|February 6, 2000|
Years ago I hated talking politics with liberals. I have a good memory and a good sense of history, but whenever I mentioned any historical “fact” that countered their arguments, the favored weapon in their arsenal was to deny history. They immediately pointed out history’s supposed irrelevance, explaining it is written by the winners or by people with an axe to grind and is thereby distorted and inaccurate. At worst, I was told, it is lies; at best it is unknowable. The corollary to this view is that all views of history are equally valid. In college this was called an epistemological argument, epistemology being the study of how we “know” things. The liberal’s answer, when confronted with historical evidence is, “we can’t know,” so they excluded my facts from our discussions like a judge not admitting evidence in a courtroom.
This tactic especially grieved me when I was young. It seemed to be a denial that there is a real and knowable world out there. It also made the claim that there are no honest historians. I thought the professors should know better than this, and I was sure that deep down those who used the argument didn’t really believe it themselves, but it was such a powerful tactic, it became a liberal shibboleth in the search for truth in any political discussion.
Because I had heard the argument so many times, I began to believe it had some validity. Could there be any doubt if so many–including PhDs–seemed to believe historical facts didn’t count? Then one day, in a philosophy class, I changed my mind. I decided they had won. I said history is relative and unknowable. I said all historical viewpoints must be equally valid.
At the time, I was a student at a university in Boston, Massachusetts. Having made my admission there, in front of the professor and the other students, it must have appeared as if I was reborn. I made it sound as if I’d just been contentious all semester. I let it be known that I now bought into the argument liberals have used to refute any historical evidence for years. They were right. In fact, they were so right, that I adopted their belief right there in that class. And it has served me well.
At first, the professor sat smugly at the head of the class feeling he had won me over. But I wanted to take it further. I pointed out that, since historical evidence is unreliable, neo-Nazi arguments, that the Holocaust never happened, must be as valid as those which claim it did; I suggested we should seriously consider the arguments of racists who said blacks were better off under slavery and, in fact, were better off when they didn’t have to take care of themselves; I said that women have no basis for claiming they’ve been treated as second class citizens throughout most of history. I said all these views were valid because any historical evidence demonstrating they were false, was inadmissable. The smugness that had just appeared on his face now looked like gravy running down his chin because this is not what he or any other liberal intends when they say history is unreliable. They never intend it to be used against them.
But there was no victory for me. He skirted my new revelations in an unkind sort of way. I would later discover that when I turned this cornerstone of liberal philosophy against them, liberals usually took one or more of the following tacks:
- I am told, “I don’t have time to talk about this anymore.”
- I am told I am now making a joke of everything when they were trying to engage in a serious discussion.
- It is suddenly revealed that some history is reliable and some historians are truthful and guess who they are? Why, they’re the people who share the same beliefs as the liberals.
- It is darkly hinted that we should cease this conversation and discuss my latent racism, misogyny, homophobia, or anything else that will draw attention from the fact that I am in the process of exposing their method of reasoning to be a sham.
I later discovered some other things about liberals and history. One is that the reason they feel so comfortable with their argument is that by citing it they don’t have to face any unpleasant facts you may present. But mostly it is that they themselves have been distorting and rewriting history for so long, they assume everyone else must do it, too.
But the fact is, there are “truths”out there and there are people who sincerely look for them. There are also genuine tests for political ideas and philosophies, against the backdrop of history, if we are willing to look for them. Don’t ever let someone trivialize history as “relative” or “just your opinion.” Lastly I learned that disarming a liberal will not convert him to reality. That effort has a lot in common with the old saw about
trying to teach a pig to whistle.