Bushman Talks About "The Facts" of History

This is a continuation from my previous post where John Dehlin interviews Richard Bushman.  While some people talk about “objective” history, Bushman states that such a notion is impossible.  I thought this was a valuable discussion, and Bushman shows that there can be a lot of interpretations of “The facts”.

JD, “Right, ok, yeah.  So with that, I take 10 or 11 issues just to tackle.  What I’m going to do is try and set up for you what the traditional perceptions are, have you validate where the facts, you know add the facts that tell the full story, or the full story that we can tell, so that we really know instead of what the stereotyped, you know white-washed view is, what the facts or the historical facts seem to demonstrate, and then we’ll have a discussion on you helping us understand how you might put these issues in historical context, how you might put them in spiritual context, and if there’s any debunking that needs to happen where there’s a typical anti-Mormon claim or position, and it’s just flat out incorrect.  Maybe you can inform us of that as well.  Is that fair?”

Bushman, “Well let me begin be talking about talking about ‘the facts.'”

JD, “Yes, please.”

Bushman, “We sometimes think like sometimes these are little nuggets like marble, they’re just there, irreducible.  But you know in any given matter, there are a million facts, and facts only become significant when they are turned into evidence, and they become evidence when there is a perspective, or a theory or an idea that makes those facts relevant.  Then they become evidence.

The reason I stress that is that what we think of are just compelling facts, they just demand, also have underlying them a perspective of Joseph Smith that ties those facts together into some scheme, and until we recognize that whoever is telling us these facts is selectively choosing out of the millions and millions and millions of little facts the ones that he or she wants to tell his particular story.  So it isn’t just a matter of controverting the facts, it is identifying the story that is being told and asking is there another story that can contain those facts that ends up with a different picture?”

JD, “Right, yeah and there’s the whole discussion about history being subjective and people having agendas and never having the complete set of facts to then base your conclusions upon.”

Bushman, “Yeah, and you can’t just dismiss that and say, oh well that is what people try to do to escape.  That is the reality. That is the reality that historians work with every day of their lives. We all know we’re molding our stories to portray the world or the past in the way we want to do it, and so in a way, what you choose as your facts, what you choose to emphasize and the sequence you put them in is a reflection of you. You can’t just say the facts compel me to think some way.  You are making a choice about how you want to view the world, and I’m just sorry, but that is— we have to begin with that realization.”

JD, “Yes, and thank you for that. Do you have as a teacher of history, an anecdote, and this is putting you on the spot, do you have an anecdote that illustrates this concept in terms of how, and a way that something may have been written, and then it got rewritten or a way something was told that sort of illustrates how precarious history by its nature can be?”

Bushman, “Well, I wrote an essay years ago called Faith and History where I told a couple of anecdotes. One was about the way the Constitution is interpreted, how it was turned from a noble document of high political ideals into an expression of the base peculiarly interests of the framers meaning one that the government could protect their investments in the national debt and Charles Beard just flipped the whole country with his book on the economic origins of the Constitution, because he sort of brought out this stuff.

It didn’t last.  Someone qualified this and a picture emerged about how to turn this over that way, but the story I told to sort of make it more simple was to tell story of a woman dying, then you say she died after her lover had gone to war and had been killed, then she died, and you say ‘oh poor woman, she died of a broken heart.’  Then you add in the fact that she also smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, and suddenly everything takes a different look.  So you have to be ready for the whole world to be turned upside down with a new sequence that’s added to the picture.”

JD, “So just the very selection and sequence of facts.  The audio is a little bit low so I’m just going to repeat that.  You say a woman died, right?”

Bushman, “A woman dies and then you say well why did she die?  Then you say her husband was killed in the war.  Ah she died of a broken heart.  Then you add in the fact that she was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, you get a different view of it entirely.”

JD, “Right.”

Bushman, “And I think that you know you can tell a hundred stories of that sort.  The one I often tell is what if one of these reality shows, you allowed a television cameraman to come in and film you day and night?  At a certain point, they went through and they pulled out all the points where the mother in the family was scolding her baby, her child, maybe spanking it or getting angry at it.  Over six months there might be 10 or 15 of them, and you said, ‘this is how this woman treats her child.’

You say ‘My God!  She’s an abusive, abusive mother.’  But there’s no picture her sitting on the couch with the baby pulled up against her, snuggled under her arm reading a book.  No kissing the baby as it goes to bed and all the sudden you turn probably a pretty good mother into a horrible tyrant.”

JD, “Right, so someone could say to a church leader for example, well you clearly don’t know the full story, or you’re not telling the full story, and the church leader could turn back on the disgruntled person, well you don’t know either, and you’re not either.”

Bushman, “Yeah, that’s all I’m saying, and I’m not saying that you ever demonstrate thoroughly, which is ‘the truth.’  You always have to realize that this is a story that’s being told and say, alright that’s your story, but I can tell it a different way.  Too many of these people, I met some in Berlin this summer, that had run onto this stuff.  They had Grant Palmer’s book, and they were just wiped out by it.  They thought, ‘Ha!  It’s all over.’

Hag or Young girl?

It reminded me of that famous picture of the beautiful lady and the hag. You look at it at one moment it’s a gorgeous woman with an ostrich feather hat.  You look at another moment it’s horrible hag staring out at you.  Unfortunately history is that way.  It can take many forms.”

JD, “Hmmm, well that’s very helpful.  Thank you for providing for that sort of overview of that animal we call history.”

Do you have any perspectives on “objective” history?

6 comments on “Bushman Talks About "The Facts" of History

  1. What a great discussion. John was trying to get Bushman to play into the binary view of “Did X happen, yes or no? If yes, then interpretation Y is correct, if not then Z is correct.” There’s no objective algorithm for history or the character of human beings. And if we lament this fact, we should also remember that we ourselves could be seen in 1000 different ways depending on what narrative people want to build about us. I assure you that when the facts of my life are viewed in a certain way, I’m a pretty rotten SOB. On the other hand I’m the opposite too.

  2. Often times people play the degree game as a fallacious appeal to authority. But this is a great example of why having a degree matters. This is basic material that every historian worth his salt should know. Bushman does a great job of explaining it here, and I wish every anti mormon would read this before they try to say that apologists “twist the facts” or they complain that every apologist says things are “out of context”. Well both context and nuance matter a great deal in knowing “the facts” of history.

  3. […] the interview serially as I complete the transcripts.  This transcript continues immediately after Bushman’s discussion of “the facts” of history. JD, “Hmmm, well that’s very helpful.  Thank you for providing for that sort of overview of […]

  4. […] historians.  Nobody comes to historical writing with a blank slate, everyone has an idea.   (Bushman agreed with this in an earlier post I did.) For example, the writer of the Gospel of John tells us his purpose in writing-to believe in […]

  5. […] One topic I have not discussed in my 4 years of blogging is discrepancies in the First Vision accounts.  Basically, there are 4 accounts of the First Vision.  The account in the Pearl of Great Price is the last account, and comes from 1838.   John Dehlin and Richard Bushman discuss these variations in Part 2 of John’s 4 1/2 hour interview with Richard Bushman.  I have been publishing the transcripts of the interview serially as I complete the transcripts.  This transcript continues immediately after Bushman’s discussion of “the facts” of history. […]

  6. […] historians.  Nobody comes to historical writing with a blank slate, everyone has an idea.   (Bushman agreed with this in an earlier post I did.) For example, the writer of the Gospel of John tells us his purpose in writing-to believe in […]

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