Do we want to judge?

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.


  1. Thanks for the link and a discussion of this subject that is much more thoughtful than my flippant one.

    I agree with you that historians are well equipped to make critical judgments in the present, not just in the distant future. That’s the main point I wanted to make as well. If I appeared to be agreeing with President Bush’s position, or at least to be less conflicted about it, it may be because I wasn’t laying the sarcasm on thick enough.

  2. It is a historian’s duty to judge, but only after gathering all the evidence, and weighing it accordingly. That is not the case with many widely read “historians” today. When you pick and choose your sources to support an argument, you have crossed the threshold from history to political editorialism. Thus Cumings, Pilger, et al. I am not saying here that a historian cannot be wrong. Only that in future works on the same subject, they have an obligation to point out their earlier errors in judgement.

  3. I’m sorry, but “all the evidence” is a chimera, a dodge to maintain the artificial separation of academic from public discourses. Yes, there is blatant partisanship sometimes, but there’s also a huge gray area in between where interpretive choices may be legitimate without being entirely disconnected from policy preferences.

  4. Sarcasm does not come across very well on the net, does it? Actually I’m not entirely in favor of ending up like Sima, although I always like bringing him up. As I sort of implied, in a sarcastic sort of way, de-politicizing history can be a good thing. In fact, I would make a pretty clear distinction between our role as citizens and as historians. Neither of us is Juan Cole, so our ability to really make a professional judgment is somewhat limited. Plus, there is not a lot of evidence available right now, and a lot of that will turn out to be lies.

    When I see politicians saying that history will judge I’m always, like you I think, sort of happy. Normally when they talk about me I’m either a waste of state money or a corrupter of American youth. Being sergeant-at-arms in Clio’s court is a real step up. On the other hand while I can imagine a politics that is really informed by history, that is not what we are going to get with Bush or anyone else currently on the scene. Even if we did, would we want it? When Mao launched the Cultural Revolution the trigger was a play about a Ming dynasty minister.

  5. Ah, Jonathan, that is a mighty tall horse you just saddled, and it may take a mighty rider to tame tame her. Alan’s premise is that an historian has developed skill sets that allows him (I realize that it is just as likely that the historian is a female, but I come from an old school that realizes it does not make a jack difference what pronoun is used-if we want to really resolve our English deficiency here, let us borrow from the Chinese and call the third person singular “ta”) to pass judgement on events that occurred in the past. But there is a part two of that premise, and that is that this skill set is useful in passing judgement on current events.

    Irelou comes along and says that the historian’s skill set is bound with using evidence in making that judgement (his use of “all” is probably not realizable, but some evidence is sufficient and required). Now you come along and write that the gathering of evidence is a chimera, etc. So if the acquisition of evidence is not required, then one can ask just what skill set does an historian bring to the table that makes her judgement particularly useful and requires that the rest of us to pay especial attention. I went to my bookshelf and picked up Gilderhus’s “History and Historians” and was not able to find the answer to that question there. I cannot myself think of any skill set that sets historians up as special adjudicators with valuable and uncanny judgemental ability of current events.

    Sean Penn made certain judgements about the Iraq issue, but his skill set as an actor did not contribute to his judgement. These skill sets would be acquired outside of his career, and unfortuantely for Mr. Penn, I do not think he made a very good case that his judgement was based on sound and rational evidence. A half generation before Mr. Ronald Reagan made a case for his political judgements, also judgements developed from a skill set that was not relevent to his career. But in Mr. Reagan’s case, he did make the case to the electorate that his acquired skill set was relevent and useful and that his judgement was valid.

    So, Jonathan, what skill set do historians possess that makes them particularly wise and able to judge current events?

  6. Mr. Sanders: since you admit that “all” is unrealizable with regard to evidence collection, it’s not immediately clear to me that there’s a significant difference between my and Alan Baumler’s positions; it’s the “all” I was objecting to, not the “evidence.” A short version of the specific answer, though, may be found here. I’ve been riding this horse for years now: it’s not tame, but we’re used to each other.

