History, truth and tribalism
Lecture for The Historical Society at University of Chicago
November 28, 2001
and Ashbrook Center, Ashland University, Ohio
November 26, 2001
The writing of history is one of the most enduring cultural activities of Western civilisation. It originated in ancient Greece some 2400 years ago and has continued in roughly the same form down to this day. Its first great practitioner, Thucydides, decided that to learn about the course of human affairs, he would not consult oracles, prophets, sacred texts or the sanctioned scribes of the era. Rather, he would go out, witness events himself, compile other evidence only from those, he said, "of whom I made the most careful enquiry", and then draw conclusions that his evidence would support. This might seem a simple procedure to us but Western culture, so far, has been the only one to bring it off, that is, to give an account of what happens in society that remains independent of the prevailing religion and the dominant political system.
For most of the last two thousand years, the essence of history has continued to be that it should try to tell the truth, to describe as best as possible what really happened. Over this time, of course, many historians have been exposed as mistaken, opinionated, and often completely wrong, but their critics have usually felt obliged to show they were wrong about real things, that their claims about the past were different to what had actually happened. In other words, the critics still operated on the assumption that the truth was within their grasp.
Today, these assumptions are now widely questioned, even among some people employed as historians themselves. Many theorists within the humanities and social sciences assert that it is impossible to tell the truth about the past or to use history to produce knowledge in any objective sense at all. We can only see the past through the perspective of our own culture.
The intellectual environment they want us all to inhabit is the one dominated by the purported 'linguistic turn' that has taken place in the past two decades. This is the notion that the old certainties of Western culture have been toppled by French poststructuralist philosophy and literary theory, sometimes linked under the title of postmodernism, but today more commonly called 'cultural studies'. Let me summarise the prevailing assumptions:
1. Truth is a relative rather than an absolute concept. What is 'true' is said to depend on the culture of the speaker.
2. Neither the human sciences nor the natural sciences provide us with what can be called knowledge in any absolute sense. We invent scientific theories rather than make scientific discoveries.
3. All observations are contaminated by the prevailing ideology or culture. Hence there can be no value-free observations, a claim that is fatal for the idea of objective, empirical research in any of the social or natural sciences.
4. We do not have access to any such thing as a real world. What we think of as reality is a construct of our own minds, our language and our culture.
5. Our version of 'reality' has the same characteristics as a text. Hence, textual analysis, or hermeneutics, is the proper mode of understanding human affairs.
6. The meaning of any text is in the eye of the interpreter. People of different ethnic, sexual and cultural backgrounds will read historical evidence their own way, and that way will be different to people from other perspectives.
7. History is thus not fundamentally different to myth or to fiction. When historians look at past cultures they cannot be objective, nor can they escape from the cocoon of their own culture. What historians see in the past are their own values and interests reflected back at them.
Overall, those who argue this case claim the Western intellectual tradition is no longer a repository of universal values and absolute truths but, rather, a form of ethnocentrism; nothing better than the out-of-date ideology of dead white males.
One of the original gurus of this movement, the American historical theorist, Hayden White, author of Metahistory, tells us we should "recognise historical narratives as what they most manifestly are: verbal fictions, the contents of which are more invented than found". One of the movement's newest advocates, Hans Kellner, co-author of A New Philosophy of History, claims: " 'truth' and 'reality' are, of course, the primary authoritarian weapons of our time". Three of the authors of the new national history standards for American high schools, Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross Dunn, claim: "Modern historiography has taught us that historians can never fully detach their scholarly work from their own education, attitudes, ideological dispositions and culture." Disinterested scholarship, they assure us, "is not simply an uneducated view. It is also an ideological position of traditionalists and the political Right."
In short, they say that if you believe in truth and objectivity you reveal yourself as a conservative. If you reject these concepts you become a radical. The political agenda in all this is supposedly to "open up" history so that all those voices that are currently excluded can be heard. Nash, Crabtree and Dunn tell us their version of history will open the field to women, blacks and ethnic minorities, who "have suffered discrimination, exploitation, and hostility but have overcome passivity and resignation to challenge their exploiters, fight for legal rights, resist and cross racial boundaries". One of their supporters, Keith Jenkins, editor of The Postmodern History Reader, says this approach means the end of traditional history:
Such demystification can thus 'free up' historians to tell many equally legitimate stories from various viewpoints, with umpteen voices, emplotments and types of synthesis. It is in this sense that we can interpret the past 'anyway we like'. And it is this conclusion which signals to many (normal) historians the end of their kind of history.
