A FEW HOURS AFTER I defended my dissertation and earned my PhD in modern European history, I phoned my mother: “Hi, it’s your son the doctor.” My mom burst into tears — of happiness, I still want to believe — then replied: “Still … not that kind of doctor.”
That was 30 years ago. Ever since, I have remained “not that kind of doctor” — you know, the sort who sports a stethoscope and packs a pager. The sort, in sum, never called upon to respond to a medical emergency. Instead, I am the sort who is mostly called upon to justify his professional existence to STEM-obsessed administrators and politely baffled in-laws.
Yet, if ever there was an emergency that required the kind of doctor I am, it seems to be unfolding now. In President Donald Trump’s war on truth, history has been one of the first casualties. Take his administration’s explicit embrace of “alternative facts” (which is, it should be remembered, simply a riff on the Bush administration’s scorn for the “reality-based community”). Consider the relentless stream of lies he himself has tweeted in the early hours, bellowed over the roar of copter blades, or blurted during photo ops with his cabinet. Trump’s claim that last year’s neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville included some “very fine people,” that former president Barack Obama was born in Kenya, or that thousands of American Muslims cheered the destruction of the World Trade Center are but a few of the countless assaults he has made on history.
Confronted by the thickening miasma of lies seeping from the White House and Fox News, what’s a historian to do? In fact, given the present circumstances, does it matter that we do anything at all? According to Lynn Hunt, it does. As the Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA, Hunt has, over a long and brilliant career, earned the right to make that claim. After she revolutionized the way historians think about the French Revolution — I keep returning, more than 30 years later, to my yellowing and dog-eared copy of her landmark work Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution — Hunt turned her attention to wider issues, ranging from the historiographical (Measuring Time, Making History) to the ethical (Inventing Human Rights).
In her new book, Hunt faces a double challenge: make the case that history matters, and do so in 100 or so pages, the standard length of the books in this new series from Polity Press. While the imperative title of the opening chapter, “Now More Than Ever,” speaks to Hunt’s sense of urgency, she always holds fast to her sense of limits. There is, for example, a potent but brief discussion of our intermittent war over historical monuments. At my university, the student residence once known as Calhoun Lofts — named after an adjacent street that, in turn, was named after John C. Calhoun, onetime vice president and full-time proponent of slavery — was quietly renamed University Lofts. In my native New York, on the other hand, the city decided, after much public debate, to keep up a street plaque to Philippe Pétain, who oversaw France’s collaboration with Nazi Germany, and the deportation and death of more than 70,000 Jews, during World War II. Each case, Hunt rightly warns, must be decided on its own merits — which includes doing the historical spadework to discover why the monument was erected in the first place — and, even then, doubts will not always be fully resolved.
Of course, the smoke and noise billowing from these wars over monuments and memory, textbooks and teaching, obscure the most basic of questions: What is truth in history? Does it have the same status as scientific, empirical truth? If not, does this mean the very term “historical truth” is oxymoronic? And does this mean, in turn, that we are permitted to claim what we wish about the past? If there were some “very fine people” among the neo-Nazi marchers at Charlottesville, then perhaps there are some very fine things to be said about Nazism itself.
On the question of historical truth, Hunt offers another bracing dose of common sense. She rightly distinguishes historical facts from historical interpretations, reminding us that facts are only as good as the documents on which they are based, and that they are meaningful only when they are woven into a story. But does this mean that one story or interpretation is as meaningful or compelling as another? No, Hunt replies, history does not come down to he said, she said. The story must not only be coherent, but it must also be comprehensive, taking into account both facts that support the interpretation and facts that question it. “An interpretation,” she argues, “cannot rely only on the facts that fit; it has to stand the test of possible counter-arguments.”
Even that, though, does not spell the end of the story. A historical account, by its very nature, is provisional. New facts are discovered, while old facts — when shown to be dubious — are discarded. Eurocentric interpretations of the “discovery” of the Americas necessarily give way to interpretations from the perspective of indigenous peoples who were not waiting to be discovered. Moreover, ethnocentrism is an equal opportunity distorter; Chinese and Japanese, Indian and Nigerian historians are no more exempt from this form of historical myopia.
Yes, absolute historical truth is an epistemological will-o’-the-wisp, but that does not mean that history is a futile pursuit. The impossibility of absolute truth is no more a reason to accept outlandish claims made on InfoWars or Fox & Friends than, say, the impossibility of creating a perfectly aseptic atmosphere is reason to do open-heart surgery in a sewer. More importantly, as Hunt argues, “the standards of historical criticism are incredibly powerful because they facilitate criticism.” For instance, Indian and African historians who have obliged the West to reconsider its interpretations of colonization have used the very critical methods employed by previous generations of Eurocentric historians.
In short, Eurocentric historians have been hoisted by their own petard. Hunt presents a concise review of the ways in which contemporary historians are trying to replace these older and narrower accounts of other peoples’ pasts. She cites the emphasis on interdisciplinary research, the dismissal of traditional political, intellectual, and cultural histories, and the effort to establish what she calls “whole earth time.” This is an approach that seeks to encompass not just the globe, but how the globe is changing, especially since we heaved it, and ourselves, into the Anthropocene era.
That brings us to the future of history. Given what we have done to the earth, there may not be much of it. But in the time that does remain, Hunt believes historians have a crucial role to play in the defense of an open society. Regardless of “all the efforts of past and present authoritarians to manipulate history and control memory,” she affirms, “history and memory have a way of breaking through, thanks in no small measure to the history written and taught by those trained in the discipline.”
It is tempting to misquote Marx and conclude that historians have interpreted the past; the point, however, is to defend it. But it is also tempting to accurately quote the other Marx: “If you’ve heard this story before, don’t stop me because I’d like to hear it again.” Perhaps this time around, I’ll be the right kind of doctor to respond to an emergency.