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Reflections on coverage of Super Tuesday

March 9, 2012

There seemed to be genuine confusion this week about the fact that “Super Tuesday” did not resolve the Republican Presidential race. History, we are told, tells us that this is usually not the case. As I have said before, history tells us nothing–it has no mouth. History is, or at least should be, a perspective rather than a series of answers. That perspective also tells us that the candidates are different, and indeed so is “Super Tuesday.” Far fewer states took to the polls. This alone should stop us from declaiming historical facts about this political season.
Of course much time is given to discussing these mitigating facts. It just seems like they don’t listen to their own discussion. They can discuss the lack of parallels between the Obama/Clinton primary and the current one, but they then ignore that to ask why this is so different. Might it not be the same? It is of course never the same. Even when historians talk of cycles they speak of broad tendencies not exact patterns. The human brain is attracted to patterns. This should not be confused with their existence or helpfulness. This is not to say that we should deny or ignore our brains. We just shouldn’t take them quite as seriously as we do.
History should represent a approach toward understanding: Dilthey’s “verstehen.” This means not just positive assertions about patterns, but negative assertions about such patterns. Noting the exceptions is just as important as pointing out general trends. I often hear this practiced in general discussion, but almost never when attempting to create historical perspective. Why? Perhaps because we teach history is such a horrid and misleading manner. History is not a Jack Webb “just the facts” subject.
In this primary it doesn’t help to have a professional historian spouting so many anti-historical “truths.” I understand the Newt’s degree is not in American history, but still. Too much of what he says is just plain wrong. To the degree he has historical understanding, he refuses to let us in on it. But then almost all of his writing on American history literally is fiction. What-if historical fiction is a legitimate book category, it just isn’t helpful in advancing the cause of historical understanding. Its relationship to Jack Webb is more that he was an actor than a concern with the facts.

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