Daughter of Time: Research & History, Claims 4-7: Don't Bother Arguing with Politicians

Robert Shaw and Paul Scofield as Henry VIII
and Sir Thomas More from the excellent
1966 version of A Man for All Seasons
Source 5: The History of King Richard III by Sir Thomas More

Grant reads the "official" version of Richard III, The History of King Richard III by Sir Thomas More. He finds it less than helpful.

Claim 4: Sir Thomas More was not an eyewitness to Richard III's rise to power and subsequent death.

This is true.

Grant's revelatory moment regarding Sir Thomas More is worth quoting (mostly) in full:
Grant had switched off his bedside light that night, and was half asleep, when a voice in his mind said, "But Thomas More was Henry the Eighth." This brought him wide awake. He flicked the light on again. What the voice had meant, of course, was not that Thomas More and Henry the Eighth were one and the same person, but that, in that business of putting personalities into pigeon-holes according to reigns, Thomas More belonged to the reign of Henry the Eighth . . . How old was More when Richard succeeded? He was five . . . Everything in that history [by Sir Thomas More] was hearsay (emphasis added).
This is the kind of revelation that political students, not historians, get freaked out by: ohmygosh, all history is a lie! Grant is a detective, so he treats the matter like a detective:
And if there was one word that a policeman loathed more than another it was hearsay. Especially when applied to history. He was so disgusted that he flung the precious book on to the floor before he remembered that it was the property of a Public Library and his only by grace and for fourteen days.
Grant's insight leads him to Claim 5: More was biased in favor of the Tudors.

Grant does not actually use the word bias--thankfully. I personally dislike the word since it smacks of deliberate, conspiratorial deceit. "Bias" can be deliberate. Most of the time, however, the author simply has an invested interest, the term I use when teaching research. Tey points out that Thomas More was Henry VIII's Chancellor. Even though Henry VIII sent More to his death (eventually), More worked for Tudors, not Yorkists.

This title demonstrates the kind of
SHOCK I find irritating. See notes below*
When I teach research, I try to push my students to be skeptical without being cynical: to realize that every source has its own agenda or purpose but to not slide too far in the "ohmygosh, all history is lie!" direction (see caption to Loewen's book). There is nothing particularly notable about realizing that there is more to a story than the small bit one currently knows ("Ohmygosh, I was lied to in high school!") or that different eras emphasize different aspects of history. There is always more to learn, and there are always more sources to uncover. That doesn't make history "relative"--it simple makes historical research complicated.

Grant's disgust at Sir Thomas More doesn't lead him to conclude that the War of the Roses never happened. He leads him rather to Claim 6: The character of the writer does not automatically make his or her opinion accurate (likewise, someone's poor character doesn't make his or her opinion wrong). 

Grant reads The History of King Richard III because he was recommended the book by people who admire More as a man who died for his principles--therefore, anything he writes must be true.  Grant reflects:
The fact that Sir Thomas was a martyr and a Great Mind did not cut any ice at all with him, Alan Grant. He, Alan Grant, had known Great Minds so uncritical that they would believe a story that would make a con man blush for shame.
Grant and his soon-to-be-hired researcher will later argue Claim 7: Someone other than Sir Thomas wrote The History. I consider this final claim regarding More's book to be a mistake on Tey's part (although she isn't the originator of it). Claims 4, 5, and 6 are enough to bring The History into doubt (it is usually considered literature, not history, in any case; Tey's point is not that it isn't literature but that it shouldn't be used as history). Trying to protect More's reputation by putting the book at  someone else's door is unnecessary.

My position: Ignore This Kind of Thing
However, Tey's first three claims here are completely valid and they count on both sides of the equation. That is, Tey uses them to demolish intellectual hoity-toityness but they can be used to demolish popularity-based or politicized history and science as well. Whenever I'm sitting in a meeting where people start throwing their pet experts at each other to support their pet political positions, Tey is whom I think of--no matter what that position is from the evils of GMOs to the evils of gays to the evils of fundamentalists to the evils of the NRA (or not) to the evils of Healthcare reform (its messy and stupid, not evil) to the evils of the Tea Party to the evils of evolution to the evils of creationism, blah blah blah blah blah.

"My expert is really smart," one political advocate yells at the other, "and everybody agrees with my expert-- even the press says so--and we can totally see it happening in these selective news reports that I got from my favorite radio or television pundit--and if don't believe me, the world will fall apart tomorrow--I'm the ultimate Chicken Little, and the sky is falling. Listen to me!!"

Ignore them all. Grant and his soon-to-be-hired researcher will start over their research of Richard III with primary evidence (more posts to follow) because Tey is right: if you aren't sure which expert to trust, then figure out where the experts are coming from, don't leap on the bandwagon of the person with the loudest voice and weepiest cause.

*Loewen's title demonstrates the kind of SHOCK I find irritating. It would be more accurate to write, "Half-truths my teachers taught me because like all people, including me, they have their own opinions." Or "inaccurate and incomplete information my teacher passed on due to lack of time." The idea that high school teachers are either deliberately teaching untruths or too stupid to teach the truth is a logical fallacy and does not prepare students for the ordinary and normal (mis)uses of information that occur in a democratic society with a free press.

Learn to discern, not to blame.

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