On this issue, I agree that the last implication drawn by Jenkins does follow, except that, unlike him, I do not welcome it. It is also, ironically, self-defeating for the political aims of the postmodernists themselves. They are happy to legitimise a multiplicity of voices as long as they all belong to radical groups of which they approve: feminists, black power advocates and the like. However, by abandoning truth and endorsing the interpretation of the past "anyway we like", they unwittingly provide equal legitimacy to political positions they might find less congenial, such as those of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, holocaust deniers, ethnic cleansers, Islamic terrorists and any other variety of political depravity. If we accepted Jenkins's view, we would deny ourselves both the right and the ability to contest their versions of history, no matter how offensive or inaccurate they might be. No one would be able to challenge the historical and political interpretations of Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden. If you abandon the concept of truth, any view of history is validated by its own perception. You are left with nothing but tribalism: every culture, no matter how barbaric, becomes legitimate.
This is a fate that has already befallen the academic discipline of anthropology where scholars now make excuses for cultures that practice human sacrifice, cannibalism and the incineration of widows. It is one thing to describe these customs objectively. This way you are not complicit in their practice. But if you take the postmodern line that everything is political, and there is no objectivity, then you have to decide whether to endorse or reject them. You cannot sit on the fence.
Let me make my own position clear. I am not arguing against writing the history of women, or blacks, or any other group that a historian wants to define as oppressed. You can legitimately do this, by all means, using the tools of traditional history. What I do mean is that, if you pursue this objective, you have to conform to the traditional criteria of proof used by the discipline. You have to have documentary and other kinds of reliable evidence to support your case. You have to be able to put your work into the public arena where other scholars can scrutinise it and criticise it for both its logic and its evidence. If the subjects of your history genuinely are oppressed, then the historical evidence will establish this. But if you cannot support your case with sufficient evidence, you have to accept this too, and admit that the thesis about their oppression is not true. In the long run, establishing the truth of your case through objective evidence, so that it is beyond doubt and cannot be dismissed as a piece of ideology, is the only way to serve the genuine interests of the people whose lives you are discussing.
Over the long course of its development, the traditional discipline of history has been not only a pursuit of the truth about human affairs, it has also been a form of literature, and some of its best practitioners-from ancients like Tacitus and Livy to moderns such as Gibbon, Macaulay and Michelet-have been recognised as among the major literary figures of the Western tradition.
However, in our own time, history's status as literature has also come under challenge. Let me illustrate this with some of the currently fashionable notions of the appropriate literary qualities required by the discipline. Though all the great historians I just mentioned were wonderfully clear writers, postmodern academic fashions have declared clear writing to be ideologically contaminated. The editors of one recent collection of postmodernist essays inform us: "The ideal of a transparent, tempered and accommodated prose" is "the approved mode of expression for the society and values of the newly empowered middle class". (Innovations of Antiquity, ed. Ralph Hexter and Daniel Selden, New York 1992). Another has declared "unproblematic prose and clarity of presentation" to be "the conceptual tools of conservatism". (Mas'd Zavarzadeh, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, cited by John M. Ellis, Against Deconstructionism.) Since today's typical postmodernist academic would rather be declared to have a communicable disease than labelled "middle class" or "conservative", let me give you an example of what now passes as acceptable prose style among the postmodernist fraternity (and sorority). This is from a gentleman named Homi Bhabha, a former professor of English at the University of Chicago, who has now been appointed to Harvard. He is writing about nineteenth century attempts by Britain to establish governments in its colonies that mimicked the government of the imperial centre. Rather than examining the evidence of how these colonial governments actually worked in practice, Bhabha instead gives us a deconstruction of the concept of 'mimicry'. He writes:
Within that conflictual economy of colonial discourse that Edward Said describes as the tension between the synchronic panoptical vision of domination -- the demand for identity, stasis -- and the counterpressure of the diachrony of history -- change, difference -- mimicry represents an ironic compromise. (To) adapt Samuel Weber's formulation of the marginalising vision of castration, then, colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognisable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite. Which is to say
(from Tensions of Empire, ed. Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler, University of California Press, 1997)
I won't try to translate these sentiments into English. How could anyone talk seriously about the vision of castration? Let me simply point out that they are representative of their kind, containing the usual quota of invented terminology and postmodernist clichés -- 'difference', 'irony', 'the Other' -- not to mention the obligatory reverent citation of approved gurus. Writing of this kind should remind us of George Orwell's observation that muddled prose is usually an "instrument for concealing or preventing thought". Unfortunately, in academic life today, this kind of prose is routinely adopted by the most successful people in their fields. This happens to be a very effective tactic to adopt in academic circles where there is always an expectation that things are never simple and that anyone who writes clearly is thereby being shallow. Obscurity is often assumed to equal profundity, a quality that signals a superiority over the thinking of the uneducated herd. Moreover, those students who put in all the work needed to comprehend a dialogue of this kind very often becomes converts, partly to protect their investment in the large amount of time already committed, and partly because they are bound to feel they have thereby earned a ticket into an elite. Obscurity is thus a clever way to generate a following.
