The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past, Keith Windschuttle, Simon & Schuster, 1997, $25.00, 298 pp.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said,
in a rather scornful tone,
‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice,
‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
— Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Chapter 6
For most of the past 2,400 years, Europeans have understood history much as the Greeks did: as an effort to understand what really happened. We have taken for granted their pioneering insight that history should not be myth or fairy tale but — to the greatest extent possible — the truth. Now, according to the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, a powerful new movement is undermining the very foundations of the academic discipline of history. Known by such names as “postmodernism,” “deconstructionism,” or “universal history,” the new intellectual fashion holds that since the past is unknowable, history is no more real than fiction — that what used to pass for history was nothing more than the expression of the unconscious biases of historians.
According to Mr. Windschuttle, this way of thinking is now rampaging through virtually every history department in the English-speaking world, discrediting the traditional, fact-based view of history and the die-hards who still practice it. It is Mr. Windschuttle’s fear — reflected in the title of his book — that current thinking could completely transform and falsify the way we understand the past. The Killing of History is a description of what is happening in history departments and a stinging critique of the thinking that drives it.
Although Mr. Windschuttle only touches on this, the destruction of history is a central element in the destruction of the thinking, culture, and people of the West. First elaborated and disseminated by whites who hate their own intellectual traditions, this new “history” is a powerful weapon in the hands of anyone whose only interest is the exercise of power in the name of his own group.
French Mumbo Jumbo
For those outside the university, it is difficult to imagine that the queen of the humanities could be dethroned. Nevertheless, Mr. Windschuttle cites this 1991 description of a compulsory honors seminar in history:
The old-fashioned concept of the historian’s task was that he (rarely she) “described what really happened in the past.’ This notion, though still widely held, has been exploded by theoretical developments which have occurred largely outside the field of history itself. The work of social philosophers, anthropologists, linguists, scientists, political, literary and feminist theorists, have, from a variety of directions and with increasing momentum, exploded the old concept of history.
This was a seminar at the University of Sydney, but Mr. Windschuttle assures us it could have been anywhere in America, England or Canada.
What are these “theoretical developments” that have “exploded” history? Mr. Windschuttle has studied them carefully and makes a manful go of trying to explain them, but as he points out, they are almost deliberately opaque. The founding fathers are all French — people like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Pierre Bourdieu — and take pride in writing impenetrable prose. Prof. Derrida, one of the original high priests, has even said that clear writing is the sign of a reactionary. Mr. Windschuttle notes that there are plenty of books written about “postmodernism” and “post-structuralism” but the authors have learned from their masters only too well: “most [such books] leave the uninitiated reader more confused than when he or she started.” Mr. Windschuttle’s own account leaves the reader with little appetite for the details of which Frenchman thinks what, but the confusing and often contradictory essentials can be more or less summarized as follows:
First of all, facts are fundamentally unknowable. Partly, this is because we describe the world with words, and words never fully convey reality. Also, we are all so thoroughly imprisoned by our own experiences and expectations that when we describe what we think are facts we are describing our own prejudices. This is especially true for historical writing, since the historian may be writing about a period or people completely alien to him. Ultimately, therefore, history is no different from fiction, so literary critics can analyze a history book just as they do a novel. This sounds crazy, but Mr. Windschuttle says this approach is sweeping the academy.
One especially fashionable critical technique from literature is “deconstructionism.” The idea is to “demystify” a text and explain what the author unconsciously meant. Experts claim to be able to show how an author was limited by the preconceptions of his age. Since we do not discover the truth — only invent it — the trick is to unmask the unconscious inventions of others.
Literature types are also keen on overarching theory or “meta-narrative.” They claim to have worked up theories that explain all of literature, and are busy with theories that will explain all of history. Facts, to the extent that they are even knowable, are of no interest unless they fit the theory. (Karl Marx’ view — that class struggle and dialectical materialism explain everything — is the best known theory of history; Mr. Windschuttle does not explain what theories the literary critics are cooking up.)
The newfangled history is also “postcolonial.” History used to be written by European colonial masters but should now be written by liberated native people, or at least from their point of view. The idea of “the other” is central to this, the other being the wise native whom the colonial bureaucrat misunderstood and therefore despised. These days, all sorts are claiming to be “the other”: women, homosexuals, criminals, the insane, etc. Traditional history is supposed to have been written to justify existing power structures but now “others” are providing the more truthful perspectives that dead white males tried to suppress.
