This started as a reply to Nate Winchester, here, but I want to expand on the history biz a bit.
What bugs me when some libertarians & conservatives say “go learn yourself” is that they don’t seem to realize that the left has learned if they can’t control the information, that drowning the truth (especially with “accepted wisdom”) is just as acceptable.
This is true, and it’s often quite difficult — especially with academic history — to tell where the facts end and the interpretation begins. But you don’t really need as many facts as you think you do.
I’m not being anti-intellectual here. I’m not arguing that you should charge blithely into battle completely unarmed. But facts quickly pass the point of diminishing returns. The example Nate uses is “was Hitler a Christian”? There’s no way to “win” this “debate,” because Hitler was both a human and a politician. Humans’ beliefs change over time. Lucky for most of us, we’re not on record. Politicians are. Hitler was probably the Pope’s best buddy when talking to Catholic Bavarians, and a Thor-worshiping neo-pagan while addressing SS officers. Hell, he was probably both of those things, and seventeen other things besides, in his own head half the time. As he was a public figure, though, we have him on record opining about the state of his soul, and we can use those “facts” to construct whatever argument we wish….
…And notice what just happened there. We’ve slid between two different applications of the word “fact.” When we say “Hitler told a gathering of SS officers that Christianity is nonsense in a speech on 9 November, 1938,” the fact in that sentence isn’t
- Hitler thought Christianity is nonsense;
- Hilter said Christianity is nonsense to a group of SS officers on 11/9/1938.
The fact that he made the speech is part of the construction of the opinion that he wasn’t a Christian.
Again, I sound like I’m belaboring the obvious, but this is how the process works. And it’s why facts, as such, quickly pass the point of usefulness. We can’t simply add up all his statements pro and con, subtract one from the other, and look at the result. People are just too complex for that. The archives, alas, are not a magic bullet. There will never be a smoking-gun statement that will prove a claim like that (and even if there were, would the other side ever accept it? No true Scotsman and all that).*
Now, academic history — the stuff argued over in portentously-titled tomes from micro-presses — may well turn on one or two facts unearthed from dusty archives. And things “everybody knows” in the biz** are routinely challenged and disproven (that’s one of the ways you get tenure). But that’s not particularly useful for our purposes.
I’ll give you an example. I’ve been arguing in these pages that the 2016 campaign has been a weird mishmash of the 1852 and 1856 presidential elections, with Donald Trump in the John C. Fremont role. I claim national defense (= borders + Muzzies) now is equivalent to slavery back then — the only thing ordinary people wanted to talk about, and the one thing both political parties wouldn’t talk about under torture. I say Trump is Fremont because both Trump and Fremont, are, quite frankly, lunatics — but they’re straight-talking lunatics who won’t shut up about the one issue the public actually wants to hear, and who promise action.
Fremont was a sort of gentleman-adventurer back in the 1830s and 40s. He got rich by shady means, which included seizing control of a nominally independent country, the so-called “Bear Flag Republic” of California, while serving as a US Army officer. He got a bug up his ass about slavery, which was the appeal of the new Republican Party, and though cooler heads like Lincoln prevailed as the party’s public face after 1856, Fremont remained a major force, so much so that Lincoln had to give him a military command in the Civil War… which he used to unilaterally free all the slaves in his AOR, nearly torpedoing the Union war effort before it got started.
Now, any competent first-year grad student could tear that argument apart. Hell, a humorless internet pedant could, in about five minutes, using nothing but facts — the border isn’t slavery; Operation Iraqi Freedom wasn’t the Mexican War; there’s no Know-Nothing Party***; etc. etc.
To which I say, look at Trump’s popular appeal. “Because he’s got game” is a stupid fucking reason to vote for a politician, but lots of people are sympathetic to burn-it-down, shit-flinging nihilism. And when the party system is so obviously a fatcat-protection racket, when the party boys who are our rulers so obviously despise the ruled, a protest vote for the shit-flinging nihilist seems like the only sensible option. If my official choices are Jebillary or Hilleb, a hearty “fuck you” is emotionally satisfying. An Aztec will still have my job, the Thought Police will still be on my case, I’ll still have to maintain constant vigilance against the day some amnestied towelhead blows himself up at the local mall… but I can at least kinda sorta hold my head up as a man for one more day (until the shrieking harpies in Congress finally get around to passing the Castration Act of 2017).
Do I seem angry to you? A little deranged, perhaps? Good. This is the headspace of a lot of your fellow citizens. It’s why Trump is leading in the polls, and why a serious candidate who says what he says will finally end this ridiculous farce sooner than later.
Facts, as such, don’t capture that. You can find the same seething anger, the same unhinged rhetoric, on the pages of any newspaper in the country circa 1858. But the fact is that they’re talking about slavery, which we don’t have. You can point out, quite rightly, that the Republican Party platform which so many found appealing was tailored to economic and social conditions so different from our own that it may as well have been written on Mars.**** One can even point out, as at least one of our regular readers does, that the GOP is kicking ass right now if you look at election returns; winning parties don’t generally go out of business overnight.
It’s easy to get lost in those kinds of facts — missing the forest for the trees. The more you read up on Fremont, say, the less he looks like Trump. The past really is a different country. But… how did we get here from there? It’s still possible right now, in AD 2015, to shake hands with men who shook hands with men who fought in the Civil War. 1858 was just yesterday, but facts won’t tell you that.
*A great example of the problem with archives, using a similar example, is Richard Evans’s Lying about Hitler. The problem is that there’s no smoking-gun order for the Holocaust over Hitler’s signature in the archives. This has allowed sick fucks like David Irving to pretend that the Holocaust never happened, and/or that whatever number of Jews died — I think he admits to low six figures — Hitler had nothing to do with it. Nazi Germany didn’t work that way, of course, and the evidence we do have is irrefutable and overwhelming. But nobody can wave a piece of paper around and say it disproves, 100%, the crackpot theories of the Holocaust deniers. It’s a good read.
**which are not things “everybody knows” in real life, alas. If you want to claw your eyeballs out, read some of the “debates” over just how capitalist slavery was or wasn’t in the Old South. In academia, “everybody knows” that slaveholders just had to be eeevil capitalists, because “slaveholder” and “capitalist” basically mean the same thing. But the facts on the ground keep contradicting that, and so every time some grad student writes a dissertation on slavery in Frog Wallow County, Georgia, 1832-1834, the entire profession has to re-litigate the whole thing in the reviews. Nobody in the real world gives a shit.
***The current GOP in fact knows nothing, but they’re not Know-Nothings. Alas.
****The fun irony, for those who like such things, is that the best book on the early Republicans is still Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. Foner is an out-n-proud commie, but his book is top notch.
UPDATE: And hey, whaddaya know, just as I’m finishing this up, I see this. Fremont’s “coup” worked, but I leave the respective levels of crazy involved as an exercise for the reader.