Opinion as Historical Fact

30 01 2009

The problem with the elliptical trainer is that over the course of 50-60 minutes my mind starts to wander. Yesterday I had my iPod on and was watching CNN’s close-captioned coverage of the Illinois governor’s closing statement at his impeachment hearing – no, you can’t comment on the proceedings here, I’ll delete it. Afterwards, two CNN talking heads were discussing what was going on, when one said to the other that the reason the Governor chose to boycott all but this portion of the trial was that he could not be challenged in his closing statement. The other head said yes, that was exactly the reason.  Now, it might very well be the reason, but unless someone can point me to some statement by the Governor that such was his reasoning, this was nothing more than a guess.  This kind of stuff happens all the time in Civil War literature. Take for instance the opinion, long stated as fact, that McDowell’s advance on Manassas was slow due to a fear of masked batteries. Or that Oliver Otis Howard deliberately tried to sabotage the reputation of Abner Doubleday at Gettysburg (I wrote about it on Dmitri’s blog here and here). An article by a “big shot”  perpetuating that old saw compelled me to write a very long letter to the editor of a magazine criticizing the author-in-question’s practice of presenting opinion – in the case of Howard, completely unsupported opinion – as fact.  And also in that case, citing as support another of his own works in which he presented the same unsupported opinion as fact.

Damn that elliptical machine.

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9 responses

30 01 2009
cenantua

Harry,

If you don’t mind, I’m going to take this a bit further and see where it leads. Consider this “thinking out loud in an effort to come to some conclusion.”

I think most of us are of the same frame of mind that good historical practice is based on not presenting unsupported or weak opinions and that, not necessarily academic training, is a critical element in defining a quality historian.

I wonder if presenting opinion or theory in books and/or articles, even supported by facts, is actually a bad practice. The opinions and theories may work at that time because of the context of the moment (or that particular era), but on down the line, it is more than likely that they will not be interpreted the same way in another era. Let me say this another way… when historians present in print media, it might be of value at that time, but it seems that the same argument may be made obsolete at a later point. How many historical theories have been able to sustain the test of time? Haven’t they all been made obsolete or significantly tweaked/reconsidered with a different spin?

Robert

30 01 2009
Will Keene

Harry,

As you said, this stuff goes on all the time. It is accepted by editors and enabled by other historians. Such is the sad state of historical writing. I am despairing of the situation.

Will

30 01 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Will and Robert,

Thanks to you both for commenting. Will, I believe we’re on the same page here. Editorializing is something of which I try to be aware when I write – not so much that I don’t do it, but that when I do, it’s in the right place (that is, NOT in the Bull Run Resources section of this blog) and in the right way. The reader should know that I am offering opinion and on what I am basing that opinion.

So Robert, I think I disagree. I’ve written about traditional narrative history here before (most notably here). I think in that format – with those restrictions – opinion is pretty much what we pay for. Many historians will I’m sure argue that it is their job. And opinion is not always blatant. As I wrote before, even the documented facts in a narrative are collected, evaluated and selected by the narrator. But I think when opinion is given, it needs to be clearly identified as such, either in the body of the text or in the notes.

30 01 2009
Will Keene

Harry,

I agree. Analysis, theory, speculation, and opinion are essential elements of historical writing since there are always gaps in the evidence and choices that have to be made about what evidence to use. My concern is not with the mere presence of analysis, theory, speculation, and opinion; rather it is, like you, with the way these elements appear. Evidence should be accurately presented and cited; analysis should be logically described so the reader can follow how the author got from A to B; theory, speculation and opinion should be clearly identified as such and hopefully should be sensibly supported by evidence and analysis. But it seems all to common that these concepts are not followed.

30 01 2009
cenantua

Harry,

I’m in total agreement with the upfront disclosure of an opinion. Also, there is no doubt, the speculation and opinions keep historians in business as, I think, we can get rather bored reading DS Freeman over and over and over again. Still, how often do we end up paying for history reconsidered, not because of a lack of evidence in previous works, but through critical analysis that has been formed based on a particular contemporary mindset? I’m all for looking at the many angles of the cube and even from within the cube, but when does contemporary mindset impact the way we look critically at history? Would this not be considered something along the lines of serving an agenda?

30 01 2009
cenantua

Also, thought I should add… I hope you don’t mind me talking through this stuff as I am asking it more to find flaws in certain arguments for consideration in the thesis that I am now developing. Robert

30 01 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Will,

Good to see we’re watching the same game.

Robert,

Not a problem at all. As to reassessment and mindsets, I think we may have a chicken-egg issue. Our mindsets are influenced by a combination of new information, new perspectives, and old thesis/antithesis/synthesis chains. It’s a process. That’s why we can have new histories and perspectives on the Peloponesian War (though apparently not the various Punic Wars). Call it planned obsolescence. That’s one hell of a catch, that Catch-22! Check out this post.

I try to keep this all in mind as I build the Resources section – want still to be a pointing finger, but need to fight any urge to point in a preferred direction, if you know what I mean. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I tried to use it while proofing a manuscript recently – what makes the writer say “Genl. X now had no excuse not to advance?” What is his evidence that he was looking for excuses to not advance, or even that he did not want to advance? If this is the writer’s opinion, he should say so and why. But allusions have no place.

1 02 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Robert,

I ran across this quote today, and thought it ties to what you’re talking about. You probably know it, by some guy named Thucydides:


The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but I shall be content if it is judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it. My history has been composed to be an everlasting possession, not the showpiece of an hour.

2 02 2009
cenantua

That Thucydides… he always seems to know just the right things to say!

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