Anything peaceful and voluntary.

The History You Don’t Know: Ten Questions for Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff is one of my favorite contemporary observers of  liberty and history.  He is a frequent contributor at Mises and his mellifluous voice informs many podcasts and audio books on libertarian topics and books.  I have a tremendous interest in history and most of the library annex at my house is crowded with books on that very subject.  My essays tend to draw from the historical well frequently and try to tease out the hidden history one will not find in mainstream government media-education complex factories at the schools or the major media outlets.  Jeff offers a unique perspective that is far more informed and nuanced than the professional drones who claim the title of professional historian.  There are some surprises here and please enjoy the interview. -Bill Buppert

Jeff Riggenbach

Good afternoon, Jeff.  Tell us how you view revisionist history and how it sharpens our perspective on how the world really works.

We should always remember that history is written by the victors.   Or, to put the same idea in a slightly different way, history is invariably written by people who have a dog in the fight – people who have a stake in how the events of the past (and their consequences in the present) are viewed.  These people will, naturally, put what they regard as the best possible face on their accounts of past events.  It is therefore extremely foolhardy to read a book on, say, World War I, by a celebrated, honored, thoroughly mainstream historian who teaches at Harvard or Princeton or Stanford or Berkeley and has served as president of the American Historical Association (AHA) or the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and then say to yourself, “Okay, now I know what happened during World War I and why.  Now I can move on to some other topic.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  You have only begun your investigations.

 The next step is to ask yourself how a person becomes a celebrated, honored, thoroughly mainstream historian who teaches in the Ivy League or its equivalent and is elected to run the AHA or the OAH.  Isn’t it by telling readers what they want to hear?  Isn’t it by going along with the conventional wisdom – with whatever is almost universally “known” to be true – in order to get along?  Are there historians who take another tack?  Who either adduce different facts or who argue that the agreed upon facts should be understood in a different way, looked at from a different perspective, examined in a different light?  Who are these writers who care so little for their career advancement?  What do they have to say?

Now there can be many reasons why someone might accept the conventional wisdom on any particular subject.  Maybe the conventional wisdom is the truth.  More often, however, I’d say people buy into the conventional wisdom out of naïveté – it never occurs to them that what “everyone” knows and believes could possibly be wrong – or out of opportunistic careerism – you live more affluently and enjoy more influence if you go along to get along.  And, of course, there are many people outside the historical professions for whom the most compelling reason of all pertains – boredom.  History bores them and they really don’t care who’s right about a controversy they never knew existed to begin with.

On one level, you can’t really argue with that position.  The person who is bored by history knows far more about what genuinely interests him or her than I can ever know.  On the other hand, a part of me wants to cry out to such a person: Don’t you understand that you’re missing one of the great eye-opening experiences possible in this life?  You have a chance to read a conventional presentation of a historical topic or period and then read a revisionist discussion of that very same topic or period.  Point, counterpoint.  It makes you realize in a way I guarantee you never have before just how much more there is to say about any subject really worth talking about than initially meets the eye.

Most people associate revisionist history with the history of wars; in fact, Brian Doherty, in Radicals for Capitalism, his very valuable book on the modern American libertarian movement, uses the term “war revisionism” whenever he refers to revisionist history.  This is understandable, certainly.  Through its control of most “education” in this country, and through its enormous influence on the mass media, the State has more to do with shaping the public’s beliefs about American history – especially recent American history – than any other person or institution you can name.  The State also has more to hide than anyone else in society.  It is guilty of more and greater wrongdoing than anyone else.  And its wrongdoing reaches its apex (or, depending on how you look at it, its nadir) in time of war.  During wars, States not only add mass murder and vandalism on a gigantic scale to their ordinary daily crimes of robbery, extortion, abduction and imprisonment; they also use the wars as pretexts for new exercises of State power over the individual or for vast expansions of powers they already had.  Little wonder, then, that revisionists have often focused on wars.

But historical revisionism is a concept that applies everywhere and should be heeded everywhere.  We need a revisionist history of American literature – one that stresses the individualism that lies at the heart of our national letters, exposes the Eurocentric bias of almost all traditional discussion of American literature, and unapologetically acknowledges the literary importance of the so-called “genre fiction” that is one of the greatest and most original contributions Americans have made to the imaginative literature of the world.  We need a revisionist history of American journalism – one that offers a different and more instructive portrayal of the “bad old days” of the 19th and early 20th Centuries when newspapers were openly partisan and there were not yet any established “standards” for those who wrote periodically about current events to adhere to.

I happen to think a libertarian perspective tends to bring the world into sharper relief.  One tends to be free from a partisan political filter that unbalances evidentiary bars; in other words, believers in a certain system tend to be more credulous of evidence that supports their respective positions.  We tend to look at history as a contest to attain power over others.  What do you think?

I agree that a libertarian perspective casts the world into sharper focus.  Because a libertarian understands the difference between government and the State and between a country or a people or a culture and the State that attempts to control it, a libertarian is less easily bamboozled by mainstream journalistic and historical accounts that portray the State as some sort of hero, “defending” or “rescuing” ordinary people from some menace or other.  On the other hand, I think “confirmation bias,” which is to say, “the tendency to judge a statement according to how conveniently it fits with one’s settled position,” is quite as common among libertarians as it is among our uncomprehending liberal and conservative friends.  I strongly recommend a short but very instructive piece on this question in the December (2011) Atlantic by the libertarian economist Dan Klein, who teaches at George Mason University in suburban Virginia, outside Washington.  It was Klein’s words I quoted just now on the nature of “confirmation bias.”  His piece in The Atlantic is called “I Was Wrong, and So Are You.”  Read it and weep.

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