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Monday, 9 February 2009

Can History be Objective? A Conversation with Heather Vallance


“...conspiracy theorists are the ignorant and bored amusing themselves in areas they are least qualified to speak” – Dr Heather Vallance


We all need our teachers. I have always felt a great desire to honour and remember all of mine. I dedicated my first book “The Legend of Salt and Sauce” to my first teacher, the person who helped set me on the path of telling, reading and listening to stories. Years later I got bitten by the history bug, and became equally interested in investigating so-called “true” stories. During my time writing and researching “Salt and Sauce”, which is an historical investigation, I was put into contact with a brilliant historian from Canada who specialized in researching hard to find data and, in particular, primary source material. Dr Heather Vallance is a writer whose work is inspirational in the way it tries to quite literally bring history to life. In addition to recording and fighting to preserve historical data with a relentless passion, she is not frightened to use different mediums to convey her ideas. This has ranged from homemade documentaries to an actual historical novel, “The Tumbleweed Wars”. It is this combination of fact-sticking self-discipline and relentless imaginative energy that inspires me to regularly consult Heather, as a teacher, regarding most writing matters and particularly those concerning historical research.

In recent years I have taken the approach of the sceptic, after the fashion of the scientific sceptical community. It was a long “soul” searching decision that gradually progressed from a desire to establish facts and to filter out irrationality. It is now a philosophical approach that affects all parts of my life from my approach to teaching martial arts to the way I approach history. My book, “The Legend of Salt and Sauce” was all about filtering out myths and distortions of facts to establish the closest account of the truth I could find. However, I have noticed that the scientific community takes the lion’s share of sceptical analysis and debunking. They certainly have a lot to fight, but so do historians and, like science, history is also a discipline that is concerned with establishing hard facts. Just as there is pseudoscience baffling the ignorant, na├»ve and ill-informed there is pseudo-history fuelling paranoia and distorting our understanding of past events. It was this subject I broached with Heather and I learned a lot.
For me, the worst example of the pseudo-historian is a group of people we have ended up describing as the “conspiracy theorists”. Conspiracies, of course, do exist and have existed, but they rarely operate in the manner described by those who believe that the moon landings were faked, Princess Diana was assassinated, the Freemasons were behind the Jack the Ripper murders, the US government engineered the 9/11 tragedy or that anyone other than Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK. People lie and secrets are kept, but there has yet to be a truly plausible account given of how a conspiracy orchestrated any of these events, and often it is the approach taken by conspiracy theorists that goes against rational and sober historical investigation. They operate on confirmation biases, counting anything that supports their theory and disregarding anything that opposes it, often the point of nitpicking small inconsistencies that always turn up in anecdotal evidence. At best such approaches bring history into disrepute at worst they fuel paranoia, unfairly hurt the relatives and descendents of those involved in the period of history being reported and draw attention away from thorough historical research. The conspiracy theorist is to historians what the lowest of the sensationalist gutter press is to responsible journalism.

So I took my attitude towards pseudo-history to Heather. She had just completed writing the third of her trilogy of books on Anglo-American history between the two Boer Wars, “Golden Nemesis”. No stranger to “misinformation and disinformation” in history, Heather had done a lot of debunking with the life of US solider John Young Filmore Blake in her first book of the trilogy “An Unconventional Soldier”. Her email responses to me, as always, were frank and informative for which I am very grateful:

“There is no such thing as objectivity or truth but there is a space in all research where we can try to see things as they are and not as we want them to be. Strangely, skepticism can get in the way of reaching that space as much as the inability to face what lies there.
“What is essential in seeking lived experience is that we build checks and balances on ourselves and our own responses rather than do what is believed to be the correct thing and that is place checks and balances on external things. By monitoring ourselves scientifically we automatically apply principles of internal integrity onto our subject of study.

“History as a discipline alone is too steeped in 'tradition' and mainstream to explore lived experience using just its principles. That is why I encourage people to go into parallel philosophies such as phenomenology for inspiration”.

On the subject of conspiracy theories, Heather described to me the difference between a conspiracy, and the methods used by conspiracy theorists, and something she calls “networks of intention”, which have solid historical validity:

“If you can plot the interaction between people it is not a conspiracy. If researchers think in conspiracies they can never unearth the truth about things. It becomes an intellectual game rather than a plotted lived experience. This type of thinking is as much a fantasy as is the rigidly adhered to traditional history.

“There are reports and congressional documents which show that Cecil Rhodes was in talks with John Hay and other Americans about bringing down German commercial power by 1920. That is not a conspiracy that is business advantage. If you do not plan and project in business you fail.

“Now, if the conspiracy theorists get going then the truth of that experience is lost in silliness. I often say that conspiracy theorists are the ignorant and bored amusing themselves in areas they are least qualified to speak. Unfortunately, conspiracy theory has become a fad and is 'taught' in history classes. Which perhaps just goes to prove my point.

“Anyhow, conspiracy theory is a game not an actual research method and its proponents either have to go around in circles or grow out of it and become thinking analysts. And, as we both know, some people just don't grow up.

