Earlier this week, an article appeared at NRO about how historians interpret the Haymarket Square riot--or rather, how they fail to interpret it. For those of you who snoozed through that particular part of your U.S. History course (because labor relations are boring), the Haymarket Square riot was an outbreak of violence in 1886 Chicago where several policemen breaking up an anarchist rally were killed by a bomb and subsequent gunfire. You can read about it in more detail here; I won't totally swipe the story. Point is, historians, especially but not only those of a leftist persuasion, have generally adopted the line that there was no evidence tying the anarchists to the policemen's deaths; that the four men eventually hanged for it were wrongly convicted and martyrs to the cause of workers' rights; and so on. For decades, this has been one of the big events for Labor and the Left in America.
That began to change a few years ago, however, when a labor historian in Ohio (one who voted twice for Obama, incidentally) began researching some discrepancies in the various accounts of the Haymarket Square incident. This led to a full-scale reconstruction of events, leading him to the conclusion that not only were the anarchist protestors--like OWS, generally described as "peaceful"--armed and shooting at police officers, but that the bomb was almost certainly made by one of the men convicted. Practically everything historians have relied on in touting the conventional view of events comes from propaganda put out by defense attorneys during the trial. In most professions, this is known as "not doing your research."
When the prof's research was released to his peers, other historians
This is hardly the only example of the consensus among historians, of beliefs nearly every scholar takes for granted, being flat wrong. Take the Australian aborigines. The common assumption about European settlement of Australia is that, much like our settlement of the American West, it involved a lot of unprovoked violence and even genocide against the natives. There is some truth to this, but it is now clear that large portions of the tale aren't based in reality. An infamous frontier massacre of aborigines in the '20s, for instance, was taken as fact despite the absence of any eyewitnesses, any human remains, and the fact that those allegedly killed turned up alive and well years later. In another case, a statistic on white settlers killed by natives was portrayed by a later historian to mean the number of natives killed by whites. That is, a record of 10,000 settlers killed by aborigines in Queensland was "re-interpreted" to state that settlers had killed 10,000 aborigines. Forget not doing your research, these are just pernicious lies.
What's the deal? One more sensible scholar, reviewing cases of distortion like these, blames the influence of postmodernism, namely its claim that all truth is relative (a self-refuting claim, I might add); that the historian is incapable of writing outside his political and cultural biases and thus cannot be objective. Therefore, the theory goes, more enlightened academics ought to use their position to write histories "empowering the powerless," attacking the system, blah blah blah. No more, he adds, can a historian simply strive for a factual account of the past:
This has become the most corrupting influence of all. It has turned the traditional role of the historian, to stand outside his contemporary society in order to seek the truth about the past, on its head. It has allowed historians to write from an overtly partisan position. It has led them to make things up and to justify this to themselves on the grounds that it is all for a good cause.It's this lack of emphasis on knowing the facts about history, this placing of "power relations" and whatever theory happens to be popular at the time before accuracy, which results in these cases of willful ignorance and incoherent, crumbling ideas about the past among liberal academics. And it's not getting better. I know of fellow grad students who are unaware of who was President during the Trail of Tears; because hey, they're all rich white guys, right? Oy vey.
As Ronald Reagan said, "It's not that liberals don't know anything, it's that they know so much that isn't so."*
*If I got that quote wrong, don't tell me. I don't want to look bad.