Historians and the Falsification of History

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Some people wonder why an academic like me is so hard on academia. I suppose it is because academia often claims to be pure, beyond bias, able to think critically as opposed to the idiots out there among the common people. Knowing that all those claims are false makes academia a hypocritical institution. This is seen in a number of fields, but one of them is history. Below are some examples of how historians distort history.

I once read a book on the attempt of the Confederate government to arm slaves near the end of the War between the States. The author claimed that very few, if any, blacks fought for the Confederacy and that those who were in support position were generally slaves. However, there are articles from the era of the war in the New York Times and Harper’s Weekly (check the May 10, 1862 issue for an artist’s drawing of blacks helping load a cannon) by reporters who witnessed a large number of blacks in the Confederate camp, some of whom fought fiercely against Union troops. There were free blacks who fought for the Confederacy, not just slaves; estimates of the number of free black Confederate soldiers are at a low of 5000, with some estimates much higher. With slaves included, who could have easily revolted or fled to the North with so many of the men off to war, 100,000 helped in the war effort in support units. While the Confederacy did not formally include blacks by law in the army until 1865, de facto from the beginning they were served the army, perhaps not formally, but in support positions that involved combat when units encountered Union troops. The units were integrated, unlike Union units. Authors who deny that evidence of such is totally missing are either ignorant of it (and thus are guilty of bad scholarship), explain it away (which is difficult to do, given that there are multiple eyewitness accounts of black Confederate soldiers), or ignore it (which is dishonest). Most of the time it’s probably the latter, since I can’t imagine a good researcher missing the references in Harper’s. Thus ideologically driven dishonest is the only reasonable explanation for historians denying a fact of which they have clear evidence.

Another example is Reconstruction after the War between the States. Earlier historians recognized the corruption that permeated Reconstruction, but lately revisionists, mainly of a Marxist bent, have claimed that the reports of corruption and violence were due to biased Southern writers. Given that there are number of newspaper accounts from the time period of rapes and murders as well as letters from ordinary people detailing their fear of walking the street due to Carpetbagger-agitated gangs, this “historians'” conclusion seems more due to ideological bias.

In a conversation I had at an academic conference with a Marxist historian, he denied both the atrocities of Stalin and Mao. Given the overwhelming evidence for the brutal system of gulags, mass purges and executions, the starving of the people of the Ukraine, and the misuse of psychiatry in Stalin’s era, such denial is incredible. As for Mao, around 35,000,000-45,000,000 people died from the effects of his rule, directly through execution or brutality in prison or indirectly through failed agricultural policies. Did this Marxist forget about the Cultural Revolution? Again, this seems to be an integrity matter rather than sloppy scholarship.

While I am not a Classical Liberal, the claims of Classical Liberalism about what worsened the Great Depression should be taken seriously, and yet they are dismissed by most historians I have read with little or no argumentation. Usually the dismissal carries with it a tinge of sarcasm. Such a response, again, is due to ideological bias.

Many historians claimed that Alger Hiss was unjustly charged with espionage, as well as the Rosenbergs. KGB files opened after the Cold War ended have affirmed that Hiss was a Soviet spy, as well as Julius Rosenberg (his wife may well not have been involved). In fact, a number of people the much maligned Senator Joseph McCarthy accused of being Soviet spies turned out to be Soviet spies. The “anti-anti-communism” of leftist historians came into play rather than looking at evidence for or against the guilt of Hiss or Julius Rosenberg. To be fair, many historians have corrected earlier positions based on this new evidence, but the dogmatism with which historians held the earlier position is, at the least, fascinating.

Other events go unsaid by historians:

A number of prominent politicians believed succession was legal before the War between the States, including northern politicians.

Some early feminists opposed abortion on liberal grounds that forced abortion was one of the ways men would try to control and take advantage of women. Susan B. Anthony was opposed to abortion.

