Thursday, May 26, 2005

History and Politics

A year ago, Robert McElvaine did a study and analysis of why so many historians are against George W. Bush. That would have been fine and, as it was, predictable in its outcome. However, they larger story from a historical perspective was that so many historians had already deemed the Bush Presidency a failure. This even while still in the first term. I'd be interested to see this story updated given that a year has passed since the heat of the election.

But that really isn't my concern. I think that we historians have to be careful about offering such analysis too close to the history of the given event, so to speak. Especially if, say twenty or fifty years from now most historians come to a different conclusion. Could these "future peers" look at such data and wonder whether a group of historians that were so universally wrong in their too-instant "historical analysis" of a president may have also been wrong in other areas. If ideology so colored the contemporary analysis of so many historians, to what degree did it color their historical analysis?

This will be exacerbated, in my opinion, by the obvious belief held by many current historians that, because they are knowledgable of the past they are more qualified than most to comment on the present. I always thought that most historians rejected determinism. Sometimes it seems that we don't if it can support our politics. (Iraq=Vietnam, America=Rome, Bush=Hitler, etc.) I'm not saying that historians should exclude themselves from politics, but perhaps a bit more care should be taken before using one's own historical credentials as proof of expertise and the incontrovertible proof of one's own proclamations.


D. B. Light said...

Well said! Of course you are raising a deeper concern. You are saying, in effect, that our study of history has little or no bearing on our ability to make reasonable critical judgments on the world of the present. If that is the case, then of what benefit [other than personal entertainment] is history?

Marc said...

Perhaps I'm really being critical of the apparent absence of proper reflection and stridency of the rhetoric used by historians when it comes to using history to support an ideological argument, particularly in the case of rating the still-not-over Presidency of George W. Bush. Some of the comments in the linked piece don't seem to reflect considered thought and the predetermination of so many historians that Bush's presidency will be a failure before it has even become history calls into question their veracity in the future. If they said all along his presidency would be a failure, what chance that they will change their mind, even if it is warranted?