I have a confession to make: I am “obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society.” Gordon Wood has me figured out quite well. I am not so sure that, as he said, the situation “has gotten worse,” for New Left historians have made it ‘worse’ for quite a while now. They have begun the process of correcting for the views of the likes of Wood, Perry, Namier, and Syme—sorry that is Sir Namier and Sir Syme—several decades ago. Wood, of course, unlike myself, and much like Sir Isaiah Berlin before him, is not at all interested in the present. That is why they both seem so disconcerted when sniveling academics—so notorious for their ethical hangups—seem to complicate celebratory narratives that have hitherto dominated, and still dominate, American imagination in the present.
Indeed, Wood is not so much upset with “fragmentary” and “anachronistic” histories written today, but with the way such scholarship frustrates the very ‘satisfying’ story he has told us over and over and over again. After all, that self-congratulatory story has allowed a white man like himself—who tells ‘good’ stories of progress and of the ‘white man’s burden’—to attain such prominence as our de-facto national historian. In fact, perhaps the reason that Bailyn has not achieved the public success Wood wishes for him is that he too has been telling us different kinds of stories, of late.
Berlin, as he was quoted by Wood, was certainly correct as well. If there is one place where one can craft satisfying stories about the progress of civilization, which champion contemporary power structures with even more disregard for the grand narrative of colonialism than Harvard, it might be Oxbridge. From there, after all,
both Berlin and Namier could pretend that the heinous centuries-long British history of colonialism in every continent—Antarctica excepted—is marginal to the story of the British nation or European civilization. What Wood would have us overlook is that “fragmentary” and “anachronistic” histories increasingly piece together a much more overwhelming history arch. They help us view the grand narrative of colonialism for what it was and is—not only perhaps the most devastating and horrific affair known to us, but also the story with the most explanatory potential for explicating the present.
It is about time, I think, for historians to stop deluding themselves that presentism is a problem or that anyone can avoid it, for that matter. We all have agendas. The question is how forthcoming are we about them–do we let such agendas permeate our writing in ways we have not openly accounted for, both vis-a-vis ourselves and our readership. For our peers to evaluate our scholarship we provide meticulous footnotes—why not provide them with a full disclosure as to our agendas as well? Indeed, settling one’s agenda with oneself and others would probably help us, to not only better understand our motives, but to write more careful scholarship as well—certainly more transparent.
If Wood had done that—had he told us that above all else he wants American history to uphold the current balance of power in the US by creating awe inspiring origin narratives—we would have had a much more interesting discussion. Instead, Wood seeks to throw sand in our eyes, and because our contemporary academic discourse does not allow us to assert that the present is and was the bottomline of any history that was ever written, we cannot have the kind of argument we should be having—a very political one.
What should be the goal of historical scholarship (and most of us strive for this even if we do not like to concede as much) is what should ultimately stand out as the goal of every person in every society—its betterment. Whether we believe that good scholarship influences critical thinking and that such skills constitute the foundation of a healthy democratic society; whether we think that through our scholarship we can explain why the prison population since 1970 has grown by 700%; or if we think that the US is the most awesome place in the world and everyone else should be like us, we have an agenda.
In recent years, for instance, historians have grown accustomed to the idea that we are limited to the narrative form, and we seem to have gotten over it. Why can’t we accept that likewise historians will always have an agenda?
If we do not have an agenda, then why do the stakes seem so high whenever we broach these topics? If history was only about knowledge for the sake of knowledge—a satisfying intellectual exercise at best—we would not get so riled-up to begin with. The truth, I suspect, is that we would all like to believe that history is in some way important. And how else would it prove important if it has no consequences for us—who are “stranded in the present” —whatsoever? We cannot help having some kind of agenda, and we should not help it. Why else would we want to study history anyway?
 To use the title of Peter Fritzsche’s great book