In response to yesterday’s post on Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus, I’ve received a range of feedback that breaks down into a couple of camps: One camp feels I am a radical liberal who is out to get conservatives; another camp feels that it is inappropriate to look for political ideology in a history book; and a third feels that since O’Reilly is a well-known conservative, everyone already knows he will have conservative claims in his book.
The political ideology of historians is an interesting question, and one that is worthy of its own discussion. Would anyone question the fact that the late Eric Hobsbawm was a Marxist, or that his work in history was influenced by his Marxist beliefs? An ideology does not make a historian’s work wrong; ideology can provide a lens for interpretation. The question is whether the historian twists facts to conform to ideological ideas or whether the historian uses ideology to guide inquiry. In O’Reilly’s case, he emphasized taxation over many other issues, which to me seems to have reflected ideological concerns that the facts did not exactly support.
Consider the case of Howard Zinn, whose People’s History of the United States is widely celebrated on the political left for its emphasis on issues related to race, poverty, and oppression. Zinn, like O’Reilly, played a bit loose with facts and looser with interpretation in order to support an ideological point of view.
The first chapter of People’s History talks about Columbus and the pre-Columbian Americas, and it opens with Zinn stating that at the time of Columbus’ trip “Spain was recently unified, one of the new modern nation-states, like France, England, and Portugal. […] Spain had tied itself to the Catholic Church, expelled all the Jews, driven out the Moors.” Zinn’s unstated point is that modern nation-states, like the United States, are inherently driven to oppress minorities. But Spain in 1492 was not a nation-state; in fact Spain in 1492 was a geographic, not a legal, expression: officially Ferdinand and Isabella’s two realms, Aragon and Castile, were joined in personal union, not political union. They remained legally separate for centuries to come, and even today regional separatist movements in Spain belie the idea of a united nation-state. Similarly, Zinn implies that the Moors were removed like the Jews, eliding the fact that the Reconquista was a long series of wars between two political powers, not the oppression of a minority by a white majority.
Turning to the Americas, Zinn relies on Bartolome de las Casas to paint the pre-Columbian Americas as a “pacific” paradise of natural socialism, gender equality, and peace. He never acknowledges that Las Casas had his own motivations for depicting Native society thusly; by emphasizing the supposed natural peacefulness of Native peoples he could draw a better contrast with Spanish behavior to draw attention to the horrors of slavery. Archaeology tells us that the pre-Columbian Americas were no paradise but rather like any other pre-modern region occupied by humans, one of warfare, violence, slavery, environmental degradation.
Zinn next tells us that historians have ideological perspectives that shape their use of facts:
My argument cannot be against selection, simplification, emphasis, which are inevitable for both cartographers and historians. But the map-maker’s distortion is a technical necessity for a common purpose shared by all people who need maps. The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.
Honorably, though, Zinn admits his own viewpoint and biases, which does not however excuse him from the widespread distortion of facts which follows. For, he next relates his view of the Aztecs, whom he sees as a homogenous and noble people facing genocidal conquest. He leaves out the Aztecs’ own earlier wars of conquest and their empire-building, remembering only their human sacrifices (motivate, of course, by pious belief), in order to portray them as having “a certain innocence.” He therefore accepts without question the myth that the Aztecs believed Hernan Cortes to be the returning god Quetzalcoatl. That belief, originating in Cortes’ own politically-motivated writings and not found in any surviving Aztec text, was still en vogue among Eurocentric scholars at the time of Zinn’s first edition (1980) and yet it remained in the book’s many revisions down to the present despite the widespread scholarly rejection of the myth beginning in the 1980s. Zinn also neglects to note the Native peoples who collaborated with Cortes because they desired freedom from the oppression of their Aztec overlords. In short, the Aztec were not innocent lambs, even though the Spanish were bloodthirsty wolves.
So was Howard Zinn better than O’Reilly for telling readers how historians can dishonestly distort facts and suppress truth to support an ideology while simultaneously doing it himself?
When I was in college, I was taking New World archaeology courses at the same time that I was also enrolled in a course in alternative media. The professor was a huge fan of Howard Zinn and made his People’s History required reading to understand how the media distort truth to support a corporate conservative agenda. I, of course, noticed the contradiction between Zinn’s views on pre-Columbian America and what I was learning in my archaeology studies, but no amount of fact would ever convince my professor that Zinn was wrong, for did not the widespread pro-corporate bias in media prove the rightness of Zinn’s claims?
But, for those who were upset that I disapproved of Bill O’Reilly’s conservative ideology imposed on history, I hope you can see that I also have no love of liberal ideology imposed on history.
9/27/2013 06:20:56 am
Everyone has biases....and views the world through their unique frame of reference.
9/27/2013 07:08:15 am
Thank you for that, Jason. You had me worried there for a minute... I tend to agree with Thane. If I know the bias of the author, I can make allowances for it and interpret the work accordingly. But unfortunately bias can also mean a selective presentation of evidence. That which does not agree with the author's interpretation of events or conclusions may not be presented at all -- and one might never learn of its existence. By this I don't mean the conspiracy-hidden 'anomalous findings' so beloved of Ancient Astronaut Theorists, but, for example, potsherds that may not belong in a particular stratum, or writings from other sources that contradict the author's own beliefs. Sadly, even scholars themselves are not always immune to this behavior. The "old boy" peer-review mechanism, the success or failure of pending PhD theses, possible tenure, and future funding may render such an approach necessary. Sadly, truly neutral historians tend not to publish much outside of academe. Perhaps the general public welcomes a biased approach. Facts and reasoned interpretations get in the way of snappy soundbites. They take far too long.
The Other J.
9/27/2013 11:20:37 am
"But unfortunately bias can also mean a selective presentation of evidence."
The Other J.
9/28/2013 09:05:47 am
9/27/2013 08:19:24 am
If one counts opinion- then calls it bias- what are you left with?
9/27/2013 08:22:37 am
Opinions should be based on facts, and good historians present facts that complicate or challenge a position, not just those that agree with it. No one says you can't have a point of view or draw a conclusion, but you need to play fair with the facts.
9/27/2013 03:11:40 pm
This is a fertile subject. An exploration of the influence of personal ideologies on authors in general, and its ramifications, could make up a doctoral dissertation or three. Conscious vs. unconscious, art vs. academics, ethical implications, whether or not the phenomenon is truly universal...rich indeed.
9/28/2013 04:12:44 pm
So, I have a PhD in history, that I never use, but in the course of training I developed a fairly clear opinion on this, which seems pretty close to Jason's. Everyone has biases and strong feelings on political issues, and many historians have strong opinions that they are trying to assert and convince others of. You can try and assiduously remove all or most political leaning from your history (as one example I think some of the US colonial historians have done a fairly good job at this, but it's not my period, so I could be wrong). Or you can declare them, as Zinn more or less does -- and one can argue that O'Reilly is such a public persona that he is de facto declaring his biases. So that's out of the way. Then, the book or paper or editorial can be evaluated just on how good a history it is. And in this, if Killing Jesus is similar to Killing Lincoln, O'Reilly fails miserably. And an argument can be made that his failure is either consciously intentional or sub-consciously driven, arising from his conservative ideology. It can also be, in all honesty, because the man is an amateur through and through -- I have a BA in History, and there is a vast gap between the BA training and the later MA and MPhil and PhD in terms of what sources I use, how I treat sources, and how I construct an argument.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.