That They Can Gain in Judgments

The writer and historian Jill Lepore has penned a great piece in the 23 November 2020 issue of the New Yorker (posted online 16 November). Her focus, in “Will Trump Burn the Evidence?“, is the politics of historical records and archives. It’s a great, topical essay that captures some of the anxiety about how the current Presidential transition period will unfold. It also usefully highlights tensions tugging at the professional practice of history.

There is no shortage of such challenges, as historians point out often enough. The one that I’ve been thinking through over the last few years, and that I think Lepore really draws out in her article, is the difference between public history, applied history, and forensic history. People who make a living studying and doing history will probably object to such crude categories, so to them I offer apologies in advance (with a promise to try to do better in future).

Public history, arguably the oldest and most mature of the three, is about memorializing and commemorating the past in a way that benefits the public. Applied history is currently trending but also has a history of its own, and fills a narrower, more particular niche: understanding and solving contemporary policy challenges through recourse to historical description and explanation. Forensic history is a complex beast, but sits somewhere between public and applied history, in its application of historical methods to issues of legal consequence.

Lepore’s piece is a wonderful read on the historical context for what to expect of the currently (outgoing) U.S. President’s attention to official records. She calls it an “evidentiary shell game”, which is sobering. For anyone interested in this kind of politics of information, it’s worth the time it takes to read it. Some great quotes:

Lepore, setting the stage:

Hardly a day passes that Trump does not attempt to suppress evidence, as if all the world were in violation of an N.D.A. never to speak ill of him. He has sought to discredit publications and broadcasts that question him, investigations that expose him, crowds that protest him, polls that fail to favor him, and, down to the bitter end, ballots cast against him. None of this bodes well for the historical record and for the scheduled transfer of materials from the White House to the National Archives, on January 20, 2021

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words, at the dedication of the US National Archives Building in 1941:

To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women living in the future, a Nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgements in creating their own future.

The historian Fredrik Lovegall, on private efforts to short circuit politically-motivated attempts in Washington to destroy documentary evidence:

I can imagine that at State, Treasury, D.O.D., the career people have been quietly copying important stuff all the way along, precisely with this in mind.

It’s a point that reminds me of the work of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, which in a very different context has been doing essentially the same thing to safeguard evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Lepore again, on the wider context – citing historical episodes from the destruction of libraries during the two World Wars of the 20th century, to its litany of occupations, genocides and civil wars:

National archives uphold a particular vision of a nation and of its power, and, during transitions of power in nations that are not democratic, archives are not infrequently attacked. Most attacks involve the destruction of the evidence of atrocity.

Regimes have done this to suppress evidence of brutality, dial back the national clock to year zero, and eliminate the documentary sources needed to hold the guilty accountable and enable survivors to recover. It’s a tough mix of international history and domestic patterns of political abuse that Lepore presents. I especially liked this pithy blurb, which highlights quite nicely the differences between primary and secondary sources, and what they mean for anyone involved in public, applied or forensic history:

Libraries house books: copies. Archives store documents: originals. Archives cannot be replaced.