Tuesday, October 18, 2016

History repeats, historians are parrots

A historical work of any value should have more question marks than periods. Even then, its scope will be overstated.

Historians, who not coincidentally are often wannabe fiction writers, speak with bottomless confidence about figures who died centuries ago in countries that no longer exist. If historians stuck to recreating the simple, everyday details of those distant, sparsely chronicled lives, it would be daunting enough. That challenge isn't enough for them, however. They seem more driven by a desire to credential themselves as all-knowing psychiatrists, affording them license to assert the precise motivations, impulses, and fetishes of every King Tom, Queen Dick, and Emperor Harry.

With many historical figures, we can't even piece together all the bits of their outer lives (birth dates, birth places, burial spots, etc.), yet historians speak with clinical certainty about their inner lives. A historian will confidently gives us 500 straight pages on Columbus's innermost thoughts, meanwhile, we're not even sure about the color of Columbus's hair (possibly ginger, poor sod - he probably hoped he'd fall off the edge of the Earth). If these goofy suppositions stayed within the circular Hell of tenured hackdom, the collateral damage would be minimal. Alas, this all too assuredly composed historical half-fiction not only gets repeated by other hacks; it trickles down to the masses, sometimes helping shape contemporary opinion on how modern situations - allegedly analogous to past ones - should be handled.

Today some polls show just 6% of Americans trust the media. People don't even trust those reporting in real time on contemporary events. Why then do they trust the reporting on events of foregone millennia?

How many times have you met someone seemingly mousy and tame who said, "You should have seen me in my twenties! I was partying hard, living on the edge, I'm lucky to be here!"

Assuming that person, let's call him Sir John Doe, is telling the truth, had he died in his 20s while partying, a historian would likely profile him as a wild man, then look for clues from his youth about what led to his being a "wild man." If obvious, measurable clues were absent, the historian would simply infer wild leanings from Sir John's Doe's otherwise ordinary behavior.

Assume Sir John Doe survived to become that mousy 30-something and never told anyone about his wild days. Without photographs or arrest records documenting them, what would even cause a historian to dig for evidence of wild days? Unless he stumbled onto folks who knew Sir John Doe then and were forthcoming about his hi-jinks, that wild period would go unreported. The historian would search for other motives for whatever actions Sir John Doe took in his 20s. If Sir John seemed aimless during that time, the historian might assume lack of confidence (after all, he ended up mousy!), when in fact that aimlessness had more to due with being too hungover to accomplish much.

Consider how many different people you've been in your life. Are all those phases equally documented?

When Hillary takes office, the first thing she should do is make it illegal to release a historical film that isn't animated. At least then the viewer might realize the "historical record" is fantasy.