Finally, no culture, knowledge, or point of view is absolute. No one may criticize anyone else’s myths, histories, or “ways of knowing.” What is true depends on who is saying what to whom.
Mr. Windschuttle offers more than this, but this is more than enough — mysteries already abound. If historians are blinkered by their own prejudices, why aren’t the poststructuralists equally blinkered? “We are,” some of them cheerfully reply, and do not claim that their “histories” are any different from fictions. But then how are we to choose between competing versions of the past (or present)? Mr. Windschuttle quotes a feminist historian who appears to be a follower of Humpty Dumpty: “Knowledge is entirely an effect of power, … we can no longer have any concept of truth at all.” History is on the side with the big battalions.
Another problem is that when “poststructuralists” piously claim that no judgments can be passed because all cultures are equal and cannot be criticized, they are simply lying. They prohibit criticism only of non-whites. As Mr. Windschuttle points out, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America turned into an orgy of judgment-passing: “In book after book … the whole process of European discovery and settlement was denounced by academics as one of the greatest calamities to have befallen not only the native Americans but the human species as a whole and, indeed, the planet itself.” Mr. Windschuttle notes that historians have been seized with a “fervour to adopt a politically correct stance against their own society.”
Likewise, only whites are excluded from the view that there are many differing truths validly held by different cultural groups. Historians can now win debates, not by pointing out that someone got the facts wrong (no one much cares about them anymore), but by unmasking the white, phallocratic character of an opponent’s thinking. The stone-age, head-hunting character of a New Guinean’s thinking is, of course, not a defect.
Occasionally someone asks the all-cultures-are-equal school to justify societies that practice human sacrifice or cannibalism. No problem. Once these traditions are understood in proper cultural context, it is clear that they are not nearly so bad as plenty of things white people have been doing for centuries.
Perhaps the purest expression of relativism — held, apparently, by only a hardy few — is to claim that science itself is just another white man’s prejudice and is no more valid than voodoo or witch doctoring. Mr. Windschuttle has actually dug up a Professor Paul Feyerabend at Berkeley who claims that the “knowledge” of necromancers and haruspices is as valid as that of geologists.
Not a Joke
All this ought to be a huge joke but, alas, it is not. A school district in California has reportedly been demanding text books that contradict the general consensus that American Indians crossed a land bridge from Asia during the last Ice Age. According to the Indians ’ own myths they have been here much longer; how dare archaeologists claim to know better? Likewise, the Aborigines say they sprang from the soil of Australia, so we are now supposed to ignore the clear evidence that they migrated from the Indonesian archipelago.
Misappropriations of history for political purposes are routine. Some of the questions raised elsewhere in this issue of AR are whether Martin Luther King was a womanizer, plagiarist, and communist sympathizer, and whether the African who led the Amistad rebellion became a slave trader after he was freed. According to contemporary historiography, the facts can’t be known and even if they could they wouldn’t matter. Such so-called facts are subsumed in the “meta-narrative” of white wickedness and black virtue. To raise these questions does not illuminate the past; it only reveals the prejudices of the white males who write for AR.
The notion that facts merely serve theory has found ready acceptance outside the university. Whenever a notorious “hate crime” is shown to be a hoax, someone is bound to tell us that the so-called facts do not matter; even a phony “hate crime” properly highlights the sufferings of non-whites at the hands of whites. The 1987 Tawana Brawley hoax flushed out many an amateur “poststructuralist,” as did black college student Sabrina Collins’ 1990 claim that her Emory University dorm room had been vandalized. Needless to say, goose and gander get different sauces. Incantations about the unknowability of the past may never be mumbled over the memory of slavery or the Wounded Knee massacre.
What is looming in history departments is not just a disaster for scholarship. It would be a tragedy if the ancient practice of accumulating and evaluating evidence were abandoned; history as we know it would cease to be written. But this is much more than an academic question. As Humpty Dumpty and the feminists are brazen enough to admit, to jettison any pretense to objectivity is to make a naked grab for power. If stylish barbarians really do manage to destroy history, the past will belong to whichever mob shouts the loudest — and the mob will find in the past innumerable crimes for which its enemies in the present must be punished.