The Craft of History, or What Passes for it Nowadays

Suppose I were to write the following words as part of an essay:

As Chancellor of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck was the architect of the first instance of modern state socialism in Europe. He introduced state health insurance and old-age pensions into Imperial Germany, in part to take the wind out of the sails of revolutionary socialists (for example, Karl Marx) who were gaining more and more traction fulminating against traditional political structures and in favor of a World Socialist Revolution.

To consolidate imperial state control, Bismarck also fired the first salvo in what eventually became known as the Culture Wars, instituting a Kulturkampf in the Catholic regions of the new empire to reduce the power of the Pope and the Catholic Church.

If my essay were a serious historical endeavor — rather than a few sentences composed off the top of my head to serve as an example — I would cite sources, including references to books written by respected historians of 19th-century Germany.

If I managed to pique your interest in the topic, you might visit your local library and borrow those books to read up on the topic in greater detail. They would of course provide copious footnotes or endnotes, plus a substantial bibliographies of additional scholarship. Their references would likely include memoirs, diaries, personal correspondence, official documents from state archives, and other primary sources, some of them on microfilm or microfiche. If you were a historian, you might track down the documents, opening dusty boxes in the basement archives of venerable public institutions to peruse the yellowed and brittle originals.

Such is the practice of the craft of history. Or it used to be. Up until about 1995 it was considered the norm, and those who aspired to the title of Historian would follow similar procedures. Then came that pesky thing called the “Internet”, and over the next twenty years or so the study of history became a free-for-all.

We have a tendency nowadays to believe that anything that appears often enough online must be the truth, forgetting the once-respected connection between what is asserted in writing as “fact” and multiple physical sources that corroborate that fact. Yes, hoaxes were possible in the old days — remember the Piltdown Man? — but they were more difficult to construct, and therefore less common, than they are in the Digital Age.

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I mention all this because of the earlier discussion about Carly Fiorina and the speech given by her that described the glorious history of Islam.

Investigating Ms. Fiorina’s speech, and establishing the “facticity” of what she allegedly said, is rendered much more difficult by the amorphous informational blob called the Internet. I tracked down the text of the speech to the Hewlett-Packard website, and that’s definitely a more reliable source than Hizb ut-Tahrir. But it still not verifiably true — a contemporary report by a witness, a photocopy of her notes, or an official video of the speech would help nail it down further as historical fact.

So it’s a tough job, establishing historical fact during the Ascendancy of the Internet. But we should attempt it nonetheless.

The pursuit of historical rigor seems to be a dying art, no matter one’s position on the political spectrum. If a certain blob of text appears over and over again on the Internet in enough places, it is widely considered to be true.

Don’t fall into that trap. Question authority.

Or, to put it another way: Trust, but verify.

13 thoughts on “The Craft of History, or What Passes for it Nowadays

  1. Well, then Diana West is a historian of the old school because what you describe is what she did, with, I’m sure some electronic help.

    But now we’ve replaced Truth with truthiness – a harlot tricked out in her working clothes -oddly enough they’ve become the very same attire of a large sector of young women…

  2. I ran into this problem when trying to research the reasons why the Mu’tazili school died out. I found multiple conflicting accounts with no references. The Wikipedia article seems more plausible than a pro-Islam site I found, yet it contains nothing but [citation needed] everywhere.

    The Internet is completely useless for certain subjects like this, except maybe as a way to access a library inter loan system. I used to make heavy use of one of those. I could get practically any book in print sent to my local library.

  3. As a History graduate twenty years ago I would ‘nt say I was taught to ‘trust, but verify’ as mostly it was an exercise in the regurtitation of the lecturer and his studies . However what I notice on Facebook especially, is the glib and lazy half-truth statements or posters that declare something is ‘TRUE OR FACT’.
    This is made worse by the fact that they are often put on by supposed intelligent people. My facebook pages read like the manifesto for a left wing liberal Nirvana state that glorifies ethnicity, disability, the holy mantra of caring and of course the plight of the Palestinians and their near ‘Auschwitzian’ existence.
    It is all rather sickening. I question myself continuosly as I do all information. If someone says it is black I go and find the person who says it is white and why?
    I thought that was normal but not anymore.

