Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Amateur Expert

If you're one of the many commenters here who believes I should never write about something I haven't read, seen, and heard myself, just pass this by.

This depresses me. Nicholson Baker, a non-historian, writes a book on World War II and it seems he makes no effort to distinguish Nazi propaganda from realities, or to discern anything from anything else. It all sounds like Ann Coulter's book on McCarthy, which goes into the museum of history with a core of legitimate questions but pumped up on steroids and driving a bulldozer. Anne Applebaum kept her gorge down long enough to read Baker's book, and discussed it with others:

Yet the dull truth is that we arrived at the topic of Nicholson Baker not because we were talking about the war, but because we were talking about the contemporary cult of the non-expert, or rather the anti-expert: the bloggers who assume that the "mainstream media" is always wrong, the Wikipedia readers who think that a compilation of random anecdotes is always preferable to a learned study, and of course the college students who nowadays prefer to get their news in emails from friends because it is too bothersome to read a newspaper. And the even duller truth is that Human Smoke belongs to this cult, and not to the more exotic outer reaches of the historiography of World War II. One cannot properly understand Baker's book by comparing it to, say, Martin Gilbert's Auschwitz and the Allies or to the latest work on the fire-bombing of Dresden. To understand Human Smoke properly, one needs to read Gawker, Wikipedia, and above all The Da Vinci Code. The latter comparison might sound odd, but the resemblance is actually quite striking. Like Baker, the author of The Da Vinci Code is not a historian. And also like Baker, Dan Brown is a man apparently obsessed by his belief in the existence of a widespread historical conspiracy. (For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with it, Brown's theory goes like this: the church hierarchy, along with the world's religious historians, art historians, and church historians, have been hiding the fact of Jesus's wedding to Mary Magdalene, as well as his subsequent children, from the public for centuries, using a massive cover-up perpetuated by Opus Dei, and so on, and on, and on.)

Like Choam Nomsky himself, the patron saint of all such types, right, left, or apolitical, they tirelessly and articulately point out the lack of objectivity of the media or the academic gatekeepers, while at the same time puffing their own eccentric version of reality without a scintilla of awareness that these, too, might not be entirely objective.

Sure enough, the Wikipedia entry on Baker offers no clue to the extensive objections (detailed in the article above) to "Human Smoke":

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008) is a history of World War II that questions the commonly held belief that the Allies wanted to avoid the war at all costs but were forced into action by Hitler's unforgiving crusade. It is written in a mostly objective style, largely consisting of official government transcripts and other documents from the time. He cites documents that suggest that the leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom were provoking Germany into war (showing, for example, that Britain bombed Germany before Germany bombed Britain) and that the leaders of those two nations had ulterior motives for wanting to participate. In the epilogue to the book he suggests that the pacifists (who are often vilified by WWII historians) had it right all along, stating: “They failed, but they were right.”

It's depressing from several angles. Among them, to me, is the way this undermines the role of the non-expert. I've been trying all my life to revive that role in history. It's partly personal: I am one. I write history books, but after 16 years of education I had had enough and chose not to go to graduate schools and get the requisite parchments. So I write as an amateur. I am careful in my research, and my books have been cited in the major works of some of the leading professional academic historians of the Civil War. But I always will be an outsider.

Once upon a time, in the late 19th century, the history-writing profession was not divided into insiders and outsiders. Once upon a time it was dominated by literary gentleman amateurs and not by what we now would call professional historians. They helped define America -- they helped Americans understand what they were and they helped immigrants understand what they were joining.

But unlike the modern cult-anti-experts, their scholarship was impeccable. William H. Prescott's histories of Mexico and Peru are heavily footnoted. Francis Parkman's books were highly praised by even the most rigorous academic historians.

What doomed them was their form and tone and overall lack of objectivity -- or Objektivität, to use the correct term. A new generation of young American scholars had learned their history in the universities of Germany, and, following the lead of the German masters, they sought to turn American history into a profession, and to apply the methods of science to it. And this required a commitment to complete objectivity. So, not only should serious history only be written by credentialed academics, it should involve no personal passions or cultural commitments.

While the old amateur class may have done historical research as correctly as anyone would have wished, they also tended to tell it as a story -- their books seemed to echo the architecture of Sir Walter Scott's novels or Shakespeare's plays. And they were prone to write things like:

Where there is no free agency, there can be no morality. Where there is no temptation, there can be little claim to virtue. Where the routine is rigorously prescribed by law, the law, and not the man, must have the credit of the conduct. if that government is the best, which is felt the least, which encroaches on the natural liberty of the subject only so far as is essential to civil subordination, then of all governments devised by man the Peruvian has the least real claim to our admiration.

[Prescott], or:

If ten people in the world hate despotism a little more and love civil and religious liberty a little better in consequence of what I have written, I shall be satisfied.

[William Lothrop Motley]

Motley also wrote of Philip II that, if he "possessed a single virtue it has eluded the conscientious research of the writer of these pages. If there are vices -- as possibly there are -- from which he was exempt, it is because it is not permitted to human nature to attain perfection even in evil."

Their books are still stimulating to read today. They were great storytellers and they could craft an English sentence that felt full and alive in the mouth if you spoke it aloud. Read 1,000 history books published in the last 5 years: Find one to match a paragraph of Prescott or Parkman or John Bach McMaster.

They were a little better, a little more enlightened, than their contemporaries in the American polling places and theater galleries. But not too much so. They sang the national mythologies, but they also could lead The People to the better angels of their nature. They tended to boost Anglo-Saxon Protestant virtues, but regretably they did so by contrast to Catholic vices. Yet as the ancient Greeks could have told you, and they invented democracy, a people without a mythology is not truly alive, not truly a people.

The academics succeeded. They turned out the amateurs, imposed objectivity, and turned a craft into a profession. They banished the author from the text and the values-booster from the national history.

And they instantly fell under attack, in the 20th century, from the deniers of objective truth, from the relativists, iconoclasts, and Marxists. They could not hold the ivory tower, and as they made compromise after compromise with their enemies, new enemies arose, more fierce than the ones before. In the 1960s, it all collapsed and left us with -- what? Whatever it is we now have: "[T]he present period of confusion, polarization, and uncertainty, in which the idea of historical objectivity has become more problematic than ever before." [unsigned cover blurb for "That Noble Dream" by Peter Novick, 1998]

Of course, most Americans who aren't assigned their reading (and paying $40,000 a year for that privilege) will choose to read well-written stories of the past rather than the academic hash. And the loving amateur craftsman of history has never gone away: More Americans learned their Civil War history from Bruce Catton and Carl Sandburg and Shelby Foote, when I was a boy, than from any tenured Ph.D. As, I suppose, more learn it today from Ken Burns. Among living writers, David Hackett Fisher (a proper academic historian) and Paul Johnson have taken up the mantle to some degree. But there never are enough of them, and we always could use more. But being an outsider isn't enough. You have to be honorable.

Labels: ,