Lessons of History

March 4, 2010, 4:49 pm

Two stories caught my eye last week, both thanks to Ralph Luker. They concern the practice of history, though in disparate ways. The first is about how Paul Krugman, my favorite economist, came to the study of economics:

With Hari Seldon in mind, Krugman went to Yale, in 1970, intending to study history, but he felt that history was too much about what and not enough about why, so he ended up in economics. Economics, he found, examined the same infinitely complicated social reality that history did but, instead of elucidating its complexity, looked for patterns and rules that made the complexity seem simple. Why did some societies have serfs or slaves and others not? You could talk about culture and national character and climate and changing mores and heroes and revolts and the history of agriculture and the Romans and the Christians and the Middle Ages and all the rest of it; or, like Krugman’s economics teacher Evsey Domar, you could argue that if peasants are barely surviving there’s no point in enslaving them, because they have nothing to give you, but if good new land becomes available it makes sense to enslave them, because you can skim off the difference between their output and what it takes to keep them alive. Suddenly, a simple story made sense of a huge and baffling swath of reality, and Krugman found that enormously satisfying.

I think Historiann’s comment here is the best one: “You know that old joke about economists: ‘Sure it works in reality, but will it work in theory?‘”

The second was Jon Wiener’s article in the Nation about tobacco companies using historians as expert witnesses:

In these cases, history has become a key component in the tobacco attorneys’ defense strategy. In the past, when smokers with cancer sued for damages, the companies said they shouldn’t have to pay, because there was a “scientific controversy” about whether smoking causes cancer. But in recent years they have given up that argument and now argue something like the opposite: “everybody knew” smoking causes cancer. So if you got cancer from smoking, it’s your own fault.
To persuade juries, they need historians–experts who, for example, can testify that newspapers in the plaintiff’s hometown ran articles about the health hazards of smoking in the 1940s or ’50s or ’60s, when he or she started. So Big Tobacco has been spending a lot of money hiring historians…

The historian who particularly caught my eye was Stephen Ambrose, a famous military historian best known for Band of Brothers, as well as some serious methodological issues. In a particular irony, Ambrose died in 2003 of lung cancer caused by smoking.

But my point is not quite to pick on Krugman or Ambrose. It is, rather, to note how badly the historical ethos sometimes relates to the larger society.* If I had quickly to sum up that ethos, it would be as “Yes, but….” That is, historians go about constructing the past, aware always of that process of construction, and willing to consider alternate designs. Yes, this is how I am interpreting this history now, but I am aware that there are other interpretations and other evidence. Despite George W. Bush, all history is (or should be) revisionist. All history should be ready to be rewritten. The effect of that “Yes, but…” is to make scholarly history complex and at the same time weaselly, uncertain and always whirling around to catch the interpretation sneaking up from behind.

The complexity that this creates is, of course, at odds both with the simplicity that Paul Krugman craved and that economics provided. It is at odds, as well, with the adversarial nature of the court room, in which opposing counsels must argue, without doubt or allowance for ambiguity, their side of the case. It is why Krugman was right to leave history behind, for that complex ambivalence is at the heart of the historical project. Staying with a subject whose central tenet he found repulsive would have been difficult, at best. It is why historians like Ambrose were wrong to testify for the tobacco companies, because their testimony came in service of an argument in which the essential equivocation was stripped away.

I could argue that this is history’s great advantage: it tries to see the world of the past in all its infinite complexity, accepting that the vision of historians is dim and that the history thus created is always uncertain. Certainly, in the aftermath of the economic collapse of 2008, driven so handily by orthodox economic theories (that, like zombies, survive even after death), the simple answers of economics looks more like the simplistic answers of economics: wonderfully compelling but woefully dangerous. In the same way, the ongoing victories of the tobacco companies in lawsuits against them (in a remarkable show of bald-faced effrontery, the legal arguments of Big Tobacco have morphed smoothly from “Smoking’s not dangerous” to “There’s controversy over the danger” to “Well, everyone knew it was dangerous, so it’s the smoker’s fault.”), have made those historians who testified in service of that end look even worse. In this telling, historians would be the virtuous few, wedded to a monastic discipline that exalted the purity of inquiry.

Yes, but that subtle view of the world has essentially pushed many historians to avoid the public square, and left the writing of America’s historical memory to those not shy about discarding uncertainty. Larry Schweikart, author of A Patriot’s History of the United States (currently #5 on the Amazon best seller list) and 48 Liberal Lies About American History (#784) is long past any kind of doubt. Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States
(currently #98 on the Amazon list) offers something similar. I am perhaps too cynical, as I note that Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty is up there on the Amazon listings, but then I spot our old friend Amity Shlaes only a few steps behind him (I won’t even mention where Glenn Beck’s book ranks in “History Bestsellers”). Historians have and will study the mythos of the American past; it might be wise if we did more to create that mythos. It would not quite be the pure discipline of the monastery, but then monasteries were much more hedonistic than the popular legend.


*I suspect this is true of other scholarly processes, such as the scientific method, but I’m most familiar with the history side of things.

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