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History in the News: How Pundits Pretend to be Historians

November 25, 2013

Louis Gentilucci ’15

An effective tool in political campaigns is the reference to, and reverence of history. You will be warned that “this has happened before,” and that “history repeats itself.” While it is true that history can provide great insight into modern problems, this insight rarely follows such remarks.

History does not repeat itself: it doesn’t. You will never, in the history of humanity -past and present- find two separate moments that are truly identical. You cannot do it. It is impossible.

Case in point: a number of commentators have compared Obama’s Syria policy to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. One commentator in particular caught my attention. Below is a link to the program ‘AFTERBURNER W/ BILL WHITTLE: Umbrella Men: Neville Chamberlain and Barrack Obama’, which I will be talking about’

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQtJVjVtVLM

Go ahead, watch it. I’ll wait.

In his show, Bill Wittle slowly builds a case for the comparison of President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Neville Chanmberlain circa 1939. Citing Winston Churchill’s autobiographies, Wittle explains how Chamberlain, and those like him, thought that personal charm and charisma could overcome the machinations of men like Hitler. He expounds the moral weakness of men like Chamberlain for failing to stand up to the evil staring them in the face. Finally, the commentator draws the comparison of Chamberlain to Nazi Germany, leaving the viewer to decide the case, as if there was any doubt.

Here is what I, as a history student, found difficult to accept about his analysis:

His sources. There is only one source cited: Winston Churchill’s autobiographies. Autobiographies can be tricky beasts. While they do provide excellent firsthand accounts of historical events, they are prone to bias in favor of the author. To use an autobiography completely on its own is a serious error.

His use of the source. Not only is Mr. Whittle’s one source an autobiography, but the biographer was both his political rival and successor as Prime Minister. To put this into perspective, imagine if, years from now, a pundit used the autobiography of Barack Obama to critique George W. Bush’s presidency. Mr. Obama would hardly be considered an unbiased observer of his predecessor. Such a source can be useful, but only when combined with other sources, used to counter or corroborate its claims. As such, this source, by itself, is unsatisfactory in an historical sense.

The historical context. While the pundit may correctly critique the actions of Neville Chamberlain leading up to World War II, he excludes all actions the Prime Minister took to rectify his mistakes as well as all factors Chamberlain had to consider leading up to the Munich Agreement. He forgets Chamberlain’s failed attempt to forge an Eastern European alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler’s Germany. And while he claims that Mr. Chamberlain commanded the most powerful empire in human history, neglecting the fact that most of that empire wants to leave the Empire. India, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and many other territories wanted, in some way or another, to escape British dominion. Anti-colonial rebellions were a serious threat during World War II, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. And there was the continuing tension in the Far East with Japan to be considered.

And all of this ignores the domestic side of Mr. Chamberlain’s thinking. Britain was still trying to pay for World War One. Britain was still struggling through the Depression and had no stomach for a new war with Germany. When Mr. Chamberlain returned, he was hailed as a hero, applauded for returning with peace in hand. Had he come home with war, the British people might not have been so welcoming.

The narrative. Whittle already knows the whole story. He knows what Adolf Hitler wanted. Not because he had watched Hitler’s political career unfold, or distilled his core beliefs and ambitions through hard research, analysis and review, but because society has crafted a handy equation for him: Hitler  =  Evil. With this it doesn’t matter what factors might be involved, or what else might need to be considered. Hitler is Evil: anything short of unyielding resistance to this Evil is seen as giving in to it. There is no room for disagreement or debate. This drains history of possibility and chance. History, on every level, is disagreement. There are facts history, but the realities of them are never truly black or white, right or wrong. Hitler’s actions were wrong, but the proper response to those actions was not nearly so clear cut.

History is made as the present happens. It is not preplanned. The conquistador Herman Cortes believed his siege of Tenochtitlan would succeed. The defenders believed they could defeat him. Neither of them knew how obvious Cortes’ victory was until it had already transpired.

So too it was with Chamberlain. The British Prime Minister believed Hitler could be reasoned with. Churchill did not. Chamberlain had his evidence, Churchill his own. They couldn’t know how Chamberlain was so obviously wrong until after Hitler betrayed him.

The modern comparison. The pundit-using bad analysis- is trying to connect two vastly disparate events and combine their message. Here we see the return of that handy formula: Hitler = Evil. Given this, if Assad is remotely evil, then he must be, if not like, Hitler, and so not going to war makes you arrogant and weak-willed, a la Neville Chamberlain. This narrative structure was used to sell the Iraq War, the support for the Libyan rebels, and the Afghan War. Any conflict where we cherry-pick “evil dictators” who must be stopped, uses this narrative structure.

This is not about protecting the name of Chamberlain nor defend his decisions. I would like to transform him from a cardboard cutout into the historical player he was. This is about pundit’s, such as Bill Whittle, use history and exemplify our media’s misuse of history.

The work of online commentators is not equitable to academic scholarship, no matter the content or quality of the work. As well it is recognized that Whittle’s is a small example with a small audience. At the same time, the lack of standards allows for sloppy work and poor historiography to permeate our culture. There is little critique of such work, because its purpose is to reach a small, specific audience that will eat it up without a second thought. Anyone in this audience with an ax to grind about President Obama will make the connection quickly and have their understanding of history distorted. Instead of truly debating and questioning history, we simply get ‘liberal history’ and ‘conservative history’. What is needed is a history that honestly shows what we as a nation have done and the results of our actions. Today, we get a history that serves our political bias rather than our country’s needs instead.

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