Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Bourgeois honesty

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Nineteenth-century historians, as Herbert Butterfield reminds us, took seriously the task of researching and writing “objective” history. I recall seeing traces of this in an Orthodox Jewish lady I had as graduate student in the early 1970s at NYU. This woman had planned to do a dissertation on the fate of Jewish communities in Galicia in the twentieth century but then abandoned her topic. The reason she gave made me respect her forever: She refused to prepare a dissertation on a subject she could not treat with the proper degree of objectivity. This refusal would now be ascribed in all likelihood to inexcusable moral indifference. Truly sensitive historians, we are told, should have zero tolerance for reactionary rule or for what until recently were considered natural hierarchies. Today’s historians are calling attention to screaming inequality, wherever they chose to notice it, in the past or in the present. But bourgeois honesty, which these people not incidentally reject, would require them to recognize that they are pursuing non-scholarly ends. What they consider to be scholarship is a form of proselytizing—or a means of helping the practitioner advance professionally by means of useful political postures.

Paul Gottfried

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