Caleb Mc Daniel has a nice post on President Bush, and his recent claims that his policies in Iraq can only be judged by future historians. Caleb points out that this is a common dodge for politicians, but at the same time he, like me, seems a bit smitten by the high status this gives to historians. (Proper historians, of course, not revisionists.)
I must say I am a bit more conflicted about this than Caleb is. One of the things that my advisor was very satisfied with towards the end of his life was the way that the study of Republican China was becoming an academic issue. Fewer and fewer students wanted to re-fight the battles of the Civil War in his class, he did not have to worry about his relatives in Taiwan when he published stuff, he was not in any danger of being hauled in front of HUAC for his academic work. (He was a Fairbank student) There were benefits to the politicization of history (none of the grad students doing Ancient Greece got defense department money to do their language work,) but he was happy to see it go. I think he was happy with the change on a personal level and also on an intellectual one. 1949 happened. The Communists came to power. Nothing that was said now could undo that, and while attempts to use history as ammunition in American political battles were probably inevitable they were not a good thing for history. Actually, given the American political culture it was somewhat odd that “Who lost China” had such a long run in American politics.
On the other hand, while the passage of time helps to turn history into an academic subject, I don’t think it actually accomplishes anything in itself. With the passage of time more documents become available, and in many cases they become easier to search, but of course no new evidence is created. Eventually a secondary literature is created that helps you to figure out what you are looking at. None of this is necessary, however. Well, at least that was Sima Qian’s position. Sima was the Han dynasty historian who was castrated for his defense of a general whom the emperor had condemned. I’ve always assumed that this was in part because of factional situations at court, but it also grew out of Sima’s theories of history. He judged generals and ministers and emperors all the time and placed them in categories of good and bad. Like Ranke, Sima saw the historian as God, passing out judgments, and for Sima the standards you judged people against were eternal. Not only could historians judge the present, it was something they were ideally situated to do. This is not how we see historians today, of course, but Han Wudi was not disagreeing with Sima about the validity of praise and blame history. He agreed that standards were eternal, he agreed that judgment had to be made, but he disagreed with Sima about who got to be the judge. For him revisionist history was lesse majeste
So I suppose that if we are honest historians we have to stand up like Sima Qian and insist that historians alive today are just as good at writing the history of today and praising and blaming as the historians of 100 years hence will be able to.