About history

History is never above the melee. It is not allowed to be neutral, but forced to enlist in every army”. — Allan Nevins

To begin with,  history is memory, and it is just as important to a culture as it is to an individual.  Reflecting on the past and preparing for the future are  essential features of human intelligence. The discipline of history, then, requires us to examine small events and sweeping trends, to suggest patterns that might be found in the record, and to constantly ask the vital question: why. 

Historians search out facts and tell stories. Above all, they have what amounts to a sacred duty to accuracy and the truth.   Yet historians are free to explore and interpret without an expectation of exact answers. In this sense history is not a science, nor is it a social science.  History is a separate discipline that plays by its own rules and answers very much to its own Muse.

History is a powerful discipline, not only in terms of analytical ability and scope, but also in terms of the way it can be used to legitimize present day political agendas and projects. In that sense, Eugin Weber called history  “the dressing room of politics.”  Perhaps the most important first lesson about history, then, is that historians have motivations that influence the way they emphasize some facts instead of others. Or, to put it another way, historians usually write with a purpose in mind.

History, myth  and objectivity

Two of the highest overarching purposes of history might be summarized as honoring the heroes and learning history’s lessons. These were expressed by two historians from Classical Greece:

Herodotus (484 – 420 BCE) said he wrote history “… in the hope of … preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory…”   This is heroic history. 

Thucydides (460 – 400 BCE) hoped his history would “be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future … I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.” This is often called scientific history but, more accurately,  inclusive history.   

The two motivations are often at cross purposes.

Heroic history inspires people, but it often omits the blemishes and controversies.

On the other hand, inclusive history lets us learn from the past.  It embodies  the best-known idea about history expressed by  George Santayana (1863 – 1952), who said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Yet for many people, this approach can seem dry, uninspiring,  iconoclastic, or even unpatriotic.

Heroic history 

When students are first introduced to history in elementary and secondary school, the heroics are the focus of attention, and the controversies (even if mentioned) are lacquered over.  Since there is rarely any advanced education in history, myths become commonplace in most cultures, and it often comes as a shock when modestly educated people discover that some views of history are more mythological than accurate.

Historic  myths range from  innocent tales to complex cultural  lies.  Sometimes they simply boost the image of a hero, like George Washington supposedly confessing to the destruction of a cherry tree, or US revolutionary Patrick Henry declaiming: “Give me liberty or give me death” (a statement recorded only decades after the fact from second-hand sources).

Many professional historians think these myths should be punctured. But historians do so at their peril, said  Gil Klien.

 The myths are more beloved than the cold facts, and they are hard to kill.  Many of them are designed to explain us as we wish to see ourselves. They establish the national character and set the standard for coming generations.

So   heroic myths serve an important purpose;  they can give culture a foundation, or, as  historian Joseph Campbell said, “inspiration for aspiration.”  

Inclusive history 

Myths can strengthen a culture, but they can also be very dangerous.  They can lead  into the extremes of self-righteousness that create conditions for oppression, war, and genocide.      

Imagine the venom injected into a culture by myths that describe some races or religions as sub-human, or that ascribe defeat to a “stab in the back” by unpatriotic elements of the society.  (This includes the Dolchstoßlegende as in Germany after World War I and the dishonored veteran myth in  the US after Vietnam).  

Imagine the damage done by the “Gone with the Wind” myth that described the American South fighting the US Civil War for noble motives.

Howard Zinn, in his People’s History, asked us to consider the heroic myth of Christopher Columbus in light of the extreme cruelty and genocide he personally promoted against Caribbean peoples.

These are examples of the many myths that have distorted history. The opposite is often called “scientific” history, and its main proponent was German historian, Leopold Von Ranke  (1795 – 1886).  He said the goal of history was to describe  “the way things really were.” By that he meant that an account of the battle of Waterloo should be based on facts commonly accredited by French, German and English historians.  It was, he believed, a scientific approach to history.

But if facts are solid,  like bricks,  the great themes of history are like architecture; they are designs based on cultural preferences.  While no serious historian would doubt that French troops lost on the battlefield at Waterloo, by the same token,  no one would suggest that the rise of Napoleon and achievements of the Napoleonic era could be seen in the same objective light by German, French or British historians.

If you read Von Ranke’s History of the Reformation in Germany, you find meticulous detail about great men and great institutions within a very definite architecture.  Yet on reflection, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone today could  write a history of the Protestant Reformation in Germany without mentioning the impact of the printing press.  So objectivity and the scientific approach need to be considered not only from the standpoint of what is included, but also what is left out.