My own view is that, whenever we see it, we should apply to this kind of prose George Orwell's blowtorch to the belly. In his novel 1984, Orwell predicted that the totalitarian future would be dominated by two intellectual characteristics. One was called Doublethink: the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The other was called Newspeak, which reformed the language to make any thought critical of the government unsayable. Fortunately, we in the West did not succumb to totalitarian rule, as Orwell predicted. Nonetheless, in many of our universities, we have succumbed to Doublethink and Newspeak, as Homi Bhabha demonstrates. This whole development was summarised in the movie, The Maltese Falcon, where the detective Sam Spade observed, with what was once a typical American verbal economy: "the cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter".
One reason I chose to cite this passage from Bhabha was because, though I only found it in a book published in 1997, it was actually written for a symposium of the Modern Language Association in 1983 and it contains terminology such as 'synchronic' and 'diachronic' which no self-respecting, theoretically correct postmodernist would use today. For these are terms that derive from the now out-of-date theory of structuralism, which has since been completely superseded by the theory of poststructuralism. One index of the achievements of academic theory today can be gauged by its waste matter, that is, the range of concepts and methods jettisoned along the way to its present position. The great majority of these concepts were adopted not because of their intellectual weight or clarity but because they were mouthed by whoever was the then prevailing theoretical guru.
Intellectual fashion has decreed most of them now out of date. No one today, for instance, uses the 'encoding/decoding' thesis of Stuart Hall and the Birmingham school of cultural studies, which was once so influential on campus. No one bothers any more with once solemnly-made distinctions within the field of semiotics between the "signifier" and the "signified" or between "denotation" and "connotation". Indeed, whatever happened to semiotics? All these concepts are now museum pieces. Yet in the 1980s, each was taught as gospel by the same people who are now recommending a postmodernist or a cultural studies approach as the definitive word on their subject. One can only feel terribly sorry for the generations of humanities students once forced to dutifully learn and regurgitate these now dead and useless concepts. The academics responsible have rendered the intellectual capital of two or three of the recent generations of their own students as so much detritus. And it doesn't take much foresight to predict that every single one of the current crop of fashionable terms -- "deconstruction", "discourse analysis" even "poststructuralism" and "postmodernism" -- are headed for the same fate, soon to be replaced by something even newer but just as ephemeral. Indeed, at the end of 1997, one of the principal initiators of the postmodernist mindset, the American philosopher Richard Rorty, recommended that, since nobody has "the foggiest idea" what postmodernism means, "it would be nice to get rid of it."
One of the reasons this movement has made such an impact so quickly is that, before it appeared on the scene, a number of its central arguments were already familiar within traditional historiography. One example is the Dutch writer, Peter Geyl, who in two books in the late 1940s and 1950s, Napoleon: For and Against and Debates with Historians, put an argument that was at once deceptively simple and widely influential, especially among historians themselves. Geyl argued that every generation rewrites history. Each successive age asks different questions about the past, questions that reflect its own interests and concerns, and comes up with different answers. Geyl offered the example of the many different interpretations over the previous one hundred years of the significance of Napoleon. Hence, he concludes, history is nothing more than a series of shifting interpretations. There is no stability, no final conclusions, no ultimate truths, all is relative.
