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What's Wrong with Radical History ... And the Radical "Historians Against the War"

The July 11 Frontpagemag.com carried an article by Greg Yardley, called Historians Against History. It is full of good intentions, but I'm afraid it badly misunderstands just what has gone wrong in a lot of recent historical scholarship. Yardley's ire is directed at the radical activist group within the American Historical Association who call themselves "Historians against the War." He attacks these tenured propagandists in the name of historical "professionalism," a "noble dream" of "objectivity, balance, and evenhandedness."

Yardley holds that historians are free to engage in polemic journalism and political activism, but that their collective views on current issues should have no more credibility than, say, "Gardeners against the War." When teaching history himself, he tried to adopt an "objectivity" of approach himself, behaving differently than he would as a journalist.

But his notion that there once was a world of such "objective" scholarship, until the radical and subjectivist serpent entered the garden, is just a fine romance, which could be easily shredded by the radicals that he deplores. Certainly no one could conceivably argue that before "the study of history became a profession," even the greatest histories were free of "presentist" political influences: think of Hume or Macaulay. There are also contemporary popular historians, Paul Johnson the best example, who still write very good history in this tradition.

Not only that, much "professional" history in the twentieth century always showed obvious, and by no means indisputable, political inclinations. A whole school of "progressive" historians like Charles Beard and Carl Becker was followed by similar figures in later generations.

Even 1960s radicalism, while mostly producing more heat than light, brought a few substantial historical contributions from writers like Christopher Lasch and Eugene Genovese. Yardley and many other younger writers now seem unaware of an old scholarly distinction, that between partisanship and bias.

Partisanship is what historians, and scholars in other liberal disciplines, are bound to display as a simple feature of their individual character. The approach made to documents is bound to be different for the religious or the secular, the radical or the conservative. Some of the most intellectually and morally instructive history has been written by passionately partisan scholars.

But from Thucydides to Niall Ferguson, these writers have two other qualities as well. They display their parti pris openly to their readers, and they take it for granted that they still have an obligation to treat documentary historical evidence with a code of honesty, willingness to give full weight to documents that tell against their preferences, and intelligent criticism from other scholars with opposing views.

Bias literally means "slant," and what is typical of the awful stuff produced by contemporary academic radicals is that it is so slanted as, at a minimum, to suppress the whole truth, and in many cases propagate outright lies. In the Cold War years, this charge could sometimes be justifiably brought against those historians who were actual communists or fellow travelers, since it was impossible for them to give an honest account of the countless historical topics on which the Party had a "line." But the causes of appalling bias by the radicals of the last two decades have been somewhat different.

The New Left radicals of the 1960s recognized a real frailty in "professional" scholarship as such. While they, too, confused bias and partisanship, they accurately discerned plenty of the latter, and a bit of the former, in the "mainstream" and America-affirming liberal history of writers like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. They further confused "liberalism" as a political program and as a methodological principle of openness to different points of view. In this latter sense, academics of widely varied political views had formerly been able to say, "we are all liberals now." Radicals treated this as a mere convention of the hegemonic bourgeoisie, but initially had to play along.

But as the post-secondary educational system got bigger and bigger, quantitative changes started becoming qualitative ones. In university departments of only, say, half a dozen professors, there might be only one really outstanding scholar or teacher, but there would seldom be more than one complete dud or nutcase as well. But when these departments began to number in the dozens, both scholarly capacity and political opinion began to approach a normal curve distribution in each institution, so that two or three political lunatics could establish their own coteries of undergraduates and graduate students and campus lobby groups.

Many "middle-of-the-road" professors long underestimated the full implications of this change. They had been formerly able to assume safely that bad scholarship and teaching, since they generated nothing of lasting value, could just be treated as the irritating chaff that went along with the harvest of wheat. What they did not anticipate was that the chaff would set out to drive out the wheat altogether. Real scholars and teachers are correctly recognized as unbearable competition, dangerously attractive to bright and undeceived students, and producing articles and books that are actually read.

Yardley's plaint is not really against historical studies in particular, it is against the corrupt politicizing in all large formal organizations that bow to the insistent demands of the noisy and ambitious for the sake of a quiet life. Off the university campus, consider the National Education Association, largely dedicated to wrecking the American public school system for the last half century, or even the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science, increasingly being bullied into cheering on environmental arguments based on weak or non-existent scientific evidence.

The Cold War once did a favor for defenders of Western civilization that had little to do with the political struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. It made it possible for academic liberals (in both the political and methodological sense) to recognize that there were at least some variants of radical thought that they were compelled to fight head on. In a "post-Marxist" world, few have any idea how to confront a subjectivist, nihilist, America-hating nitwit, especially if he/she/he-she also claims to speak on behalf of previously silenced lesbian Latinos in wheelchairs, or whatever.

Yardley actually ends his article by proposing that federal or state authorities intervene directly to straighten things out. This is a terrible idea, and a very naïve one. In a world like the present, state intervention would be far more likely to entrench the nutcases, not the scholars. The latter are just going to have to learn to fight, using the old weapons of logic, reason, and common sense. They need not be ashamed of being "partisan" in such causes as patriotism, reason, and intellectual honesty.

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This article was first published by the National Association of Scholars and is reprinted with permission.