For that reason, it might be more useful to consider the antidote to heroic history as inclusive history, although in some ways, the two might be antidotes for each other.    After all,  the “warts-and-all”  school of history is  also  open to criticism, as noted in a memorable  essay about Winston Churchill by William F. Buckley.  The urge to diminish a great person or act of courage is hardly a laudable trait in human nature.

It’s no surprise, then, that the quest for scientific objectivity in history is often seen as quixotic. In That Noble Dream, Peter Novick describes attempts by  American historians to first incorporate and then move away from Von Ranke’s presumed objectivity. Many historians abandoned this constricted view of objectivity and devoted their histories to nationalistic and moral  purposes.   These historians  included Charles Beard (1874 – 1948) and Lord John Edward Emerich Acton (1834-1902).

Acton’s most famous aphorism is: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The phrase comes from correspondence about the doctrine of papal infallibility and the idea that great men should not be judged harshly because they were dealing with great issues.  On the contrary, Acton said.  Great men should be held up to an even higher standard due to the suspicion that they had become corrupted by power.

The moral judgement that Beard or Action offered were in some respects a return to mythology.  And that  mythological history  (as contemporary sports historian  John Thorn said)  is “the people’s history,” which historians are obliged to embrace.   (For example, in the great western-genre movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a journalist finds his version of a territory’s emergence into statehood was just a myth, and the reality was far more nuanced and interesting  But his editor says:  “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” )   

But Howard Zinn would say that  a people’s history is far more than  an account that tugs on the heart strings of culture or patriotism.   A peoples history describes the lives of the powerless as well as the powerful, and rejects the myth-making heroics that can obscure the immorality of the powerful.  It is, at the very least, an  inclusive history.  

Whig history

Scientific objectivity wasn’t the real problem, according to historian Herbert Butterfield (1900 – 1979). It was, instead, the tendency of historians to take sides. Butterfield objected to the way historians would “write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions, provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past, and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.” This is often called “Whig” history.

Thomas Macaulay, (1800 – 1859) saw these extremes as errors, and advised a balanced approach:

There are two opposite errors into which those who study the annals of our country are in constant danger of falling, the error of judging the present by the past, and the error of judging the past by the present. The former is the error of minds prone to reverence whatever is old, the latter of minds readily attracted by whatever is new. The former error may perpetually be observed in the reasonings of conservative politicians on the questions of their own day. The latter error perpetually infects the speculations of writers of the liberal school when they discuss the transactions of an earlier age. The former error is the more pernicious in a statesman, and the latter in a historian. (The History of England, from the Accession of James II — Volume 2)

Macaulay aside, whig history is not always pernicious — in fact, the historical focus on democratic reform in US and UK histories was designed rather deliberately to keep that historical frame in view as an aide to present-day political growth and reform. Yet it tended to omit irregularities and present history in a linear form.

Cultural history

In recent years, many historians have moved away from objective and progressive national histories, focusing instead on cultural history or other smaller topics. Cultural history might involve the history of ideas, history of technology, women’s history, black history, environmental history and many others not yet explored. Yet history as a discipline, as Novick has noted, has not moved any closer towards a resolution of the fragmentation.

To some, such as Francis Fukuyama (1952 – present) and Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), the collapse of ideology or even the end of an idea of historical progress represents the “end of history.” According to Baudrillard, this comes from the abandonment of utopian visions shared by both the right and left wing political ideologies.

And yet, ideas about utopian futures re-emerged with the advance of communications technologies, living on in the visions of social networks and free cultures described by Vannevar Bush, John Perry Barlow, Howard Rheingold, Richard Stallman and others engaged in the digital revolution.

In any event, the continued relevance of historical interpretation for cultural and national identity makes the ‘end of history’ idea seem at least premature, according to Jeremy M. Black in the 2015 book,  Clio’s Battles.

How is media history different?

Historians have always seen a strong role for media in the larger sphere of national histories, and it would be unlikely that any historian would overlook the role of printers like Benjamin Franklin in enabling the American Revolution of the 1770s, or of radio news as a catalyst of public opinion during the 1940s, or of television images to bring home the suffering of Civil Rights demonstrators during the 1960s.

