History is political

There is a conflict bubbling between professional and amateur historians over directly addressing current social issues when talking about history. On one side, people who enjoy hearing about topics like the ins and outs of the Roman Empire claim that there is an unbiased way to present history, without judgement from the present. On the other side, people who write the stories of these topics claim that it’s important to understand the complexity of the past and that all history is biased. I’m not going to make any pretense toward a both sides argument here. History is biased and political, and everyone needs to know that.

When I say that history is political, I don’t mean it quite in the same way that the social revolutions of the ’60s and ’70s adopted the concept of “the personal is political“, and by extension, our current social conflicts have come to be heavily politicized. In that realm, daily experiences are made to have political weight because they become representative of otherwise nebulous societal structures and norms – the point is to draw attention to the ways that these seemingly benign institutions affect lives at the most intimate levels, and to legitimize the experience of that phenomenon.

But the political nature of history is not an illustrative experience. Rather, history, or, more accurately, the narration of stories about the past, is necessarily colored by attitudes and issues from the time in which the story is told, rather than the time the story is about. Those attitudes and issues constitute politics. And they can’t be removed from the telling, because they are the reason the stories exist in the first place, and they are how we pick which subjects to tell stories about. It’s tempting to see this political nature of telling history like looking through tinted glasses – just point out the tint and remove the glasses. But the story is in the lenses, not on the other side of them. The tint is part of the telling, and it can’t be separated.

On a very basic level, the stories that we consider to be meaningful parts of history are determined by our present values. I often do an exercise with my students where I ask them whether what I had for breakfast is history, since it happened in the past. The initial answer is “no, what you had for breakfast isn’t important”, but the follow-up – why it’s not important – is key. As I explain to them, if I am a food historian (which maybe sometimes I am) or a food anthropologist, then, yes, what I had for breakfast is important, it is history. But if I adhere to the “traditional” definition of history, the military/political focus, then no one’s breakfast is ever that important (unless it was poisonous or somehow metaphorical).

But why are military and political issues the topics that are traditionally considered history, and other things, such as culture, seemingly recent additions? The short answer is that the field of history was developed as part of modern imperialism as a way to invent narratives of political dominance through military might. Cultural conquest was also part of this project, but it birthed the field of anthropology, and didn’t really make its way into history until the ’70s in the form of social history or the “cultural turn“.

It’s this relatively new cultural and social focus that many history buffs object to. Talking about race, gender, sexuality, and any aspects of artistic expression that didn’t have an expressly political purpose is apparently demeaning to the discipline of history, or, at the very least, boring. Unbiased history means going back to the narratives the dominated before the social turn. Which, for reference, is like saying that Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity bastardized Newtonian physics and should be retconned. The topics that we think of as acceptable history are typically those that the European upper classes were interested in around the 19th century – empire-building, military conquest, political intrigue, family structure and genealogy, and national origin stories. And the places where those stories could be told are also typically determined by those same “early” historians – modern European states or their direct medieval predecessors, ancient empires that contributed to modern European power structures like classical Greece and Rome, and any Asian or African state that was colonized by western Europe during that time or was the subject of direct political engagement. We study these things now because the people who came before us studied them. But they chose these topics very intentionally. They were the blueprints for conquest. The social turn wasn’t just about expanding the kinds of stories that can be told – it was about reevaluating the priorities established by imperialists and trying to move outside their framework. Because even in this old framework, there could still be a tremendous diversity in the kinds of histories told, but those histories were necessarily limited.

I’ve been aware of this relationship between what histories we study and what our present politics look like ever since I first started to think about why I became interested in medieval history in the first place. I thought it was almost a coincidence that when I was a young teenager my seventh grade history curriculum focused on medieval history and my school librarian pointed me to the concept of Convivencia for a term project. And that same year, I saw a performance by local dance company Ballet Hispanico (where I had taken dance lessons as a little kid) that represented notions of Convivencia. How lucky I was, I thought, to have been exposed to these concepts at such an early stage. But when I started to think about it, I realized that it wasn’t a coincidence at all that these topics surrounded me and would eventually come to be my areas of focus. My teachers and the local cultural scene in New York in the early 2000s were searching for ways of talking about the then-recent events of 9/11 and especially the cultural backlash of anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic sentiment that came with it. Convivencia was an easy notion to latch onto, a neat package for a message of coexistence. I didn’t end up studying these topics because I was exposed to them as a seventh-grader, but because I grew up with 9/11 as a formative experience – exactly the same reason the adults in my life were talking about them around that time. I didn’t turn to intercultural exchange in a vacuum, but because it had both meaning and availability to me as a topic in the time and place that I grew up. In that sense, history is both posing questions of the past and implicitly answering questions in the present.

Historians debate how much the present should influence our study of the past. As a pre-modernist (someone who studies a period before the 18th century), I am usually the first to hurl accusations of “presentism” at my colleagues. Presentism is the bias toward the present in the study of the past – the idea that the past always has to explain the present, and that the value in studying the past is in understanding the present or even predicting it. Apart from any philosophical argument about people and places simply having value by virtue of their existence that should not have to be justified by someone else’s priorities, the major flaw in a presentist perspective is that it encourages historians to disregard information that does not appear to fit with their view of the present. Alchemy is a great example of this – we have a very hard time understanding why someone who calls themselves a scientist would be interested in the seemingly impossible task of turning one substance into another. As a result, alchemy is considered a pseudo-science or an occult study. But historically, alchemy is the direct predecessor of chemistry – the methods, perspectives, and concepts developed through alchemy became the working tools of modern chemistry. So clearly there is value in alchemy to our understanding of modern science, even if it looks so antithetical to modern science. By extension, presentism obscures information that would be relevant even to a presentist. As a pre-modernist, I don’t really care whether alchemy is related to chemistry – I think the fact that people experimented with it at all is pretty interesting on its own. But if I want to tell the story of modern science, it’s an incomplete telling without alchemy. Moreover, if I just want to talk about pre-modern science, alchemy particularly strikes me precisely because it is so different from what I think of as science. My frame of reference in the present is the standard against which I understand the past, much like a native language is the reference point for all those speakers trying to acquire another one.

The view that there is an unbiased telling of history supposes that at some point in my study of the past I can become so familiar with another time period that I can divorce myself from my presentism entirely. Like gaining native fluency in a second language, I will stop having to translate in my head and will simply understand idiomatic expression without a thought. But context is a lot more fluid and moves more quickly than language. Whereas the languages we learn are relatively static, the present is constantly changing, and I as a person living today necessarily change with it. I know things today that I didn’t know yesterday, and I can’t stay ahead of that new knowledge to anticipate how it will inform my view of the past. By the time I have any perspective on my own biases, they themselves will be the past. And it’s not just me. There is no unbiased observer of the past. By virtue of being alive, we are informed by our present, whenever that may be.

But bias isn’t a dirty word. It’s not a smudge on our glasses. Imagine we are all onlookers, staring at a central pillar like the numbers on a clock face. Our angles from the central point are inherent biases. And let’s say we can hitch a ride on the hands of the clock as they come around – we can move forward to the next position, but we can’t go back. Even if we get to our starting position again, we will have missed the view from there during the time we were away. And even if we managed to get a higher vantage point off of the face of the clock and saw the whole thing from above, we still wouldn’t see the things we could see from the surface. Yes, the more vantage points we get the fuller our picture of the clock is, but time keeps moving, and we can never experience all of these viewpoints simultaneously. That is why history is political, that’s why it’s never unbiased – we’re on the clock, no matter where we’re standing.