Geyl's argument is similar to that which later became famous in the philosophy of science at the hands of Thomas Kuhn. This is the claim that ideas accepted within scientific theories or paradigms are incommensurate with those of earlier paradigms. In other words, knowledge is not cumulative. The findings of different eras do not build up to support the growth of knowledge. The views of each era are simply different. Moreover, what we might imagine to be the certainties of our own time will, in their turn, be overthrown. The same underlying argument has been advanced in recent decades across a number of fields, from the Marxist concept of ideology to the French poststructuralism of Michel Foucault, who argues that knowledge is always generated for political purposes, and hence should be called "power/knowledge".
Now, to reply to this argument in the field of history we can acknowledge that Geyl's premises are certainly true. There are many historical topics that have been reinterpreted over the generations. And new interests often spark new inquiries, as we can see in the current interest in the history of women, of indigenous people and of ethnic minorities, or in the fact that a study today of, say, Thomas Jefferson, would now focus as much on his role as a slave holder as a founding father. However, Geyl's conclusion does not follow. Just because some history is reinterpreted and some new questions are asked, this does not mean all historical findings are thereby overturned and that the discipline is essentially unreliable. Let me give you two concrete examples.
First, there is a crucial distinction that needs to be made. This is between propositions about history and works of history. This is the distinction between particular pieces of knowledge about what happened in the past, or the facts of history, and the explanations made by historians, that is, explanations made in extended pieces of writing such as articles and books.
It is not difficult to show that there are a great many facts or propositions about history that are not subject to any doubt or uncertainty at all. That such facts exist is itself quite enough to dispel any attempt to impose a blanket scepticism on the whole of the field. Historians know countless numbers of facts about the past that no sane person would question. The names of the elected officials of most democratic nations over the past two centuries, for instance, are obviously in this category. Or take the following proposition: The Viet Minh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Every term in this proposition-the names of the two protagonists, the concept of military defeat, the name of the place, the date the event occurred-is a construct of language and culture. Yet the proposition is true. What's more, it is true in a culturally objective sense. There is nothing relative about it. It is a proposition that is equally true in either French culture or Vietnamese culture, or the culture of any other people of the world for that matter. Moreover, this is a very important proposition. Because the event it describes actually occurred, it affected the subsequent history of the whole of South East Asia. The political allegiances and the lives of the inhabitants of the countries of the region would not be as they are today if this proposition were untrue.
Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the world he or she inhabits can immediately think of dozens of historical facts with the same status, that are just as objectively true and just as substantial in their consequences. Moreover, facts with this degree of certainty are by no means confined to events within living memory but go back to the medieval and ancient worlds, and even well beyond antiquity. That the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, that the ancient Greeks wrote poetry and philosophy, and that human beings have inhabited Australia for at least 40,000 years, are all facts that one would have to be either highly ignorant, or decidedly perverse, to want to question. Of course many of the details surrounding or supporting these facts may not themselves be finally known. We may not know all the tactics or armaments General Giap used when he surrounded the French forces at Dien Bien Phu, but incompleteness in our accounts of his victory does not affect the fact that we know it occurred.
My second example concerns the accumulation of historical knowledge. Let me illustrate this with the example from a recent work, Mark Kishlansky's excellent book on seventeenth century England for the Penguin History of Britain. Kishlansky is a traditional historian who has pandered to none of the prevailing fashions. Instead of writing social history, or 'history from below', he has written a political history -- or more precisely a constitutional history -- of the reign of the Stuart dynasty. There were two great political dramas in seventeenth century England, one in the 1640s, which was once known as the "Puritan Revolution"; the other in 1688, which was once known as the "Glorious Revolution". Kishlansky, however, does not use the word "revolution" in his title at all. Instead, he calls his book A Monarchy Transformed.
