by Gene Callahan
I was recently in a conversation with a very bright economist who declared “We are in agreement about the basic historical facts here; we are just interpreting them differently.”
This is a common but very damaging misunderstanding of historical knowledge: that there are a set of “basic facts” that historians are “given” to start with, and what historians then do is apply a “theory” to fit an interpretive scheme over those facts. That this view cannot be correct becomes obvious once one realizes that no such thing as the “basic facts” this views relies upon can exist in history.
Why is this so? Let us set aside the notorious unreliability of eyewitness testimony, and simply point out that no historian was standing on the bank of the Rubicon to watch Caesar cross it, nor sitting on a crate in the room with Lee Harvey Oswald to see whether or not he shot Kennedy. What the historian begins with are not “basic facts” of history but bits of evidence that exist in the present, but purport or can be made to say something about the past. (“Bits” such as transcribed eyewitness reports, bone fragments, potsherds, bullet casings, tomb inscriptions, memorial statues, building foundations, and so on.) But what they say must be interpreted by the historian, and each piece of evidence must be set in the context of all other available evidence. None of them are, ab initio, more basic than any of the others — the question of how “basic” they are, if it makes any sense at all, can only be answered in the at the end of an inquiry that relates all the evidence to create a coherent “story”.
Let us consider, for example, the assassination of John Kennedy. I happen to know the economist in question is skeptical of the Warren Commission Report, and would protest strongly if someone referred to the “basic fact” that Oswald, acting alone, shot Kennedy. If the person endorsing this “basic fact” pointed to the Warren Commission Report, my economist would doubtless reply that commissioners can be biased, can be bribed, can be threatened, and so on, and we must look at all the evidence before deciding this issue. Just so!
Now, if you are inclined to dismiss his worries as mere “conspiracy mongering,” imagine this scenario: a revolutionary government comes to power in America, and their justifications for revolution is the corruption of the previous regime — as evidenced, for instance, by the fact it had Kennedy shot and engaged in a massive cover-up to hide the fact. The new regime destroys all evidence for the lone shooter interpretation, including every copy of the Warren Commission Report they can find. In that case, many people would be inclined to say that it was a “basic fact” that the US government conspired to kill Kennedy.
Now, it is true that no historian can possibly question everything at once, and, starting out with a particular question, say, “Did Oswald shoot Kennedy?” she is likely to take for granted certain other “facts,” such as “John Kennedy was president.” But, if in the course of her research, she turns up a hitherto concealed letter from Joe Kennedy to Bobby saying, “Although John died, I have found a perfect double of his to run for office in his stead,” well, that “basic fact” is likely to go right out the window!