“I don't cater for that type of individual as a writer, researcher, and historian. From seeing your work and how you process you findings I doubt that you do and will. The aim in primary source research is to build patterns of interaction over time and across space and let them speak for themselves. Questioning and curious minds who can accept that life is not what we try to pretend it is will always be drawn to you and your work.

“From my part, and this is not related to your own comment at all, I am maddened by individuals who refuse to accept that networks of intention do exist and have existed and treat these as 'conspiracy' thereby undermining our understanding of human interaction over time.

“The case in point is in [Golden] Nemesis which is a chaos of interwoven relationships of self-interest that eventually explode and shatter lives and countries.

“The story which is chronologically logged step by step is a chess board of greed, power, and money enveloping not just the so-called terrorist organizations and idealists but respected historical figures such as Rhodes and Barnato. They used systems of aggression to underpin their own aims and ambitions. There is nothing conspiratorial about this. The same thing goes on today. Sometimes, you have to live the chaos to identify it, and often those who sit around debating conspiracy theory come from very closed and protected homes and societies where everything can appear cut and dry.

“Hence the power of perception in writing history and my statement about objectifying our own responses rather than the data”.

This returned us to our discussion regarding objectivity and the area of confirmation biases, which brought up a very interesting discussion regarding personal preferences, fact-finding and the right attitude a historian needs to take:

“I think researchers in any sphere of interest who say that they do not hope for a set of results when they begin their projects are liars. We all engage in projects because we have specific beliefs, hopes, and hypotheses. The test is to separate the impetus for a study from the data as it reveals itself during the study.

“For example, I do believe that John Young Filmore Blake was an honorable man and an idealist who adhered to a set of morals which made him different from many others in his day. There is a substantial body of data to support this belief and to challenge the characteristics assigned to him by those who did not wish him well either during or after his life time. I also know from the data that he was a man who saw no problem with using physical violence against his perceived enemies - as long as there were no civilian casualties, a self-delusion suffered by many activists because there are always civilian casualties in guerrilla warfare.

“I am also a pacifist who believes that war is never an answer to anything if we as a species wish to remain civilized and/or to continue reaching our potential as a species. I had to temporarily overcome my aversion to war and violence in order to research and record a narrative largely about acts of violence and amoral behaviour which eventually implode on the perpetrators and bystanders alike.

“If as a researcher you want to reach into a muddle of lived experience through primary sources or any other means then you have to learn how to disassociate yourself and your personal beliefs from those of the actors of the time and their narrative. But you also have to saturate yourself in their world to understand something of what they saw and experienced.

“I cannot pass judgment on men like Blake because I have never experienced the horror of their lives and the lives of their families, nor should I become so empathetic that I endorse actions that do not adhere to the Geneva Convention. For instance, a group of fighters who joined Blake in Africa during the Anglo Boer War did so wearing the Red Cross, an inexcusable misuse of a neutral symbol. However, had they not done so they would not have reached the battle lines. There is no way an historian can weigh the two sides of the coin morally, but practically, as a method of attainment of a goal at the time these men lived and planned their engagement in the war, there can be no judgment passed on the plan they used to attain that goal.

“Cecil John Rhodes, equally, has been portrayed as a higher being or at worst a flawed god, even by historians I admire. In truth, he was an amoral megalomaniac who cast aside lives as Nancy Hammond said, like trees shed leaves. I respect Rhodes in many ways, but I think that we also need to understand that the underlying narrative of men like Rhodes is that even treason has a place in the world, and all things are expendable. Rhodes became the role model for many front runners of the early 20th century, and that to me is scary.

“We talk about blood diamonds today without any association of the meaning to our own present and past.

“I know I am about to bring down the wrath of the gods for this, - but the Rhodes scholarship funds are comprised of the interest garnered off the sale of blood diamonds in the past. That blood did not belong exclusively to traditional African men and women. The original 'mineral' blood was shed by Irish, American, Native American, South American, European, and even English men, women and children. In essence, what this means is that many students have gained knowledge off the backs and blood of men and women who are their own ancestors.
“Heather the person sees this as a form of unconscious cannibalism. Heather the historian sees it as a fact to be recorded, as a facet of what made the Anglo American 20th century at once both good and bad, strong and weak. Admirable and frightening”.

Her closing remarks in connection with her latest work, “Golden Nemesis”, are a reflection of the type of historian I aspire to be. Like “The Legend of Salt and Sauce” Heather’s book is not intended to be an absolute, but rather a platform for future historical researchers. I am happy to be in contact with more and more people who are secure enough in themselves and passionate enough in the interests of furthering history that they can accept their work is never a closed book:

“What I am trying to do with Nemesis is not formulate a definitive narrative but show through a progression of interaction composed of the relics of the lived experience that we have limited the story to what we want to remember instead of exploring all its angles and themes. It is my hope that others can add to the narrative or tweak bits that are not up to speed, using additional primary sources which I do not have access to. I think of it in terms of a 3D panorama which grows as each new, individual and independent photo is added”.

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