Ed Darrell, who runs the fantastic history and science blog Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, posted a piece on seven warning signs of bad history. He lists them as follows (and you can read his expanded thoughts on them at his site.):
1. The author pitches the claim directly to the media or to organizations of non-historians, for pay.
2. The author says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
3. The sources that verify the new interpretation of history are obscure; if they involve a famous person, the sources are not those usually relied on by historians.
4. Evidence for the history is anecdotal.
5. The author says a belief is credible because it has endured for some time, or because many people believe it to be true.
6. The author has worked in isolation.
7. The author must propose a new interpretation of history to explain an observation; heroes become villains, or great conspiracies are often invoked.
To this, I would add an eighth, or perhaps a caveat to the first rule: bad history also emanates from think tanks. One of my favorite scenes from Chris Buckley’s film Thank You for Smoking provides a poignant illustration of this. In it, we visit the fictitious Tobacco Institute, which employs a rogue scientist to conduct tests. Not surprisingly, the scientist’s experiments conclude that smoking does not have a negative impact on your health, and in some ways can even improve it. Something similar also takes place with shocking regularity in the humanities, especially in the field of history.
As an example, consider Michael Novak’s Washington’s God. During the 1970s, Novak abandoned his roots in the Catholic workers movement and in social justice. Feeling that the Democratic Party had sold out the ethnic blue-collar white in favor of blacks, feminists, Hispanics, gays, and hippies, he moved in the opposite direction. Gone was the man conscientious of past injustice, and gone was the man who thoughtfully decried the human rights abuses of the Vietnam War. Instead, he became one of the loudest advocates of free-market capitalism as a moral force, and a staunch champion of “traditional family values,” a vague phrase if ever one existed. Everyone is allowed to change their mind and calibrate their views over time. What is troubling is the way that Novak did this. He began to work exclusively for large think tanks, particularly the American Enterprise Institute, which conducts its research with heavy funding from chambers of commerce and large corporations, and it expects certain results from the scholarship. In short, these organizations have a vested interest in producing material that argues for a stronger religious heritage, the primacy of Western civilization over other cultures, and the moral foundations of economic liberty and free market capitalism.
While working under their auspices, Washington’s God makes precisely the case you think it would make: Washington was a theologically conservative Christian who conceived his participation in the revolution as the creation of a unique, exceptional, and god-blessed nation. It bends the first president to a socially conservative, and fundamentally presentist, narrative that makes him indistinguishable from any of the new Republicans in the 112th congress. Novak fails to account for several factors in Washington’s life that argue to the contrary: his persistent refusal to take communion, the absence of the word “Christ” from his entire life’s correspondence, the influence of Deism on his favorite works of literature (e.g. Addison’s play, Cato, of which he ordered a performance in Valley Forge), his anticlericalism, and so on. Even if an honest scholar worked for these institutions, they would not be encouraged, and in some cases forbidden, to publish empirical information, or an evidence-based interpretation that cut against the guiding principles of said organization.
True scholarship today is not much different from the revolution in thought inaugurated by Bacon and Descartes in the 17th century, and refined by the Enlightenment thinkers in the subsequent century. Ideally, in the historian’s academy, we ask a question or form a hypothesis, look at evidence with our eye guided by a number of different theories, and draw out a conclusion and narrative to plausibly explain change over time. It is a gathering of witnesses: texts, physical remnants, oral histories, and hammering out the context in which they worked. Granted, the historian, as flawed a human as any, will come to the table with a degree of bias, but ideally, he or she will be open and honest enough to allow the text to speak in its own voice, and be willing to challenge their preconceptions.
Today, partisan manipulations of history seem to attract public favor. It is favoring heritage over history, but it is a specious heritage built on. Seriously, go look at a
Borders Barnes and Noble sometime, and you will see exactly what I mean. Congratulatory liberal consensus is abundant, but even more abundant are the angry conservative and libertarian rewrites of history that argumentatively assert bias, and under the auspices of partisan presses or think tanks, lay out a case for history with a chip on its shoulder, what those godless professors of yours didn’t want you to know. A Patriot’s History of the United States, Richard Brookheiser’s accounts on what the founding fathers intended, Ron Paul supporters who usually put their degrees on the cover of their book. (Hint: if an author feels the need to tell you they are a Ph.D. on their book’s cover, this should be a red flag. By the way, has anyone found it odd that groupthink is most prominent among the doctrinaire individualists supporting Dr. Paul?)
Ultimately, the best history will not be found in a bookstore, but in the lesser-explored crevices of a university library or an unusually expansive and well-funded public library. It will be published by an academic press, subject to rigorous peer review, and be heartily endorsed by respected professors, and not talking heads on cable news. If the pursuit of history is of interest to you, my advice is to take the road less traveled, avoid the bestseller’s list, and read some reviews before making your reading choices. You’ll be amazed at what good work is out there that you never imagined.