Not long ago, someone I know made a remark that perfectly captures an attitude I have run into a thousand times: “Something[‘s] been on my mind. History is essentially a fiction, a creative retelling at best. We shouldn’t judge our history on its accuracy but more on whether it leaves us empowered enough to have better lives. This idea has been abused, though.”
Been abused? Similarly, the Bush and then the Obama administrations decided the NSA could spy on US citizens, but this power has been abused. In case you missed it, that was irony; of course it was bloody abused, because its fundamental nature is abusive. The idea that the study of history is fiction starts off as rubbish and then gets worse.
Let me make one distinction right off, because it often seems to be a point of confusion: there is a difference between history (what happened in the past) and the study of history (our understanding and opinions about what happened in the past). It seems trivially obvious that the object of the latter is to come as close as possible to the former, but, in any case, they aren’t the same.
There is more to the study of history than accuracy, but it must start there, with the struggle to find out what actually happened. It isn’t easy, and obviously any historian is coming at it from a particular viewpoint–the best of them make clear what this viewpoint is. But after we have determined what happened (yes, six million Jews were murdered, even if you feel more empowered believing otherwise; yes, the slaughter of the American Indian and the near destruction of his culture actually happened; yes, Bush really did sanction torture and Obama really is committing murder without due process, no matter how empowering it is to you to deny these things), we need to understand why. Once we have committed ourselves to the ongoing (and very difficult) task of determining what actually happened, we have only begun. Because the point of the study of history goes beyond, “it is good to know what happened.” The point is to be able to generalize–to understand the working of historical laws in order to make them work for us in the same way that we learned about the General Theory of Relativity and now use it in our GPS devices. Of course Einstein’s work was very difficult; and yet, one rarely hears a physicist say, “determining the laws of the motion of matter on the subatomic level is very difficult, so I think I’ll just conclude there are no laws.”
Ah, what is that I hear? Grinding teeth? What is that I see? Rolling eyes? Yes, I said historical laws–the laws of motion that apply to the actions of socially organized human beings over time. The absurdity of those who deny such laws exist is usually self-evident. What is theory? It is merely generalized experience. So let me put it this way: If you are going to say there is no such thing as historical law, then be aware you are contradicting yourself every time you wave your arms in frustration at the American voter and say, “Didn’t they learn anything the last time we had a <fill in the blank> in office?” That thing you just did was complaining that other people are failing to make the correct generalizations about history. (A note in passing: I believe that, if you are saying that, you are failing to make the correct generalizations about history, but that is another discussion.)
We know about the law of combined development (that the technology base of a culture can leapfrog, taking what it learned from another culture and, not just catching up, but surpassing it with entirely new technology). We know that economic systems that were an advance at one time–as landlord-based feudalism was an advance over a society built on slave labor–will at some point begin taking society backward and need to be replaced, as capitalism replaced the feudal-monarchical system. We know that there has been a trend, over the vast scope of history, for more personal liberty and greater democracy. Knowing these things permits us to draw important conclusions about what is happening now, and what needs to be done about it. When we see widespread attacks on democratic rights, we need to be able to draw conclusions about whether this is a fluke because some individuals happen to be not nice, or if it is part of a broader, more systemic problem. The study of history is invaluable in making this determination, and this study has nothing whatever to do with how “empowered” we want to feel.
In my opinion, the study of history is in its infancy. We are still, on many levels, postulating the existence of the ether for describing how light travels. We need to understand better. But of one thing I am very certain: this understanding will not come from people who believe that history is fiction.