The observation that the Trump era is a good time to be a historian is by now cliché. The routine yet outlandish lies that increasingly puncture public discourse; the proliferation of “fake news” and the appropriation by its makers of the label “fake news”; the appeal to “alternative facts” and the self-fulfilling prophecy of “post-truth” — all reveal anxiety about the possibility of truth, or at least accuracy, and about the boundaries between honest disagreement and cynical disingenuousness. Add to this the emergence of specifically historical questions, figures, events, and monuments — colonialism, slavery, the Civil War, their commemoration, and their historiographies — as foci of conflict, and the need for both historical knowledge and historical thinking in public discourse becomes obvious. It turns out, in short, that history matters. But the way that history is used matters, too.
A long time ago, in an academic world far, far away, C. Wright Mills coined the term “crackpot realism”. He used it to describe “a high-flying moral rhetoric… joined with an opportunist crawling among a great scatter of unfocused fears and demands.” In light of the ways history is now invoked in social and news media — most recently with respect to Confederate monuments, but more generally in reaction to critical and/or academic research on national pasts — we might adapt Mills’s term to describe a certain discursive strategy frequently deployed whenever critical historical attitudes threaten to reshape public discourse, public education, or public space. Let’s call it “crackpot historicism”. It unites an indignant invocation of capital-h “History” — or “the past”, “tradition”, “heritage”, “context”, etc. — with an undignified scrounging amid fears of what a genuine embrace of history, of knowledge of the past — everyone‘s past — might require.
The strategy is easiest to outline as a simple recipe. The steps are not always taken in the same order; where they appear depends on the rhetorical tone being struck and the style and format of the engagement. But no matter what the occasion or the issue, the same three components are always somewhere in the mix.
The first step is a double invocation of History as both common property and sui generis. Like an entailed estate or family heirloom, it is ours, and yet not ours; as in a museum, we may look but not touch. The invocation often echoes L. P. Hartley’s famous opening line in The Go-Between, in which the narrator exoticizes his own youth: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” By asserting the past as our heritage while placing it in another moral universe, this act of conjuration yokes us to a History beyond our jurisdiction — dismissing out of hand any historical research or argument that can be presented, however speciously, as an anachronistic “judgment” of past figures or actions. We won’t judge our forefathers! They lived in a different time!
By contrast with the clamorous self-seriousness of the first, the second step is a quiet omission, seemingly passive, even unwitting — yet vigorously defended when pointed out! The better to sustain its image as an alien monolith, History is smoothed, polished, made uniform — put in uniform, perhaps. All trace of dissonance and dissent over the values that make up history’s axiomatic foreignness; all possibility of alternative histories, or alternative figures to carve in stone; all sense of Historical Figures as having lived in worlds they did not make or define or command or agree with — and that did not agree with them; all this is hidden, denied, removed, forgotten, unlearned. Southern history is the history of slaveowners; Canadian history is the history of European settlers; history before 1900 is the history of racists; and so on. No one was PC back then! Slavery was the rule!
The result of these steps, by inevitable coincidence, is a past that exactly matches the narrative perceived by the crackpot historicist to be in danger, whether from crowd action or scholarly research. It is made up of heroes, founders, and forefathers, with their necessary foils; great men, white men, leaders of men, owners of men. If these are the spokesmen of History, the final step is to make the maxim of their action the rule of our analysis. Their deeds are unquestionable not even though but precisely because we now find them repugnant. To think otherwise is to be “anti-history”, to be ignorant of context, to indulge in anachronism and PC fascism. But to understand the past is to adopt the great man’s point of view — to judge him only as he judged himself. Ultimately, the very fact that he doesn’t fit our world places beyond doubt, and beyond revision, his place in it. For who are we to question the history he gave us?
Like the crackpot realist, the crackpot historicist ignores fundamental aspects of what he (or, less often, she) claims to be most concerned with: the past. He confuses the small and ephemeral with the large and essential, the portrait with the subject. Particular views of favourite figures as enshrined in later textbooks, statues mass-produced decades after the events they purport to record, plaques on a department store wall — put there for the most blatantly partisan purposes — these are equated with History, their removal with its erasure. For the crackpot historicist, History is a colossus in papier-mâché, Truth borne by trinkets, etched in stone and yet threatened with annihilation by the next book or protest he dislikes. The past as it was lived and the people who lived in it are of interest only as dressing for the display-window or props for the parade of History’s Makers.
Beyond that, the histories of the non-great or non-white, the victims, the dissenters, and the critics, the endlessly complicated mass of people who populated the past — and, by extension, the people who study, explore, or adopt (hermeneutically or otherwise) their ideas, actions, or points of view — are dismissed as a distraction, the bastard child of history and theory, history and political correctness, history and progressivism, history and identity politics, and so on. They cannot, for the crackpot, simply be history. But in fact they are a threat precisely because history is just what they are. Their looming presence, in the academy as on the street, hints unnervingly that timelines and canons can change and the Makers of History — our ancestors, our History — become lesser characters in the histories of others long on the margins. This “history” is a betrayal of History because it risks a change of subject. The crackpot fears it.