I think he is absolutely right to do this because, as his work demonstrates very clearly, the accumulation of knowledge that we now have about the period undermines several previous "revolutionary" interpretations. For instance, we now know that the events of 1642 did not amount to a "Puritan revolution" because in recent decades historians have examined the religious practices and beliefs of almost all the parliamentarians who overthrew Charles I and found the parliamentarians were not in the main Puritans, but overwhelmingly supporters of the established church, as was the king himself. Moreover, the events did not constitute what Marxists once claimed was a "bourgeois revolution" because we now know, again from an accumulation of research into their backgrounds, that the men of property in the parliament were not merchants and manufacturers but men of landed property who wanted nothing more than to maintain the economic status quo. In fact, Kishlansky shows the events of 1642 were not caused by any revolutionary sentiment at all, but were a conflict between the king's desire for absolute power and the parliament's determination to establish limitations on that power, limitations that its members believed had been bequeathed to them by long tradition. And he makes a similar case to demonstrate how the accumulation of new evidence has shown that, even though the English monarchy was transformed after 1688, this did not amount to a revolution either.
In making my case today, I do not want to deny that history writing involves interpretation, nor that ideologies are non-existent. All of us are born into families and societies that contain ongoing value systems, political beliefs and cultural predilections that are very hard to shake off. This is not, however, something discovered by postmodernism in the past decade or two. For the past 150 years at least, the training of historians has insisted that they recognise this fact, and then try to rise above it, if they are to do their job properly. It might be difficult, but there is nothing to show it is impossible. History is conducted within a competitive intellectual environment and one of the legitimate tasks of historical criticism is to expose the ideologies, values and assumptions that underlie the work of other historians.
Take the case of the book that, to many Americans today, is the only one they know about Australian history, Robert Hughes's international best-seller The Fatal Shore. The first Australian settlement in 1788 was established as a place to which convicts from Britain were sentenced for seven to fourteen years penal servitude. Hughes portrays the penal colony as a place of unnatural cruelty and horror, where male convicts were starved and flogged in labour camps and where female convicts endured enforced whoredom. The underlying politics of his thesis derive from the moral equivalence arguments that were common during the Cold War. Just as Stalin's commissars hid their own labour camps deep in Siberia, this thesis claimed the English imperialists had their own nineteenth century gulag archipelago hidden half way around the world. Most professional historians in Australia, however, were aghast at Hughes's portrait because they had spent the previous twenty years uncovering research that showed it was largely a myth.
Now, it is true that Hughes has got the facts right about those events he chose to write about. There were some brutal prisons and some convict women were forced to become prostitutes. But the great majority of convicts never experienced these conditions. Most never even saw the inside of an Australian prison. The great majority served their sentences as assigned servants, that is, they were labourers obliged to work for certain employers. They earned wages and they lived openly in society. When their period of servitude was over, or they received a pardon for good behaviour, some of them, including the women, became leading citizens of the colony. They comprised Australia's first traders, industrialists and architects. One of the founders of Australia's first bank in 1817 was a female ex-convict. The first novel written and published in Australia was by a convict author. Charles Dickens's character Magwich in Great Expectations, the convict who made a fortune out of wool, was based on real life. The Australian convict system, it is now clear, was a remarkable success story of the rehabilitation and reform of convicted felons. So, while the facts of Robert Hughes's book are not all in dispute, his exceedingly narrow selection of those facts and the way he has organised his argument are a very different matter. His interpretation, his value judgement about Australian history, can be challenged by the presentation of a different set of facts, that is, those he omitted from his story. So, even though we are dealing with an ultimate value judgement-whether the convict system was unnaturally cruel or a considerable success-it is factual historical evidence that decides the issue, not the ideology, not the ethnic background, not the colour, not the sex of the historian. In good history, debates about values are settled not by each side simply asserting its own values, but by empirical evidence.
Nonetheless, as the examples of Hughes and many other authors demonstrate, whole works of history are often culturally biased. An extended historical explanation may use as evidence historical propositions that in themselves are objectively true, but may nonetheless provide a cultural or political slant on this material that distorts the reality under discussion. This lack of objectivity often derives from the process of selection when the historian chooses some facts as evidence for his case but omits others. The historian, Simon Schama, who has just written and narrated the History of Britain television series, uses the argument from selection to take a strong stand against historical truth and objectivity. "Claims for historical knowledge," Schama writes, "must always be fatally circumscribed by the character and prejudices of its narrator". Note his emphases: always fatally circumscribed.