    • I think what’s actually different is not the degree to which the average person verifies anything but the degree to which things that the average person expresses are expressed in writing.

      It used to be that anything that was worth putting into writing was worth putting more effort into because it used to cost a lot more to do that. This is no longer the case so whatever someone puts into writing is more likely to resemble whatever they’d say in an informal social setting.

      So I don’t know if spreading factoids has become more common or if it has simply become more common in writing viewable by more people, thus more exposed than it was before.

  4. i’ve gotten the impression that some “fields”, especially minority “studies” programs, have abandoned even the pretense of research, and that dissertations now often comprise anecdote, personal journals and memories, and even heartfelt “poetry.” that impression is anecdotal, and i’d like to see some proper research into it.

    Cf. today’s “national review online” and the article “how robert conquest’s history book made history” by george will. (google “national review online.”)

    • The “studies” programs are all just covers for pushing neo-Marxist zero-sum conflict theory at this point. They may have all started out this way rather than evolving into that form. The various gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc, identity represented by each “studies” department is irrelevant except as a lure to pull in anyone who identifies with that particular identity, after which they are taught “zero-sum conflict theory: what it means for you!” It’s neo-Marxism customized for each class warfare “class”.

      If they were being honest then they’d just call themselves Class-Specific Marxist Studies departments.

      Almost all of the research is going to be similar to Lysinkoist research.

      That is what you are noticing, and might be surprised by since everyone has been lead to believe that phenomena like Lysinkoism only happened in Stalinist Russia and can’t possibly happen here just because we don’t have execution of dissident scientists.

      Unfortunately we still have intolerable academic environments for dissident scientists which can run them out of a job just as well as executing them would.

      • And cut them off from all their collegial working relationships. And never let them publish in a peer-review journal again.

        Come to think of it, Bill Warner is/was a physicist teacher.

        And we know others who are very careful about what magazines they order – even at the home mailbox, their mail is casually “scrutinized”.

  5. We have a problem, its called ‘correctness’ and it covers several fields, political correctness we know about, but there is also scientific correctness, and medical correctness, and I suppose we also have legal and religious correctness but these are more abstract.

    Scientific correctness takes the form of ‘consensus’ or ‘settled’ science, and medical correctness is very driven by big pharma, incorrect behaviour gets one thrown out of the establishment, regardless of whether one’s argument(s) were correct or not.

    As for Historical correctness, one must toe the party line, deviation labels one a ‘conspiracy theorist’ which is the ‘historical’ equivalent of a waycist.

  6. Seen through the prism of MC’s analysis, how is now any different from what most people call “The Dark Ages”? Universal denial of logic in all fields of thought.

    • Because it’s not in all fields of thought.

      Assuming we can believe what someone wrote on Wikipedia without checking the source at the library:

      “Interestingly, perhaps the only opponents of Lysenkoism during Stalin’s lifetime to escape liquidation came from the small community of Soviet nuclear physicists: as Tony Judt has observed, “It is significant that Stalin left his nuclear physicists alone and never presumed to second guess their calculations. Stalin may well have been mad but he was not stupid.”[8]”

      So, when you need the nuclear bombs to actually explode properly, you have to tolerate legitimate scientific methodology. Otherwise, there’s a lot more latitude for people to make up whatever they want and call it things like “science” and “reason”.

      • What calamity or event would cause all of our politicians to agree and pronounce that we now have to fight Islam’s canons? –its beliefs?, its fundamentals?

        I hope this watershed is not reached when each of them has to pay the jizya.

  7. This problem also dogs our side. I don’t know how many times I have seen Algerian President’s Boumedienne’s famous UN speech about conquest by the womb quoted. Even Zemmeur uses it. But you try tracing it back to its source. A packet of Nairn’s Scottish oatcakes for anybody who can produce an online source text, from the UN, 1970-whenever it was.
    As for ‘The English do not deserve saving,’ attributed to ex-UK minister Jack Straw, anybody who can pin this online a time and place–anytime, anywhere–gets *two* packets of oatcakes. Sadly, I don’t think I will need to worry about stocking up, though. He never said it, and it does not help us to recycle falsehoods constantly.

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