 C. Wright Mills, The Causes of World War III (New York: Ballantine Books, 1960), 86.
 In a Twitter thread on this I preferred “crackpot historical contextualism”, with more pseudo-intellectual variants of the phenomenon in mind. Since the moves are the same whether the appeal is to “context”, “heritage”, or “history”, however, “crackpot historicism” seems fittingly capacious.
6 thoughts on “Crackpot Historicism”
Great read. I do hope many of your current and former students (like myself) take the time to check out your blog.
Thanks a lot! That’s very kind.
The rhetoric focusing on “history” is a red herring. No one can seriously make the claim the 600 destroyed villages of Palestine after 1948 and rebuilt as as Israeli settlements erased the “history” of these places but undoubtedly it destroyed the heritage of it’s former occupants. The names, the physical evidence they once stood and lived in are gone and cannot be regained. Built heritage is a part of self determined cultural identity, and the notion we should by principle make unilateral decisions on how the Other formulates and practices their own heritage as a matter of ones own righteousness is a dangerous one. A lot of westerners cheered when after Maidan Ukrainians tore down statues of Lenin, they didn’t care and think it might present problems when this was part of an wider attack on the cultural and language rights of the ethnic Russian minority living in Ukraine (themselves a handy scapegoat for the real geopolitical pressure from the Russian state). So whenever simmering relations did boil over, we had the same hand ringing we always see when the reality is the violence in the Donbas started with the violence of opposing mobs trying to tear down the Other’s valued icons. I imagine if it started again tomorrow, the same people would be championing these actions without consideration as to the effects
“the notion we should by principle make unilateral decisions on how the Other formulates and practices their own heritage as a matter of ones own righteousness is a dangerous one.”
The agents and mechanisms by which these decisions have been made have hardly been uniform across the various cases of removal, even within the limited set of Confederate statues/plaques. The appeal to “history” has, by contrast, been broadly and summarily applied to condemn or discredit them, generally without regard to the specifics of any given case. The latter, not the former, was my subject. So as far as that goes, “unilateral righteousness” is the red herring here.
If the Daughters of the Confederacy seek to promote their pseudo-history by putting up a plaque to Jefferson Davis in Montreal in 1957, whose “self determined cultural identity” is at stake, exactly, in the preservation of that “built heritage”? We are dealing here with the aftermath of decades-long propaganda campaigns for white supremacy, not with the destruction of living people’s homes. The idea that some slippery slope leads from accepting one to enjoining the other depends on accepting an utterly and obviously false equivalency between the two.
However the polemics of the discussion has been presented with the same notable simplicity and thus boiled down to a matter of “morel” values. It is simple to use 20th century examples in non confederate states with spurious claims of “legitimacy”. However these are the only examples presented. Yet even immediate post-war examples funded and locally erected by the families of lost ones are not considered within their context (http://www.wtvy.com/content/news/441010333.html), or if they are their motives were also carte blanche inherently illegitimate by our present particular standards, their suffering, loss and need to remember can never be viewed as legitimate when it was also in the service of an ideological foe. If the local descendants of such an example are asked to wholeheartedly condemn such markers of their lived in space as “decades-long propaganda campaigns for white supremacy” by outsiders and absolutely nothing else what pray tell are they expected of thinking about their own intimate heritage?
Ulysses S. Grant himself the popular notion the defeated foe should be humiliated with Yankee punishment, upheaval and purge;
“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.” – Ulysses S. Grant
The issue regarding the legacy of white supremacy remains a very difficult one but it is undoubted the reconciliation process would never have been as fruitful as it was. In terms of civil wars; which blight the politics of many troubled and divided states today, this is no small achievement. And again I stress the lack of acknowledgement of any context which carries across all declarations of exercising one’s power over the Other. In a short period no victims of the Nakba will be alive and nothing will stand in evidence of their occupation, so why should their descendants care of this pain when it is just “history” to them and nothing awaits them of this now foreign place should they be allowed to go there? Why should anyone care about the loss of the Buddhas of Bamiyan when most Afghans are now Muslim, how could their “cultural heritage” be argued when their existence were in fact idolatrous to the faith of those actually living in their shadow? Destroying them didn’t destroy their history, whether anything of value was lost probably differs vastly compared to non-Afghans. Why should there be a false equivalency with what happened in Ukraine, they were tearing down the symbols of Russian imperialism that have long subjected their nation, it can only be a great and glorious thing can it not?
Again, what white supremacists are to make of their heritage is not my concern here. How people feel about monuments generally is also not my concern here. My concern is with how history is invoked and construed in these discussions. The example of the Jefferson Davis plaque in Montreal is highly pertinent precisely because “history” was invoked in exactly the same way in that ludicrous instance as it was with respect to monuments in Charlottesville and elsewhere, or to renaming college buildings, or to giving less time to Founding Fathers in textbooks — and more to other subjects.