History As It Really Wasn’t

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[Note that this piece is a part of our weeklong series on Kissinger and historians. Come back during the rest of the week for more!]

Barbara Keys’ erudite essay appears to be an even-handed critique of both Grandin and Ferguson. Her key question: “two leading historians often find significance in the same evidence but draw opposite inferences. What does this say about historical method?” The obvious answer, she writes, is Samuel Johnson’s view that “our conjectures are ‘easily modified by fancy or by desire.’ Emotional engagement matters.” What might we say about Professor Keys’ emotional engagement?

We quickly learn that Grandin’s subjective label is “leftist anti-imperialist,” (admittedly a self-description by Grandin, but hardly one that describes his scholarship) whereas Ferguson is “a leading conservative cheerleader for American empire,” but she affixes no label. Instantly Grandin enters the American McCarthyite bestiary, the reader is warned away, whereas Ferguson joins, say, David McCullough and Michael Beschloss in a benign category of popular historians to be pooh-poohed now and then by critics, to be sure, but who are essentially harmless.

What about their historical method? Grandin’s method, as “standard-bearer for the Kissinger-as-evil-mastermind” position, is not really delineated, whereas Ferguson is an unabashed if anachronistic Rankean—his method is to find out “how things really were.” Isn’t that funny—we can pooh-pooh that too. But this is not a matter of eccentric anachronism: herein is the answer to her primary question.

As Peter Novick wrote in That Noble Dream, Americans took Ranke to be the epitome of a scientific historian, while illustrating their “almost total misunderstanding” of his ideas. A philosophical idealist and German nationalist, Ranke became for Americans their “mythic hero” of an empirical scientist—that’s what they wanted him to be, because that’s what they wanted to be (or appear to be): objective. Ranke, however, spoke of “emptying himself” into the great work of creating a German nation.

During the crisis of world depression in the 1930s Carl Becker posited a sophisticated critique of “the objectivity question” in the profession. After Becker’s 1931 presidential address to the American Historical Association, another historian told him, “you have killed the notion that facts have any meaning in themselves . . . they are dark objects, invisible and intractable until they shine and effloresce in the rays cast upon them by our ideas.” Historians were all “influenced in their selection and ordering of materials by their biases, prejudices, beliefs, affections, general upbringing, and experience, particularly social and economic;” this canon applied not just to others, but above all to oneself.

The turmoil of the 1960s provided another rare occasion for new insights to peek through the cracks of empiricist convention. Novick quoted younger professors echoing Becker’s sentiments by arguing that if one were a scholar as well as a malcontent, an honest researcher as well as a radical, his very partisanship, bias, call it what you will, gives him a kind of objectivity. Because he stands opposed to established institutions and conventional conceptions, the radical scholar possesses an unconcern for safety or preservation which enables him to carry inquiry along paths where the so-called ‘objective’ conservative or liberal scholar would not dare to tread.

This might be Grandin’s credo. But the infuriating genius of our politics is to make Grandin look like the biased manipulator, while the keepers of the empiricist flame appear as the soul of even-handed judgment. Why infuriating? Because the pose of objectivity is a conceit that plays to credulous notions of a world that exists somewhere out there, in pristine form, waiting for the equally pristine observer to recount its truths for us.

Friedrich Nietzsche, whose life spanned four decades of Ranke’s, wrote that Ranke’s truth is no truth: the “unscrupulous benevolence” found in him is found in empiricism itself: “the objective man is indeed a mirror,” he wrote; “he is accustomed to submitting before whatever wants to be known, without any other pleasure than that found in knowing and ‘mirroring’; he waits until something comes, and then spreads himself out tenderly lest light footsteps and the quick passage of spiritlike beings should be lost on his plane and skin.”

Ferguson has spread himself out tenderly so that Kissinger can walk on him, whereas Grandin’s work embodies the principle at the core of the 1960s crisis: speaking truth to power. Can we now discern a label for Ferguson? How about chronicler, annalist, court historian, opportunist, toady—and unlikely symbol for all that is wrong and phony about Rankean history. Meanwhile Keys smuggles her emotional engagement in by putting a light pinky on the scales.

Bruce Cumings is the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in History at the University of Chicago.

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