  7. I used the term evidence, as opposed the “facts”, for the precise reason of underscoring the difference between allegations of fact and those facts which point to concrete actions or states. To take the Korean War as an example. A former professor of mine (Carl Marzani) published a book which charged that the United States, with the collusion of South Korea, had started the Korean War. Many of the “facts” he used to support this thesis were drawn from myriad newspaper articles published throughout the United States. Based on the shear number of these allegations, supposedly from unbiased sources in such places as Akron, Ohio, many of my fellow students became convinced that such was the case. Left totally out of this equation was any history of how the Korean People’s Army was raised, organized, trained, equipped, or led. As any military historian knows, this is not an overnight process, particularly for a state which has essentially been created from ground zero within a mere five years. In the days before the Soviet archives had opened, laying bare Kim Il-sung’s relations and coordination with both the Soviet Union and China for the express purpose of launching a war of reunification, the only undisputed facts were the size, organization, training, composition, equipment, leadership, and doctrinal employment of both the KPA and the ROK Army. Since the KPA files were unavailable, you had to rely upon U.N. Command unit after action reports, POW debriefings, and similar sources for an assessment of what the KPA had really looked like on 24 June 1950, and a series of U.S. military histories, backed up by the Congressional Record, on what the state of the ROK Army was. What emerged from these studies was a picture of two disparate forces. One, a force totally organized, trained, and equipped along Soviet Army lines for combat operations up to Army level, and one fully organized but not yet fully trained or equipped for anything other than positional defense and internal security. In short, the most modern Army in East Asia (for its time), to include tanks and artillery, versus a Constabulary still in the process of transitioning to an Army. (If memory serves, the ROKs did not have any artillery larger than the 75mm pack howitzer, and all of that was below divisional level.) What emerged was a picture of a force specifically raised for offensive operations, versus a force which still had some way to go. My professor argued that this did not refute his argument that the ROKs started the war. My counterargument was that the NorK timeline itself showed their intentions. Launching a local attack to repulse a border violation is one thing, but the bullets, beans (or rice), and fuel required to sustain well over a hundred thousand men as they advance tens, and then hundreds of kilometers from their positions, taking cities and crossing major rivers in the process, is a feat that cannot be organized on the spur of the moment. The myriad data adding up to that fear were “facts”, which in their turn could be collected and weighed as “evidence”, in this case, that North Korea launched an invasion of the South on 25 June 1950.

    I may have gotten too obtuse with this. If so, my apologies. My history department chairman wanted me to do my graduate studies in History, but I chose Law. Perhaps that derailed my ability to reason.

  8. Mr. Dresner:

    I was not going to write any more on this thread, but I think I will just add a wee bit in relation to the “short version” answer.

    I fully agree with you on the role of “free will”, but I have a slightly different take on its role, and on the “irrational” behavior of people.

    When an enginneer tackles some problem in the physical world, they isolate the issue, determine the initial conditions and the inputs, and from their calculate (that is, predict) the outputs. Social Scientists, such as pollsters, politicians, and economists, attempt to do the same thing, and they do a pretty good job accurately enough and often enough to keep their jobs. But every once in a while something goes awry, and sometimes very much awry. That something is due to “free Will”. But instead of attempting to define “free will” in some type of philosophical way, I think of it in terms of the equation I described above. In addition to the intial conditions and inputs, there is also a random generator (or at least a pseudo random genrator). What is randomly generated is both a quality and quantity of some factor that may affect the outcome. That randomness means that predictability is out of the picture, that is, for a 100% predictability. Apparently either the quality (that is, the factor that is being generated) or the quantity is not so significant that it makes life completely random and unpredictable.

    By this measure, “irrationality” is defined as the deviation of behavior from the expected. It may or may not be irrational in the common sense of the term. As an example, throughout history there have been thugs and bullies who have used brutal and vicious behavior to intimidate their subjects or adversaries. The Germans did this in the first half of the last century, Saddam Hussein used this in Iraq, and the Iraqi insurgents are using the same techniques now. The model they use predicts that people will be cowed into obedience, etc. Quite often the results are as predicted, but not always.

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