Historians as a Judge of the Past

Social media, the new battlefield of weaponized outrage and digital mobocracy, seems as if it is driving the destruction of democracy through a most unique application of egalitarianism.  Academic experts, who once wore the purple robes of legitimacy conferred by institutional deference, now must compete with every Joe Six Pack with an opinion.  For people who dedicated nearly a decade of their lives becoming experts in a particular field, certified gatekeepers and arbiters of knowledge, this is a most unnerving turn of events.  Smarmy Brexiteers like Michael Gove declared that Britain “has had enough of experts.”  The defenders of experts cite heart surgeons or criminal defense attorneys, arguing that a political opponent of experts might well find a use for them if that person had the misfortune to suffer a heart attack or unwarranted arrest.  They have a point, but one that requires nuance: lawyers must receive legal training in order to interpret and advocate for the law, but the Constitution requires no such training for those who create or enforce laws.  Determining the place of experts in politics is a dicey business, and complicated further by the enormous variance in expertise. Historians are not trained to be experts on the present, and to argue otherwise is to venture near deterministic territory.  It is important that historians recognize this fact as we brace ourselves for the triumphalist Trumpian backlash against our profession.  To determine how to respond to this most transatlantic phenomenon of far right cultural ascendancy, we must begin with the fundamental concepts of our methodology.

Is a historian’s recitation of the past as argument for policy prediction and prescription even appropriate, or is it analogous to the criminal defense attorney attempting to navigate the complexities of tax law?  Is this infringing on the jurisdiction of political scientists and international relations theorists, experts in their own right who operate with a very different set of methodological assumptions from those taught in the history classroom?  These questions, of course, are posed rhetorically.  Historians who concern themselves with diagnosing the ills of the present and prescribing the political medicine for them are no more qualified to do so than any other person with a Twitter account.  So what then is history good for?  History can have contemporary purpose, and historians in previous despotic eras well understood it.  Roman emperors, men who were far too powerful to be held accountable in life, were called to answer for their crimes by historians who worked to affect the way the tyrant would be remembered.  History is not always written by the winners, to confront the popular saying.  Suetonius was no transformative political figure in his own time.  Yet he and other historians of his era inserted value judgment into the methodological development begun by classical Greeks such as Herodotus and Thucydides.  Past misdeeds could be illuminated in the present, and historical memory could be shaped by thorough and rigorous historiography.  Subjectivity became a part of historiographical DNA long before Foucault.

Historians of slavery engage in this very activity today by piling on of truths about slavery and the legitimized crimes of the planter class, while working to recover the lost lives and stories of the nameless thousands who were murdered in the name of Atlantic commerce.  The perpetuation of historic falsehoods (the Irish were slaves too!) in contemporary discourse proves that adding to this historiography remains worthy and important.  The rich white men of the American South and the British Caribbean achieved a level of power and notoriety in life that made them virtually unassailable.  It is only now in the wake of abolition and decolonization that we can truly show them for who they were, to count and name their atrocities, and account for the systemic damage that their greed wrought upon the Americas.  Historians of World War II have been engaged in a similar activity since the fall of Nazi Germany, preserving and enumerating the foul deeds of jackbooted thugs so that their shame will be eternal and warn future would-be storm troopers that they will not escape the judgment of history.

The work of these historians of past violence is all well and good, one might observe, but it does nothing to slow the ills of the present.  Does cataloguing the crimes of slavers and Nazis, in and of itself, do anything to slow the Western rise of antidemocratic politicians today?  Perhaps not, but this current generation of historians is doing something that terrifies the dictatorially ambitious: training the next generation of historians and critical thinkers.  The present will soon be the past, in fact, it happens every second of the day.  The people trained by current historians of colonialism and slavery, labor movements and radicalism, or authoritarianism and fascism will be the ones to count and interpret the misdeeds of powerful actors in the present.  The nationalists and authoritarian-minded among us despise liberal arts disciplines and attack their funding for this reason.  They resent the historical memory of dead white men fostered by current historians, and they are terrified that this power will be used against them and their own legacies in the future.  The past should not be a weapon to be used indiscriminately against the present.  It is in the present that historical legacies are destroyed and rebuilt, and it will be in the future when the bloated nakedness of the fleshy emperor will appear stark and gross under the unrelenting lens of historiography.

John Harris