Objective History is Impossible. And That’s a Fact.

There are facts, and there are historical facts, E.H. Carr reminded us years ago. Fact: lots of people crossed the Rubicon. Historical fact: Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE. A fact is embedded within a historical context–or set of contexts–that gives it historical significance and meaning. So when does a plain old “fact” rise to the level of “historical fact?” The short answer: when a historian decides it does. The fact and its context acquire historical meaning in retrospect, as they are recovered, interpreted, and presented by the historian. Caesar crossing the Rubicon is important if you care about Caesar and the developments with Rome that came out of his decision to move south out of the alps. Facts happened. Historical facts happened, but then someone asked of them, “so what?” That’s it, and that’s all.

Carr’s distinction illuminates a critically important element in the epistemology of the historian: significance is not inherent, but bestowed. This alone should give serious pause when someone prattles on about historians needing to be “objective.” The myth of objectivity presupposes inherent significance; that is, certain facts are a priori historical. George Washington is important,and therefore his doings are historical facts. It’s merely reporting the truth to observe this, we are told.

A totally objective rendering of the only person who mattered crossing the Rubicon.
A totally objective rendering of the only person who mattered crossing the Rubicon.

Q: Well, define “important.”

A: Washington was at the center of a number of historical processes–the American Revolution, the creation of the American republic–that fundamentally reshaped the environment for people of his time.

Q: So that’s why we have all these books about Washington? Because he’s uber-historical?

A: Yes; look at his impact on the events that created our society today.

Q: If that’s the criteria, where are the legions of hagiographies on smallpox, climate change, and the transatlantic slave trade? Didn’t they shape “our society today” in an even more fundamental sense?

A: But people like books about war.

Concepts like “significance” and “importance” only make sense in a relative sense. Something is “important” because other things are “unimportant.” Significance is the state of not being insignificant. But the problem is, of course, what’s important for some is not for others. The idea of “significance” is a freighted with cultural and political meanings. An assertion of “historical importance” is really a claim about things that matter, and more tellingly, things that don’t matter.

A refusal to admit that importance and significance–what constitutes “historical facts”–are eminently political (and presentist) is how we get, among other ills, the tenacious and belligerent defense of such shoddy concepts as “American Exceptionalism.” The mythical creature Objectivity is brandished like a club, and historians’ accounts that do not sufficiently toe the exceptionalist line are communist or terrorist or PC or leftist or libtard or typical academic crap or whatever term the right wing insult of the day happens to be.

This has been on my mind lately, as I am engaged in redesigning parts of my survey of US history courses. In the past, I’ve used Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as my primary set of readings, supplemented by excerpts from monographs, multimedia materials, and primary source documents. Zinn has never failed to elicit a strong reaction. For some, the book has been an epiphany, an antidote to rote learning of abstracted history, and an emancipatory experience. For others, Zinn might as well have written his book in puppies’ blood while conjuring the spirits of Benedict Arnold and Karl Marx.There are pearl-clutching Arbiters of American Truth out there who argue that Zinn’s work is the “mutilation” of US history and the “worst” history book ever (which, in a world that has David Barton in it, is a demonstrably false claim). Typical of this genre is Daniel Flynn’s 2003 essay in the History News Network that condemns Zinn for a multitude of sins, to the point where one would assume he alone was responsible for the decline of the humanities. Worst among Zinn’s crimes, though, is that he “leaves out” the good parts of American history:

Washington’s Farewell Address, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate all fail to merit a mention. Nowhere do we learn that Americans were first in flight, first to fly across the Atlantic, and first to walk on the moon. Alexander Graham Bell, Jonas Salk, and the Wright Brothers are entirely absent. Instead, the reader is treated to the exploits of Speckled Snake, Joan Baez, and the Berrigan brothers.

Why does Zinn hate America and its history? Because he’s NOT OBJECTIVE, that’s why:

Serving “a social aim” other than the preservation or interpretation of a historical record is precisely what we get in A People’s History of the United States.

This assertion–from the director of the “Center for Accuracy in Academia,” no less–is so stunning and majestic in its blithe lack of self-awareness that it rises to the level of performance art. But it is also prima facie evidence that the problem most critics have with Zinn, and critical scholarship in general, reflects an unwillingness to engage with what History actually is.  Zinn’s book may engage in simplification, or the elision of certain stories to create space for others, but in doing so it is literally no different than any other history textbook. Is Zinn not “preserving” or “interpreting” the historical record? Did Speckled Snake, Joan Baez, or the Berrigan Brothers not exist? No, the problem Flynn and others have with books like Zinn’s is “a social aim” that is radically opposed to their own social aims. By framing Important White Men Doing Things as the standard definition of “objective,” scholarship which fails to adhere to that (completely arbitrary) standard is biased or polemical or inaccurate. And those things are bad.

There are facts, and there are historical facts. Lots of people said things in front of the Brandenburg Gate. But Ronald Reagan was apparently the only one to do so historically.

But the idea of an objective version of history-telling, from which all others are deviant, is an absurdity. There is no objectivity in History. The very act of selecting a topic, for example, is privileging certain facts–making them “historical”–over others. In writing a biography of George Washington, one makes the claim that Washington was historically significant and important. And that’s fine. You can make an excellent case for that. But if you make that case by arguing Washington’s importance establishes his history and the histories of those like him as the only True History, then you have committed a serious logical fallacy. Washington is not important in the history of, say, the Cheyenne people of the 18th-century Great Plains, and the exclusion of Washington from a historical account of that subject doesn’t make it any less true. It makes it different, and that’s all. No serious scholar or student of history would even argue the point.

ALL history has a “social aim.” A “preservation” and “interpretation” of the “historical record” is in its very nature a socio-political act. Which record is preserved? What does that interpretation look like? Some authors present US History as a story where freedom and justice prevail, where things always “get better,” or as a teleology that begins with Washington and climaxes with Reagan. But to pretend that this is any more “objective” than, say, Zinn is–to use a technical term–crap. The facts are the facts, but which ones are rendered as “historical” and how they are ordered, interpreted, and presented–this is the contested ground of scholarship (and even more so of textbook authoring).

In the end, whether one is writing, teaching, or contemplating History, it comes down to a question of what “matters.” But the mistake so many make is to assume there is one unchanging answer to that question. We fail our discipline and our students if we claim that what has traditionally been deemed historically significant–has mattered–achieved that status by any sort of “objective” standard. We are better served to emancipate ourselves from the iron cage of Objectivity and see Historical Facts for what they really are. Rather than create some sort of postmodern relativist hellscape where anything goes, embracing this “truth”* about History lets us acknowledge the nature of our epistemology. Freed from having to hew to some arbitrary standard that has somehow been elevated above all the other arbitrary standards, we can study, teach, and interpret History in ways which–paradoxically–might just be the most objective that we can achieve.


*See what I did there?