The Wonder of Proof (thank you white males)

CASE 1: When David Irving brought his libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt, Deborah Lipstadt's lawyers hired the historian Richard J. Evans to examine David Irving's history books about Hitler and Dresden and World War II. In his examination, Evans and his assistants discovered that Irving had consistently misread, misinterpreted, misquoted and deliberately obscured the documentation upon which his books were supposedly based. Evans was able to do this because he traced back the many, many footnotes in Irving's books to the written documentation (letters, municipal documents) itself.

CASE 2: The Salem Witch trials were ended by the same culture in which they began. As the trials went on and on and more and more people were accused and hanged, Puritan ministers and lawyers began to speak their doubts. They believed in witches, but they weren't too keen on the methods by which witches were accused--namely, oral testimony. Where's the proof? they said. Where's the evidence? Eventually, these skeptics were heard, a new set of judges was appointed, and the trials ended.

I give these two cases to illustrate the importance of the academic, scholarly, educated concept of proof and secondly, the importance of written documentation. This is an ongoing argument in my master's program. This week, we read Henry Glassie. Henry Glassie has some interesting things to say but, as I foresaw, the statement that everyone fell on was not Glassie's call for historians to be vigorous, ongoing and dynamic in their scholarship but his statement that, heaven help us, histories are "either all history or all folk histories." That is, both academic history and oral history (or folk/myth history) string together narratives from the facts available. Ergo, they are the same, should be treated the same, and given the same weight.

I and one other student argued against this. I am not disputing that history (as it is told and taught) doesn't involve a narrative. Neither will I dispute, as one student pointed out, that oral histories (like academic histories) are both trying to be truthful, that both have checking systems, that both come out of particular cultures, that both change over time. Neither will I dispute that academic, written history--thank goodness--has more weight or power than oral history. What I did dispute was the expectations or process to which either is submitted. What I could not communicate (which is, frankly, why I'm trying to do it here) is that confusing the two does not, in the long term, aid either one.

If all histories are one then Irving's oral testimony of his own good intent bore as much weight, if not more, than his misuse of written documentation. The historians in that trial were only able to undermine Irving's claims because they could access written documentation that could be disputed, argued over, debated, re-interpreted and checked. This is almost impossible to do with oral testimony. One student argued that students are taught to take anything written as automatically true. I have a difficult time replying to people who say things like this, because I am afraid I will say something nasty like, "Well, stupid people do." Stupid people also believe anything that is said to them, simply because it is said. Good historians question what is written, who wrote it and why, just as any of us do about an oral tale. That doesn't undermine the superiority (historically) of a written text, which can be brought forward and studied, over oral testimony which morphs, through time, beyond recognition (the other student actually made this argument).

The fact is, if all histories are one, then the oral testimony of the accusers in Salem Witch trials had as much bearing as the requirement of proof. Vice versa--which no one seemed to realize--if all histories are one, then I have as much right to demand empirical proof from folk histories as I do from academic histories. If the standard is the same, then oral folk histories (which have, in general, a different purpose and standard from academic histories, despite the occasional similiarities) could be submitted to the same requirement of proof. I mention this because it is the latter demand (that folk histories submit themselves to rigorous scholarly approval) that upsets pro-oral history folks. But, by insisting that the one is as historically valid as the other, they are causing this confusion to take place. I am not declaring that oral histories and folktales are unimportant; I am myself a big fan of folktales, myth and faith-based theologies. But I don't demand, unlike the creationists, that faith-based theologies be submitted to the same standards of empirical and historical proof as science and history and, even, critical theory. In my mind, this preserves both from degredation. I also believe that the importance of empirical and historical proof can never be understated. We thrive as a culture because of it. Western civilization is very flawed and makes many mistakes; but it also progresses, improves and fixes itself due to the demand that one must have evidence, proof, written or artifact, that other people can see and discuss.

Otherwise, in the end, the only people who will win are the people whose political side (whether academic or oral) happens to be winning. (And frankly, I sometimes think that is all the relativists want: to win.) For instance, the requirement of proof (in America) arises out of a white, patriarchal, academic cultural mindset and that seems to be enough reason to despise it. Our class on Tuesday was filled with statements like, "All histories are cultural constructions." When I put forward the idea that yes, alright, every historian speaks out of a particular frame of mind so we need to study written histories over time, I was informed that past histories were written by white males. The impliciation was that such histories are too narrow to be of any worth.

If I thought this cavalier attitude towards proof/the past/written documentation and knowledge was in the ascendent, I would get really depressed. But I don't think it is. I've noticed in younger scholars a vague contempt for the relativism and self-importance of this "we can't really know anything" attitude. They know they can't be completely objective, but they aren't willing to abandon the idea of standards or of a canon--the idea that some books are better than others, that some histories are more accurate than others. They aren't willing to throw all power into the hands of the "nobody knows the truth" relativists, who want to dismiss the burden of proof as male, white, patriarchal and power-hungry. As Cynthia Ellter points out in her book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, feminists hurt themselves more than male culture when they promote an imaginary past not as lore (which would be acceptable by the standards of lore) but as a history (which is not acceptable by the standards of academe) that ought to be believed in as history. If that is the best feminists have to offer, and if they continue to insist that "good" feminists ought to accept this kind of relativist tryanny, I'll stick with patriarchy, thank you very much.


1 comment:

  1. So, i take it that your class didn't go well.....
    Anyway, I don't really have much of a comment. I think that while we do need to know the basics, truth is we WON'T ever know exactly what happened, and until the advent of the time machine or the ressurection there's not much we can do about it.
    Personally I'm waiting for the day we finally crack the collected unconscious... that would be a cool read.