The Crusades began as a defensive war–vast swaths of the formerly Christian Mediterranean world had been conquered by Islam, and there were Islamic colonies throughout Europe, especially in Moorish Spain. The Crusades were an attempt to re-take the Holy Land which was lost when the Muslims defeated the Eastern Roman Empire’s troops in the seventh century.

Focusing on violent protests in the South against integration, historians often ignore the many incidents of peaceful integration and the growing grassroots movement for civil rights which may have been more successful with less bitterness resulting than the massive federal and military intervention liberals support.

Historians often play up the atrocities of Christians and downplay the atrocities of Muslims. By the way, I am sure the troops of the Eastern Roman Empire discovered that Islam is a religion of peace. My sarcasm is obvious.

Now there are some fine historians, especially among those who have studied intellectual history. Shelby Foote has written a masterful narrative history of the War between the States. Thomas Molnar, Modris Eksteins, John Lukacs, and Jacques Barzun have written some splendid intellectual history. Thomas J. DiLorenzio has written some works that bring more balance to the study of Abraham Lincoln. David McCullough is a fine historian who is fair who has a flair for style, a rare trait among academic writers. Paul Johnson is a good writer, though his own classical liberal bias gets a bit thick — he’s not a trained academic historian, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Michael Grant is a fascinating writer. I know there are many others, and when I get overly cynical, when I say “There are liars, damned liars, and historians,” I think of these individuals. May more like them come along.



Arrogance and Hypocrisy in U.S. Foreign Policy


Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States...

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President Obama has chosen to lecture Egyptian President Mubarak on the issue of human rights. This is another instance of American arrogance and hypocrisy, as traditional conservatives such as Pat Buchanan and libertarians such as Ron Paul, as well as some on the left, have pointed out. The U.S. has a shameful history of violation of rights and, regarding the American Indians, genocide. The U.S. Army engaged in brutal tactics during the Philippine War in the early twentieth century. In World War II, the U.S. forced thousands of Japanese-American citizens into what de facto were concentration camps–the fact that they were not as brutal as the German camps does not make what the United States did morally right. The U.S. engaged in saturation bombing of Tokyo in March 1945, killing over 100,000 people with the firestorm created from gasoline-laden bombs. The U.S. is the only country to have used nuclear weapons in combat. The U.S. and its allies, violating centuries of just war theory, demanded unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers in World War II. In Vietnam there were multiple instances of abuse by U.S. Army personnel against the Vietnamese people; Lt. Calley’s unit was not the only one to engage in rape or kill civilians. In Iraq and Afghanistan, torture was the official practice of U.S. military intelligence personnel as well as regular army personnel. The U.S. has not eschewed the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict–not even with President Obama in power. And domestically, neither the FBI nor the ATF have clean human rights records, as FBI surveillance of American citizens and the ATF disasters at Ruby Ridge and Waco show. Now many countries engage in similar behaviors or worse–it may be the case, as blind patriots claim, that the U.S. has a better record on human rights than most other countries. But this does not justify our actions, nor does it justify the arrogance of President Obama in telling Mr. Mubarak how to run his country, especially since democracy in the Middle East tends to lead to radical Islamists coming into power. Perhaps Mr. Obama (and Mrs. Clinton) would prefer the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power in Egypt. If that happens, the powerkeg that is the Near East may explode.

In addition, U.S. policy holds that democracy is the best form of government for all nations. But as Aristotle recognized in his Politics, the best form of government for any state is going to depend on its history and traditions. But the U.S. continues to follow the neo-Puritanism of Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy and try to export “democracy” to the world–at the same time democracy is dying a slow death in the U.S. The rest of the world sees U.S. hypocrisy and hates us for it. The U.S. can do better than this–it can clean up its own house and avoid sticking its nose into every other country’s business. I hope such reform happens–but the secularist Puritan strand in American foreign policy is ingrained that I am pessimistic. We need more Ron Pauls, more Pat Buchanans, more true liberals such as Nat Hentoff, to join together in an effort to both stop U.S. abuses of human rights and also to encourage a “more humble” (as President G. W. Bush said in his pre-911 days) U.S. foreign policy.

