Friday, January 21, 2011

Prepare to be Amazed

Is politics bad for political history?

The recent discussion of the tone of political rhetoric matters a great deal to this historical biographer. No, I am not going to pronounce on the recent tragedy in Tucson. No, I am not going to rate the level of political hostility now, compared to its historical highs and lows. Rather, I want to talk about the problem that political partisanship poses for historical writing.

It is a problem for the reader as well as the writer. When we have strongly partisan feelings, it deeply affects our openness to new information. Studies have demonstrated clearly that we reject information that runs against our political views, but eagerly accept even flimsy claims that reinforce our existence prejudices.

This is true regardless of whether you stand on the left, right, or in the center. It's probably because partisanship is about competition—about defeating rival forces. What helps us promote our cause jumps out at us; what makes the battle more difficult, or calls our cause into question, we tend to dismiss.

Readers, then, tend to react angrily to even non-partisan, scholarly works of history that contradict their partisan views. And writers sometimes ignore or distort evidence because of their political prejudices.

But I believe that biography, and history in general, must be a search for truth. To find the truth, you must prepare to be amazed. That is, both writers and readers should have an openness to information that challenges your pre-existing ideas. We shouldn't abandon judgment, of course; but our criteria should be politically neutral, going to the matter of credibility in particular.

This probably sounds reasonable, but it's very difficult to pull off. In writing The First Tycoon, I often found that my assumptions fell apart—often for the simple reason that things change. How could you apply the political viewpoints of today's world to the early nineteenth century, when the nation was largely agricultural; when there was no big business; when corporations were not only relatively few, but were viewed as vehicles for public works? Adam Smith, the original theoretician of free-market economics, also condemned corporations in The Wealth of Nations, because they served a very different function when he wrote in 1776. The arguments of 1830 were very different from those of today; and business competition carried different political meaning, and had very different political effects, than it does today.

To understand it all, I had to abandon my present-day partisanship, and see Cornelius Vanderbilt in his own context. I tried to be honest about all aspects of his career and personality. Rather than use him as a prop in arguing about the present, I focused on how Americans at the time argued about him, and how his rise helped change the political debate. I didn't want to promote him as a hero or villain; he was more complicated than that, and more interesting.

Note, however, I am not calling for an iconoclastic rejection of national heroes. But our admiration, and our sense of ourselves, should be strong enough to accept the contradictions of human nature. We shouldn't be so fragile as to insist upon perfection in figures of the past. I frankly celebrate George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and many other American heroes. Historical honesty has not lessened my admiration for them; the reverse, in fact. If they were perfect individuals living in flawless ages, then their accomplishments would have been easy, wouldn't they? Instead, they rose above their own flaws, and the pervasive problems of their day, to create this nation and make it a better place.

But celebration should not be the purpose of history. Searching for the truth is. And the truth is sometimes amazing.

1 comment:

Charles said...

With the pressure to raise reading, math, and science achievement in schools, the study of history is being "Left Behind". I'm afraid that the number of individuals who wish to be amazed will decrease. I think the pressure will be on schools to integrate reading instruction into the content areas.
Your view of this will be helpful.