Sunday, December 03, 2006

Instant historians: an oxymoron?

...(or--forgive the pun--perhaps "oxymorons?")

Historian Vincent J. Cannato has an op-ed in the Washington Post rightly critical of historians' tendency to make instant judgments of Presidencies, both of Bush and others.

I always thought historians were those who wrote about the past after the passage of a reasonable amount of time, and journalists and pundits were--well, there's a lot of things I could call them, but we'll stick with "chroniclers of the present, taking a snapshot in time." Historians are distinguished by waiting, reflection, research, and analyzing the long-term consequences of actions taken. Not with predicting those consequences, but actually studying them, because they have occurred.

That's not to say that history is infallible; surely not. I've written before about some of the problems inherent in writing history, especially history with an agenda--and everyone's got an agenda, whether upfront about it or not.

Churchill is an interesting case in point. After the WWI debacle of his Admiralty decisions concerning the Dardanelles and Gallipoli (see this as well), the judgment of history would have been "Stupidity. Failure. Poor judgment." During the thirties, Churchill was practically a laughingstock in Parliament, a man whose dire warnings about Hitler and Germany were widely considered almost demented and rather pathetic.

Of course, history has vindicated Churchill. Yes, he had flaws, but history calls him "great." Of course in this, as in many other things, Churchill was both uncommonly prescient and uncommonly articulate; he said, "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it."

That's not the only reason history has been kind to Churchill. But shortly after WWII, when one would have thought he would have been a hero to all, the electorate voted him out of office. The judgments of the present are not the same as the viewpoint of history.

This is what Cannato cautions on Bush. Of course, we all need to make judgments in the present based on incomplete knowledge, and we all lack the ability to foretell the future. But that's not the same as declaring we already know the judgment of history. Folks such as Michael Lind would do well to heed that caution (hat tip: Done With Mirrors).

Powered by Blogger