13 June 2016

Embracing Bias

When I began Patriots and Peoples, I had a clear notion to read and reread two books. Neither A People's History of the United States nor A Patriot's History of the United States pretend to be objective. As an historian who has challenged presumptions of and ambitions towards objectivity, the openly expressed ideological positions of these two books refreshed me.

Many friends and colleagues over the years have praised Howard Zinn's approach in A People's History. Others have condemned it. More often than not, the opinions expressed revealed when Zinn's biases were shared or when they were anathema. My hope was to examine his claims more carefully. To what extent does his bias help illuminate neglected history? To what extent does his bias distort facts and interpretations?

I have neglected this critical reading of Zinn in favor of the same questions posed towards Larry Schweikart and Paul Allen's A Patriot's History of the United States. Their book is close to three times the length of Zinn's and offers better documentation. As I examined the sources they cite, I learned a lot that I did not know.* I also discovered a consistent pattern of distortion. To few of their sources make the arguments that they allege (see especially "America was not a disease-free paradise").

I was hoping for better research in support of conservative ideology. Zinn's distortions appeared to be of a different sort than those by Scheikart and Allen.

The difference provoked disillusionment. My interest in this project waned. Increasingly, I put my energy into my Chess Skills blog (now 1001 published posts). In chess, fabricated evidence and analysis holds no sway. Checkmate cannot be faked.

I would like to return to this project--comparing right-wing and left-wing histories with equal scrutiny. There are plenty of lies and distortions on all sides of the American political spectrum. These lies and distortions affect public policy and they affect our understanding of a shared past. Recently, however, it has become increasingly clear that the pursuit of evidence-based history is less bipartisan than one should expect.

*I am particularly excited about how the work of Richard Steckel and his colleagues have expanded my understanding of early America. I remain indebted to Schweikart and Allen for bringing this work to my attention. See "Footnote to Larry Schweikart's Claim".

20 November 2015

Refuting Ignorance

George Takei posted on his Facebook page a letter issued by David A. Bowers, mayor of Roanoke, Virginia.

The mayor's comparison of the Syrian refugee crisis to internment of Japanese Americans in World War II demonstrates that Mayor Bowers understands neither history nor current events. There is an underlying theme of xenophobia.

Takei's comments have gone viral, reappearing in many publications.
Mayor Bowers, there are a few key points of history you seem to have missed:

1) The internment (not a "sequester") was not of Japanese "foreign nationals," but of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. I was one of them, and my family and I spent 4 years in prison camps because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. It is my life’s mission to never let such a thing happen again in America.

2) There never was any proven incident of espionage or sabotage from the suspected “enemies” then, just as there has been no act of terrorism from any of the 1,854 Syrian refugees the U.S. already has accepted. We were judged based on who we looked like, and that is about as un-American as it gets.

3) If you are attempting to compare the actual threat of harm from the 120,000 of us who were interned then to the Syrian situation now, the simple answer is this: There was no threat. We loved America. We were decent, honest, hard-working folks. Tens of thousands of lives were ruined, over nothing. 
Mayor Bowers, one of the reasons I am telling our story on Broadway eight times a week in Allegiance is because of people like you. You who hold a position of authority and power, but you demonstrably have failed to learn the most basic of American civics or history lessons. So Mayor Bowers, I am officially inviting you to come see our show, as my personal guest. Perhaps you, too, will come away with more compassion and understanding.

-- George Takei

Learn more about our show here:

I might take issue with one small point in Takei's refutation. The Interment of Japanese Americans did take place after Pearl Harbor, but there was planning and discussion of the enterprise in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor. The degree and extent of United States actions against both the Japanese and the Germans prior to formal declaration of war is too easily forgotten.

Concerns about the loyalty of Japanese immigrants and their citizen children had been thoroughly investigated earlier in 1941 by Curtis B. Munson, who gathered much of his information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of Navy Intelligence.

Munson addressed the prospects of putting Japanese Americans in concentration camps.
We do not want to throw a lot of American citizens into a concentration camp of course, and especially as the almost unanimous verdict is that in case of war they will be quiet, very quiet.
As quoted in Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 66
When I taught this material at Washington State University in the 1990s, students would often insist that only late twentieth century liberal critics of the Internment Camps would use the term concentration camps. The textual evidence of the time reveals that concentration camps was the term used prior to Pearl Harbor. Only after the the declaration of war and the firing up of the government's propaganda machine did the term "relocation centers" come into use. Later, these camps were named "internment camps" to distinguish US actions from those of Nazi Germany.

01 October 2015

Richard Slotkin on Guns and Violence

Another school shooting today raises anew why these tragedies occur with growing frequency in the United States. Richard Slotkin spent his career researching violence in American culture. His discussion with Bill Moyers in December 2013 is worth viewing. Segment: Richard Slotkin on Guns and Violence | Moyers Company |

18 January 2015

12 December 2014

History as Science

Reading the important introduction to Hayden White's Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), I am struck by White's lucidity. I do not recall a clearer explanation of why history is not a science.
[H]istory differs from the sciences precisely because historians disagree, not only over what are the laws of social causation that they might invoke to explain a given sequence of events, but also over the question of the form that a "scientific" explanation ought to take. There is a long history of dispute over whether natural scientific and historical explanations must have the same formal characteristics. This dispute turns on the problem of whether the kinds of laws that might be invoked in scientific explanations have their counterparts in the realm of the so-called human or spiritual sciences, such as sociology and history. The physical sciences appear to progress by virtue of the agreements, reached from time to time among members of the established communities of scientists, regarding what will count as a scientific problem, the form that a scientific explanation must take, and the kinds of data that will be permitted to count as evidence in a properly scientific account of reality. Among historians no such agreement exists, or ever has existed. ... [H]istorical explanations are bound to be based on different metahistorical presuppositions about the nature of the historical field, presuppositions that generate different conceptions of the kind of explanations that can be used in historiographical analysis.
White, Metahistory, 12-13. 
The assertion, "[t]here is a long history of dispute...", catches my eye, however. White offers here a proof that settles the question of the unsettled matter of historical method and narrative. How is it possible to make such an assertion without taking sides in the dispute under investigation?

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