He made this comment in his 1991 book Dead Certainties where he used it to justify a passage of seven pages presented as an eyewitness account from a soldier at the Battle of Quebec in 1759. But when the reader gets to the Afterword, Schama reveals the passage is fiction. It is what he calls "an imaginative reconstruction" of events. On Schama's logic, it is hard to object to this. If all is selection and there is no objectivity, then why not write history as fiction? The major problem is that this is not why people come to history. People buy history books not to read fiction but to find out what really happened. "Imaginative reconstructions" are not what they demand. Moreover, the resort to fiction undermines the job that historians are employed to do.
One of the important tasks performed by the historian is to point out when a story has moved from the realm of truth and into that of myth. In fact, in his book Dead Certainties, Schama does precisely this kind of job himself in a chapter that reveals the myth-making behind the famous painting by Benjamin West of the death of General Wolfe during the Battle of Quebec. Schama shows that the composition and detail of the painting had very little to do with the Canadian battlefield and derived more from the conventions of lighting and staging which were popular in the historical dramas performed in the theatre in eighteenth century London. Now, exposing the reality behind some of the legends of our culture is one of the legitimate tasks of the historian. But this role can only be performed by the historian who can get to the truth of an event by shaking off its mythology, that is, by the historian who can see it objectively. For his argument about the Wolfe painting to be convincing, Schama has to establish that what he tells us about the eighteenth century London stage is true in itself and not simply a reflection of his own, late twentieth century values. In other words, Schama's own practice belies the very argument he adopts himself in the same book to justify his resort to fiction.
There is a similar fallacy at work in the book about the Mutiny on the Bounty, Mr Bligh's Bad Language, by the Australian postmodernist historian, Greg Dening. He claims history is not 'something we learn' from the past but is a matter of interpretation, of reading off from the past whatever our present values, systems and preoccupations dictate. In other words, the past is a text we interpret, the same as we would a work of literature. Different people and eras will make different interpretations. This is why he chose to write about the mutiny on the Bounty. Since it occurred in April 1789, this incident has generated more than 1,000 books and articles and its progeny includes an epic poem by Byron, a nineteenth century English musical, a pantomime, and no less than five movies. Dening wants to show that the different interpretations made over the past two centuries each reflect the values of their own times. Thus, history has no permanency and it is an 'illusion' to try to know the past 'as it really was'. Unfortunately for Dening, it is not difficult to show that his own practice in Mr Bligh's Bad Language contradicts his theory. There are at least two important parts of his book where he relies upon knowledge of the past 'as it really was' in order to argue his own case.
The first of these is the one piece of real knowledge he has contributed to the debate himself. This is his conclusion about the level of floggings that Bligh ordered aboard the Bounty. One of the common assumptions about Captain Bligh, Dening writes, is that he was an especially violent man who provoked his men into mutiny. To show this is untrue, Dening looks at the records the British Navy kept about the flogging of sailors at sea. He shows that among the major naval commanders in the Pacific in the eighteenth century -- including Cook, Vancouver and Wallis -- Bligh ordered the smallest number of floggings. Since Dening has published these statistics, no one in the future will be able to argue that Bligh was more violent than the other commanders at the time.
To argue that Bligh was less violent, Dening does not put forward his statistics as merely an interpretation with which others might take issue. He uses his conclusion to demolish what he calls the 'common myth' of Bligh the sadist. He can only do this if he uses it as a truth in an objective or absolute sense. Moreover, he uses the two points he has now established -- (1) the statistics show that Bligh was less violent; and (2) previous explanations of the mutiny based on Bligh's violence merely reflected the values of their time -- as the central premises of his wider argument that different ages generate their own myths about history. So his major thesis, that we never know history 'as it really was', is itself derived from an argument about what really happened in history. His case is self-contradictory. He cannot make a case against historical truth without recourse to the historical truth he seeks to deny.