Among early American media histories are Isaiah Thomas‘ History of Printing in America and James Parton’s Life of Horace Greeley (1855). Like many subsequent histories, both took a “whiggish” approach that presumed a history of progress towards freedom. The same idea remained in the heart of the narrative until the 1970s, when the foundations of objectivity were shaken to the core by events inside and outside the world of the news media. (Footnote Carey p79) Communications scholar James W. Carey challenged journalism historians to go beyond their identification with the press and, as one suggestion, to focus on the development of consciousness as expressed in the news report. (One upshot of that idea was Mitchell Stephens’ book, A History of News. )

One school of historical thought goes considerably further than giving media a role in national histories by placing communications history at the center of civilization. For example:

Harold Innis (1894 – 1952) was an economic historian who explored the idea that cultures using durable media tended to be biased (oriented) towards time and religious orthodoxy (Egypt, Babylon), while, on the other hand, cultures with flexible media (Rome, Greece, modern) were biased towards control of space and a secular approach to life.

Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980) was a media critic who was strongly influenced by Innis and also put communication at the center of history. McLuhan saw international broadcast media connecting through satellites in the 1950s and 60s, and described the new media landscape in terms of a “global village.” He also considered the idea of media as an extension of human thinking. He is probably most famous for the statement that “the medium is the message,” which, in other words, means that the medium is has a strong influence on the message and the type of thinking that creates the message.

Communications theorist James W. Carey saw McLuhan’s relatively optimistic ideas about media technology as something of a reaction to the pessimism expressed by others, especially British historian Lewis Mumford. McLuhan envisioned electronic media liberating users from the sensory limitations of the past, while Mumford “recognized the paradox of electrical communication: that the media of reflective thought — reading writing and drawing — could be weakened by television and radio; that closer contact did not necessarily mean greater peace; that the new inventions would be foolishly overused… ” (Carey, 1997, p. 49).

While electronic media may well be liberating in some ways (for example, the social impact of television on the civil rights movements in the US), experiments with MRI imaging in the early 21st century showed that special parts of the brain are engaged by the process of reading. So the idea of “cool” media (film, television) involving less processing, and “hot” media (such as reading) involving more mental processing turns out to have been essentially correct, even if McLuhan ascribed those attributes to the media rather than to the media user.

McLuhan has also pointed out that new communications technologies change and grow in familiar patterns that can be mapped out in what he called a “tetrad” of four effects. A new medium can 1) enhance 2) obsolete 3) retrieve and 4) reverse. For example, the arrival of radio enhanced news and music, it obsolesced (or made less prominent) print and visual media; it retrieved the spoken word and music hall shows; and it reversed (when pushed to its limits) into television. (McLuhan, 1988 and 89) We might also say that television enhanced the visual, obsolesced the audio, retrieved theatrical spectacle, and reversed into “500 channels with nothing on.”

Social theories of the media

Another part of our theoretical toolkit involves normative social theories that have critiqued and challenged the mass media.  (Normative here means  what the media ought to be doing.). We begin with an overview that describes a continuum between liberal and critical concepts of the media. On the one hand, liberal democrats have seen the mass media can be seen as an agent of progressive social change, a self-righting component of a democracy. On the other hand, sociologists and critical theorists have seen the mass media’s production of culture as a locus of ideational conflict and an instrument of class control. Illustrating this range of social theory, we have:

• Liberal democrats like Walter Lippmann held the press up against the idea that the press is part of a system of checks and balances (“the original dogma of democracy”) in his 1921 book, Public Opinion. Lippmann also described four stages of media progress, from authoritative, to partisan, to commercial, and then to a state he called organized intelligence.
Other important media critics include:

  • Upton Sinclair, who wrote The Jungle (about the Chicago meat industry), compared journalism to prostitution in The Brass Check, a strong criticism of the American media in the 1920s.
  • Hilare Belloc wrote The Free Press – a scathing attack on the British press in 1917 from a conservative perspective.
  • A.J. Liebling, a media critic with the New Yorker from the 1930s to the 1960s
  • Ben Bagdikian, an American academic who criticized the “media monopoly.”

• Sociologists like Max Weber and Michael Schudson use an ideational model as the appropriate focus for a critical examination of the media, observing, for example, the clash of ideas around effective social reform movements.

• Communications theorists like Michel Foucault often use discourse analysis to understand the information content and structure of mainstream cultural products and “subjugated knowledges.”

• Critical theorists from Europe, especially Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Jurgen Habermas and others from the Frankfurt School, saw the conflict of classes as the dominant theme and observed that mass media was structured to subvert identity and assimilate individuality into the dominant culture. Noam Chomsky, an American  academic expert in linguistics and self-described “libertarian socialist” is sometimes included in this group as a critic who sees media as little more than propaganda generation for the ruling elites.