Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Can you be a Good Historian and a Bad Person?

J.H. Hexter argued that one of the historian's tools was being of the same species as one's subjects; you would inevitably use human intuition, the awareness of human reality, as a way into the personality and actions of one's subjects. So the richness of the historian's character shapes the richness of his or her history?

Usually when it is questioned if a bad person can be a good historian, it's someone like David Irving, the very skilled technical historian and Holocaust denier, who is beinc considered. Recently, the now very elderly and very distinguished British historian Eric Hobsbawm is under scrutiny -- for being an unrepentant member of the Communist Party long after its crimes had been exposed and an unapologetic Companion of Honour while also excoriating Britain and its class system at every turn. What the hell kind of historian can this be, harrumph his critics?

Britain's History Today editor Paul Lay follows the debate here (great photo) and here, with links to the opinion pieces that started and continue the controversy.

I interviewed Hobsbawn once and he was a lovely interview, but we were talking of pirates and rebels, one of his favourite topics, not about complicity in communism. But I once read a comment of his about how dedicated universities today are to their students, and I thought if he could believe that, loyalty to the Communist Party was maybe not so much of a stretch after all.
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