Back when I was in graduate school, one of the longest running debates I had — with my colleagues but mostly with myself in my own head — was whether or not it is the role of the historian to judge historical actors.
I still like coming back to this idea frequently. When I raise the question among different groups of people, I often hear wildly different responses, and I find it makes for fruitful conversation. But for me, myself, I think I’ve become most assured in my response. Sure, to a degree, judgment is unavoidable. But to consider the alternative, to take seriously the challenge of moving beyond judgment, has the potential to change the function of history as an intellectual enterprise.
Andrew Hartman raises the question of what is the function of history in a way that I think is useful for this discussion. In his new book about the “culture wars,” A War for the Soul of America, Hartman nicely summarizes what cultural historians do, saying that they “decod[e] the contextually specific meaning of cultural practices in order to understand how human beings adjusted to their unique situations” (257). Cultural historians, he writes, rely on a “notion of power…in which people [are] understood to have acted on desire as much as on fear” (258). Everyone, in this paradigm, is subject to “meanings of truth,” even if they are unaware of it themselves (258). I would argue that what Hartman is highlighting here is an argument against judgment. If historical actors are subject to discourse, our scrutiny is better utilized focusing on that discourse itself than on judging individuals.
The opposite of Hartman’s cultural history, is what I have taken to calling “finger wagging” history. If I were to generalize in a way that is probably unfair, I would argue that popular, or mass audience histories are more likely to be “finger wagging” than contemporary academic texts. A finger wagging history takes a figure like Richard Nixon or Joseph McCarthy and demonizes him. Or it portrays Adolf Hitler as a “monster,” a psychologically demented sociopath unique and wholly disconnected from his socio-cultural context.
Of course, the literature on Adolf Hitler has traveled a long distance from this kind of portrayal. Most famously, in works like Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, historians have shown how the whole of German society, and European society more broadly, was implicated in the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Moving away from “finger wagging” history — away from judgment — doesn’t mean moving away from implication then. Quite the opposite: the less we judge, the better we can see the ways in which we are all implicated in the discourses that drive historical processes. Similarly, work on the 1920s Ku Klux Klan in the last few decades, such as Behind the Mask of Chivalry by Nancy MacLean for example, have highlighted the role middle-class populism in driving the terrorist group’s acts.
Warning: this next bit might sound silly. I had kind of a sudden “a-ha” moment about this several years ago, when I was reading Thomas Borstelmann’s book on the seventies. Borstelmann writes about all the ways in which American culture atomized and turned inwards. He writes about the introduction of the Walkman for example, as evidence for how media consumption became individualized. I realized that this normalized performance, of walking around with headphones on, was one that structured my own habits. Later, as I was baking a large loaf of bread and wondering how I was going to eat it all, I considered what Borstelmann’s work might tell me about how I’ve structured my relationships with my neighbors in my large apartment building, and their expectations around their relationship with their neighbors as well. There are no enemies in Borstelmann’s description of the rise of what he terms “hyper-individualism,” no one to judge or condemn, only myths and symbols, habits and norms that I had suddenly realized govern my own behavior. It occurred to me that the best works of history, read in the right context, have the power to change not just how we see the past, but how we think about the world and the way that we act within it. What would a culture look like in which I would take the extra bread that I had made to my neighbor’s door?
I thought about the matter of judgment recently when a news story erupted on the internet about Ben Affleck. The generally progressive film actor/director was caught trying to obscure the fact that his ancestors had owned slaves. People took to social media to condemn the actor for the act. But lost in the discussion was the cultural context in which he came to make such an act, as well as the question as to how others, subject to the same culture, would behave themselves. In a wonderful comment by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the historian reminded us that “everyone’s implicated,” not just Affleck. By doing so, Muhammad suggested that the spotlight would be better placed, not on Affleck, but on American society more broadly.
So here’s a thought exercise that I came up with a few months ago: what would a work on Watergate and Richard Nixon look like if it studiously avoided the “finger wagging” paradigm of history? What kinds of dominant national discourses would it highlight or unearth? In what way would we be implicated in the discourses today?