History as “An Aggressive Act”

Inside an Underwood typewriter
And yes, I would love to write on an Underwood typewriter – Creative Commons (Kolossos)

The few times I’ve daydreamed about having another career, I’ve almost always imagined myself a journalist. It’s maybe not much of a stretch for a historian. Journalists, after all, are writing the “first draft of history.” But if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m really only interested in a particular sort of journalism, one that may seem less than serious and is certainly far afield from what I do in the academy: sportswriting.

We needn’t dig too deeply into my idle imaginings, but that daydream might explain why I was so interested in a Grantland article written earlier this year by Bryan Curtis, on former basketball star Charles Barkley’s stated disdain for analytics.

Curtis concluded that Barkley and other players aren’t really upset about advanced statistics… unless such data are used by sportswriters to criticize them. Curtis interpreted Barkley’s comments as part of a new variation on an old conflict: the one that “pits media versus athletes in a battle over who gets to tell the story of basketball.”

One thing that’s hard for sportswriters to understand is that writing an article is by its nature an aggressive act. Every time we write, we are claiming a piece of the game for ourselves: I understand this in a way that you, the athlete, do not. This is no less true of the guy who uses sabermetrics than it was of the guy who sat in a drafty press box, pulled Camels out of his wide-lapelled sports coat, and used two fingers to peck away on his Underwood.

This is honest work. Even noble, in a certain light. But it’s also part of a power struggle.

I think much the same is true of what historians do, and I’m not sure we’re any more likely than our distant cousins in the media to admit it.

History, like the kind of writing Curtis describes, is not just the marshaling of data (quantitative or qualitative), but the interpretation of evidence to advance an argument. And, often, an argument about someone — their behavior, their decision making, even their character. In that sense, when historians write history, they are engaging in a potentially aggressive act, struggling with another person for power over the meaning of the past.

Now, Sir Charles — now a highly influential media member himself — can at least speak out against real or perceived mistreatment. Since the vast majority of us historians are writing about people who have passed on, the struggle for power tends to be one-sided. Unless there are family members, ideological or institutional heirs, or others with a vested interest in protecting a certain public image of our research subjects, all that restrains our exercise of interpretive power is a commitment to professional integrity (or our ability to rationalize or ignore transgressions of it) and the revisionism of scholars possessing new evidence or insights.

Fea, Green & Miller, eds., Confessing HistoryFor Beth Barton Schweiger, this is one of the main reasons that Christian historians inevitably struggle to love the neighbors they encounter in the past. Not only do we have to deal with fragmentary evidence that leave us with incomplete pictures of people, but

Limited knowledge of the dead is compounded by a second problem, that of the stunning imbalance of power between historian and subject. I can use the people I encounter in the archives without their consent for my own purposes, for my own pleasures, for my own professional gain. The dead languish without defense in my books; I can even silence them with their own words. My purposes may be honest. But what if they are not? And what if my honest purposes only end by disfiguring my subjects? How can they speak truthfully in my history? How can I be a neighbor to the dead in my books? (“Seeing Things: Knowledge and Love in History,” in Confessing History, ed. John Fea et al., pp. 61-62)

I wonder if this doesn’t help to explain the appeal of what Rick Kennedy calls “the new academic hagiography.” If no one else in the guild, Christian historians ought to be sensitive to the effects of sin on our professional labors. So are we drawn to the stories of people we admire (revere?) because we’re less likely to do them damage — by what we do, or what we leave undone — as we use their lives for our purposes, pleasures, and professional gain?

Conversely, does that risk a different abuse of power: that, with a voice that carries some degree of authority, we speak something less than the truth in love?

2 thoughts on “History as “An Aggressive Act”

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