Not long ago, somebody tried to post a comment to this article, one of several I’ve written about “fake history,” which inevitably attracts angry axe-grinders. This particular comment–I didn’t approve it, of course–denied the existence of the Armenian genocide of 1915, and also obliquely denied the Holocaust, a prima facie racist position. This kind of thing is sadly pretty common when you run a history blog, but I noticed this comment employed an argument I’ve often seen before: an attempt to induce shame (in me) by saying something to the effect of, “And you call yourself a historian?” The argument is supposedly that, by not believing (or, in this case, disbelieving), a particular assertion about history, I have obviously fallen below some basic threshold of competence of the profession. In fact, this person attempted to lecture me about what historians do and what historical methods they use. It was wrong, of course, but it illustrated a disturbing trend that unfortunately I think is on the increase: a general misunderstanding and contempt for the historical process, what historians do and how they work.
I will categorically state that I have never heard the admonishment, “And you call yourself a historian?” from any person other than a purveyor of pseudohistory or some kind of patent falsehood about history. In fact, when I’m criticized for my supposed lack of historical competence, it usually comes in the same breath with an assertion that is demonstrably false and ridiculous: the idea, for instance, that Hitler was a leftist; that the Nanking massacre of 1937 did not really happen; or that the Crusades were provoked by Muslim aggression against Western Europe. A real historian has never questioned my competence based on genuine and reasonable agreement with historical analysis. I have a Ph.D. in history, specifically environmental history. Curiously, the only people who have ever questioned whether I deserve it are drive-by commenters on the Internet, usually racists or right-wing ideologues who are usually trying to advance some nationalistic or racialized distortion of history.
These are Armenian victims of the genocide carried out against their ethnic group by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. Events like genocides are often questioned by people wanting to distort history for racial or nationalist objectives.
But it’s true that a lot of people really are mistaken about what historians do and how they do their work. I specifically recall a bizarre fracas in the press from the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination race, where Ben Carson asserted that the Egyptian pyramids were not tombs and monuments, as historians and archaeologists have proved them to be, but actually silos for the storage of grain. This wasn’t what struck me–Ben Carson, though a trained neurosurgeon, has said some really bizarre things over the years–but something else that only got reported in a few places. Ben Carson evidently believes that the consensus among historians is that the pyramids were built by extraterrestrials. This was the proposition he was trying to disagree with when he got tongue-tied about grain silos. Of course the idea of “ancient aliens” is complete nonsense, and no historian really thinks that. (Giorgio Tsoukalos, the host of the ludicrous Ancient Aliens show on the History Channel, is not a historian. He has a bachelor’s degree in communication).
Although Ben Carson’s beliefs are extreme and bizarre, his misconception of what historians do and how they reach consensus is sadly not uncommon. Far and away the number one misunderstanding of the historical process that people have is that historians are both intellectually lazy and remarkably credulous: that if an assertion appears in a book, anywhere, written by anyone, they will treat it as settled fact. Everyone who has ever used the “And you call yourself a historian?” insult on me has criticized my supposed reliance (or “brainwashing”) upon sources or narratives that the critic deems to be untrustworthy. But this argument is pure projection. The critic is always himself/herself relying upon a particular source or narrative that he or she believes absolutely, and is frustrated or incredulous that I don’t give it the same credence. This kind of double-think reveals a lack of understanding of how historical information is evaluated and processed.
Sorry, Dr. Carson. The pyramids were not grain silos, and they weren’t built by aliens. They were tombs. Just accept it.
Let’s take an example: the “Lost Cause” myth of the Southern Confederacy during the Civil War. This is the notion that the South fought the Civil War for primarily noble objectives, that the war was not really about slavery, and that the North was especially brutal and cruel in destroying white Southerners’ way of life. The Lost Cause myth is the primary engine of the racist depiction of the war and Reconstruction in the famous novel (and film) Gone With The Wind. While primarily a literary and cultural movement, the Lost Cause did find its way into historical scholarship particularly in the early 20th century. History was written this way to justify Black Codes and other racial oppressions of that period, and it’s how, for example, we got many of the statues of Confederate generals in public places that have recently been in the news.
Other historians, however, have been fighting back against this mythologizing of history for over 50 years. In scholarship about the antebellum period, the Civil War and Reconstruction, historians like Steven E. Woodworth, Barbara Fields and Brooks D. Simpson have spent their careers studying primary source documents and highlighting narratives of the period that have often been minimized in traditional retellings of the war and Reconstruction. Many historians, now focusing on the African-American experience, have in recent decades been fleshing out the true dimensions of slavery and how it truly underpinned not merely the antebellum South, but the North too. They do this by scrutinizing primary source documents, from diaries and letters in old archives to archaeological and environmental evidence, for example, the remains of slave quarters at Jefferson’s Monticello plantation or the graves of people who died in the New York City slave rebellion of 1741. Far from simply parroting something someone says in a book, historians are out there in the trenches trying to gain new insights into the past from the evidence left behind by the people who were really there. This kind of historical process doesn’t appear on the Internet very often.
Though a cinema classic, the 1939 blockbuster Gone With The Wind is a racist film. Its unacceptable ideology epitomizes the “Lost Cause” mythology about the antebellum and Civil War South.
The true doing of history is also obscured, particularly in the U.S., by anti-intellectualism. Millions of people instinctively chafe at being talked-down to by “elites,” and historians, with their fancy degrees and offices behind the ivy-covered walls of universities, are the ultimate elites. There’s an almost primal need to see these people proven wrong, which is why Giorgio Tsouaklos with his degree in communications and no historical training can get on TV blathering idiotic nonsense about ancient aliens. People will pay to see that, but James M. McPherson’s careful scholarship on the political objectives of the Civil War–not so much. Anti-intellectualism is a trend that has given us an abnormally unintelligent and dangerously incurious President, as well as resulted in the decline of public funding for the arts and humanities across the board. It’s a highly dangerous trend that needs to be reversed.
In short, I do call myself a historian, because I am one. I have two degrees in history, a historical podcast, and I’m writing a history book; I have taught history at the college level many times and have gone into archives to study primary source documents numerous times. I require no lectures from Internet drive-by commenters on what historical processes are and how to conduct historical analysis. I will continue to defend what I and other historians do, because it’s vitally important to society. That is one of the baseline values of this blog. If you disagree with that value, unsubscribe now and go watch Ancient Aliens, but don’t expect to get any real history.