OxBlog

Friday, April 07, 2006

# Posted 7:06 AM by Patrick Porter  

HISTORY AND MORAL VANITY: Jonathan Yardley warns against moral vanity in the writing of history. Some historians of race, he claims, use their own self-awareness and embarassment about their ancestors' racism as a device, with which they parade their own virtue:

In certain precincts occupied by certain members of the American intelligentsia, it has for some time been quite the fashion to ferret out racists in one's familial woodpile and then to write books about them. The ostensible purpose of these books is to provide intimate, confessional evidence of the degree to which racial prejudice has infiltrated every conceivable corner of American life. Their obvious if unstated purpose is to show how the (white) author has triumphed over his or her sordid ancestral inheritance to become a person of impeccable credentials on matters racial. Though all due modesty and claims of imperfection are expressed, the reader is expected to stand and cheer as, at book's end, the author's heroic achievement is revealed in full.
In the writing of history, being conscious of one's own prejudices and perspective is a necessary part of trying for objectivity (I still think that's what historians should do, despite the brilliant minds that have challenged whether it is possible or desirable). At the same time, self-reflexivity can degenerate into self-indulgence. The history becomes a thinly-disguised meditation on the historians own superior values:

Everything is me, me, me. Carr fusses over "what it would mean for me to truly witness, to truly own the history of my family and my Marion, and to take in the impact racism had had," and then, after splitting those infinitives, she bleats: "If I encountered something uncomfortable, I would have to stay with the discomfort. No guilt-tripping. No distancing." Like too many other journalists writing books these days, Carr is under the impression that how she got her story and how she feels about it are more interesting (and, implicitly, more important) than the story itself. She could not be more wrong.
The historian of class, E.P. Thompson, once warned against the 'enormous condescension of posterity.' That might include using history crudely to validate ourselves as higher beings than our ancestors. But it also has a flip-side, the antiquarian impulse to use history to delegitimise every aspect of the present by idolising our forbears. Quite a tough thing, history writing.
(10) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments:
These classes can be found under "Adult Education" or "Continuing Education" in the college catalog. They're relatively inexpensive and generally take eight to ten weeks to complete (meeting one or two nights a week). While they're by no means comprehensive in scope, they will give you the necessary knowledge to make intelligent decisions when the time comes. Yo check out www.mikescasinoblog.com and also www.mikesringtoneBlog.com and www.mikesnewsblog.com
 
Aussies defending Southerners; what a wonderful world. This blog was useful before this bloke Porter came around.
 
Aussies are Southerners, just much further to the south. And while I remain agnostic as to whether this blog was ever useful, I think that Mr. Porter's presence has added considerable value.
 
Good use of agnostic.
 
You're quite right; this chap Adesnik is pretty useless as well:

http://www.danieldrezner.com/archives/000759.html


Can someone remind these pointless anglophiles that there's a reason why Britian lost the Empire: They stick up for each other a bit too much. Something about buggering...
 
Hey Anonymous,

I'm sorry you think I was defending 'Southeners' in my post, if you are using the term 'Southeners' as a slightly crass shorthand for'racists'. (Although I would actually defend many Southeners).

The point of my post was to warn against the writing of history as an exercise in crude moral vanity - eg 'hey look everyone, my grandpa had primitive attitudes, and compare that to my impeccable progressive credentials.' It makes boring reading, it wrongly implies that the people of 2006 have reached the summit of enlightenment, and it turns history into a puppet show of goodies and baddies.
 
"these pointless anglophiles"

Those Irish, Australian, and American Jews are at it again with their being shills for England!!!!!
 
Yes we Aussies are notorious shills for England, even during Rugby Tests and years when the Ashes are at stake.

Ox-blog, serving the needs of illiterate and point-missing blog-readers since 2002.
 
At the risk of returning to the point, this approach to writing history owes a lot to the influence of postmodernism. Here's an example from an otherwise excellent book by Jon Lawrence called "Speaking for the People":
'The account which follows ... is partial, not simply because the subject is so vast and multifaceted ... but because it has been written by a "situated author". My efforts to make sense of the stories I have been told about my own past, and about the lives of my parents and grandparents, have necessarily influenced the ways in which I have thought about the past as a professional historian - so too have the stories I have told myself to give shape and meaning to my experiences. Rather than deny this interaction between making the self and making history I wish to celebrate it. Historical inquiry should emerge out of critical engagement with the "myths we live by"'.
There follows an interminable narration of his personal background ("and then I moved to Cambridge, which was quite different to Liverpool...zzzzzz").
It's not clear how this biographical breast-beating actually helps anyone: the statement that a historian is 'historically situated' is rather inane, while the historian is either able to liberate him or herself from these influences (in which case why describe them) or they are not (in which case they CANNOT accurately describe them).
 
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