“Creating” Reality vs. Respecting Reality

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Hill of Slane ruins

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Women go against the natural impulse to care for their offspring and kill their children via abortion. Academics and the media deny that marriage and the family are natural institutions and believe that marriage and the family are whatever we make them. The tradition, dating back thousands of years, of marriage being between male and female is denied by academics and judges. Children no longer have a mother at home and are reared in day care centers, and academics and the majority of the media rejoice. Pundits talk about “designer babies” created through genetic engineering. Weapons of mass destruction are created out of thin air, and a Bush administration official says that “Reality is what we decide it to be.”

Most ancient and medieval philosophers believed in a natural order that human beings were required to respect. A violation of the set order of nature would lead either to societal chaos and the destruction of the proper natural order. That began to change in the modern era, with Rene Descartes (1596-1650) moving the direction of philosophy away from nature to the self. The idea that things had real natures was cast off by William of Occam’s nominalism in the fourteenth century, so it was easy to move from the emphasis on self to the notion that categories in the mind account for the general structure of the world we experience. This was Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) position. But Kant believed these categories were the same for all rational beings, so we all experience the same world. Once this assumption was abandoned, then reality was thought to be what man willed it to be. In this view, there is no natural order that exist prior to man; it is man who makes reality what he wants it to be.

I offer a long-term empirical test of the idea that we can manipulate reality to be what we wish it to be. America and Western Europe are trying to mold reality in a way that supports an overly-individualist, self-centered, and materialistic lifestyle. If a pregnancy gets in the way, kill the fetus–after all, life begins when we say it begins. If old people get in the way, kill them–after all, life is meaningful when we say it is meaningful. If politicians want to profit from war, they should go ahead–they will invent reality to justify starting a war. If the family gets in the way of our desires, there is divorce, and for those who prefer lovers of the same gender, they can adopt, too. Reality is what me make it.

My proposal for an experiment is this: Let society go the direction of trying to create reality in the image of its desires. If my belief that the actions resulting from that view violate the natural order is correct, society will inevitably descend to chaos and ruin. Either social order will disappear into crime and chaos, or a strongman will take power to restore order through dictatorial force. If I turn out to be wrong, I am willing to stand corrected. Deal?

Is Modern “Total War” Ethical?

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Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

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I just viewed an excellent PBS “American Experience” program, “The Bombing of Germany.” It detailed how in World War II the United States moved from a position of “precision bombing” of military targets to accept the British strategy of “terror bombing” of German (and later Japanese) cities. For a number of years I have struggled with the ethics of modern “total” warfare–the idea defended long ago by General Sherman that “war is hell” and thus targeting noncombatants is morally legitimate. Thus, the 45,000 civilians killed in World War II in Hamburg, the 40,000 (minimum) killed in Dresden, the 100,000 killed by the U.S. raid on Tokyo in March 1945, the 80,000 killed by the Hiroshima atomic bomb, and the 40,000 killed by the Nagasaki atomic bomb were, according to the “total war” theory, necessary casualties to win the war more quickly.

I am not interested in utilitarian arguments since I reject utilitarianism as a viable moral theory. But traditional just war theory (which I accept; at the theoretical level I am not a pacifist) has always made a distinction between combatants and noncombatants. Of course some noncombantants will be killed in any war, but it is the intentionally targeting of noncombatants that is morally repugnant. Just war theory has always considered noncombatants to be “innocent” in the sense that they are not directly killing their fellow human beings. Arguments that extend “guilt” to the entire population of a country waging war can only justify mass destruction of human life. Total war inevitably harms the characters of those who actively participate in such activities as terror bombing and intrinsically corrupt any society that engages in them. Granted, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and after Germany and Italy declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, the U.S. had no choice but to fight. The United States kept the moral high ground until 1945; would that it had kept it until the end of the war. It now seems to me that modern fullscale war has crossed the threshold into immorality, even for the “innocent” state in what otherwise would be a just war. Thus, I now believe that full scale “total war” is intrinsically unethical.