncontrolled passion or could it be accommodated by some degree of reason?

5/1/2014 03:25 PM

  The injunction to speak no ill of the dead is, first of all, not a moral commandment but a bit of courtesy toward the friends and relatives in a state or bereavement. It obviously does not apply to politicians who have been dead for 100, 50, or even ten years. Nor does it prevent an obituary writer from stating such truths as that the deceased had been convicted of crimes. It does, however, advise us to refrain from malicious gossip or gratuitous insult. Mr. Buckley's nasty remarks on Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard were signs of bad character, as were the insinuations made, in the NY Times and elsewhere, after the recent death of Ted Fehrenbach. How was it relevant to denounce Fehrenbach for holding views that were quite creditable among liberals when he was writing his books and only recently have been condemned by the propaganda factories? When Ted Kennedy died, I followed the injunction and put up De Mortuis nihil nisi bonum, followed by blank space. It was mostly a joke, but had I written a full obituary, I should have described his destructive policies and provided a brief description of his mistress's death under suspicious circumstances. His drunken womanizing, of which everyone is fully aware, could be saved for another occasion.

5/1/2014 09:05 PM

  Dr. Fleming, I hadn't seen that NYT hatchet job on Mr. Fehrenbach until you mentioned it. It is a repulsive piece of dreck, pierced with PC invective. It reads more like a teaching manual prepared by Marxist professor at a third-rate community college. Here is a short passage for those who have not yet read it: Mr. Fehrenbach placed far greater emphasis on white frontiersmen than do today’s historians, who give considerable weight to the roles and contributions of women, Mexicans, American Indians and blacks... we are certainly much more aware of race, class and gender issues and how they affected people in history..."


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