Dening makes the same mistake in his critiques of the Hollywood movies about the mutiny. He delights in pointing out some of their grosser inaccuracies, such as the 1935 film which made Bligh the captain of the Pandora, the ship which sailed from Britain to capture the mutineers and bring them to justice. Dening says when he shows these films to his students -- who know that Bligh actually stayed at home while the Pandora was under the command of Captain Edward Edwards -- they become 'angry and scornful' about how 'irresponsible' and 'negligent' Hollywood can be when it comes to representing the past. He also points out that the 1962 movie saw Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian dying on Pitcairn Island after he had heroically tried to stop the other mutineers from burning the Bounty. Dening tells us the real Fletcher Christian was, like most of the remaining mutineers, murdered by their Tahitian slaves on Pitcairn four years after the ship had been burned and sunk.
However, someone with Dening's view of history cannot talk about what 'actually' happened, nor can he discuss the fate of 'real' characters. Since he believes that history is not something we 'learn' or discover, but only a procession of shifting interpretations made by successive generations, he lacks any solid ground of fact upon which to stand and make the kind of criticisms that he does. To be able to write about who actually commanded the Pandora, or how Fletcher Christian really died, or any of the numerous other facts that Dening uses to disparage other people's accounts of the mutiny, one has to accept that history is not merely something that present generations invent for their own purposes but that history actually provides a record that can gives us knowledge about the past. If we are to have a sensible debate, we have to accept that some of the historical record is true, that there are facts about the past which we know from history, that the past is not merely an invention of the present but is something that happened quite independently of those of us who have inherited its consequences.
Let me return to the argument from selection to make a more general point. Just because the process of selection is often based on the historian's cultural bias, this does not mean that it necessarily or always must be so. The selection process of the historian is a contingent matter that may itself be criticised by other historians. Indeed, the charge of cultural, political or moral bias is a common criticism that historians make of each other's work. In some cases, criticism of this kind might mean that the historical community jettisons an entire explanation. In others, however, it may allow some aspects of a work to be rejected while permitting the remainder to go on to become part of the overall store of historical knowledge.
But, if all historians were as confined to their own cultural mindset as postmodernist philosophers claim, they would lack the ability to criticise cultural bias in their colleagues. They would be unable to make the kind of critique of each other's work that is so common. This is because they would be deprived of any appeal to an outside umpire, that is, an appeal to historical evidence and to historical truths to decide issues of contention. In short, the cultural cocoons to which postmodernism would confine us, would end historical debate. All that would remain of debate, would be to call each other names. Even though this is the practice that the postmodernists have adopted themselves , this is not a good reason to follow suit.
Bias and lack of objectivity among historians are issues that have to be decided in individual cases, not by an appeal to epistemological necessity. Historians will never be perfect, it is true, but this admission does not entail, as the postmodernists think, that they will therefore always be unreliable. Historians have already contributed to a vast accumulation of genuine knowledge about the past, and those who work within the traditions of the discipline will continue to do so.
This quarrel for the preservation or overthrow of traditional historical methods is likely to appear to many members of the public as an esoteric domestic dispute that is all too characteristic of the feuds that break out in academic life. Moreover, since contemporary Western society places a high value on fashion, innovation and the new, it is not easy to find support for those who take a conservative position to preserve traditional ways of doing things. Yet, this altercation deserves to taken much more seriously than this. It has much wider implications. It is a conflict that goes all the way to the core of Western culture. For if we deny the possibility of discovering knowledge about human affairs through historical investigation, we throw away some of our most powerful intellectual equipment.
Ever since Thucydides wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, writers in the Western intellectual tradition have been distinguished by their efforts to distance themselves from their own political system and their own religion, and to write from a position outside both. To look down, as it were, upon your own society and become a critic of your own practice is a characteristically Western notion and, indeed, is one of the great strengths of Western civilisation -- possibly even its greatest strength. Moreover, the freedom to engage in such criticism has long been one of the most cherished possessions of those who have inherited this culture. Outside the ranks of academic critics, we now take this notion -- the attempt to be objective and self-critical, rather than subjective and self-defensive -- so much for granted that we assume it is a perfectly natural thing to do, whereas to many other cultures it has long been something shocking. In the current debate over the status of history, the preservation of this vital part of the intellectual heritage of Western civilisation is what is ultimately at stake.