Review: Responsible History

5 Star, History

Responsible History Nobel Prize Material–Elegant, Exudes Integrity, a Joy to Read, June 27, 2009

Antoon De Baets

This is, in my opinion, a Nobel-level contribution to all scholarship as well as to humanity. The author is at the intersection of history and human rights, but I also see him as having provided a definitive typology of responsible scholarship that exudes INTEGRITY, the one word that captured the essence of Buckminster Fuller and his ideal to create a world that works for all with disadvantage to none.

Two other books that provide context for this one, but are focused on the substance of history rather than the ethics of history where the author is clearly the vanguard, are:
The Lessons of History
The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

See the image I have posted for a number of other book covers and the core “data pathology” concepts that undermine our ability to create a prosperous world at peace.

The author is also responsible for Censorship of Historical Thought: A World Guide, 1945-2000, a book that is grotesquely over-priced by the publisher, so with sadness I must limit my foundation for praising this author on the basis of this single properly-priced volume.

As with most books I consider special I began by reading the notes (40 pages) and the bibliography (18 pages), and from these extracted the following terms I place in alphabetical order:


The book does not contain a biography of the author, searching for <dr. A.H.M. (Antoon) de Baets> yields his contact information, I have copied and loaded his photo from another site.

I learn that 2005 was the first time in history that “abuse of history” is formally defined as a meaningful concept, by the International Committee of Historical Sciences. The author is a founding leader of the Network of Concerned Historians, generally in support of human rights investigations.

Table 1.1 on page 13 is so valuable I am loading an image to honor the author. I am not doing this for the many other more complex tables that represent deep nuanced thinking and a philosophy of history that is GOOD. Buy the book.

On page 14 he gives us two definitions:

+ The abuse of history is its use with intent to deceive.

+ The irresponsible use of history is either its deceptive or its negligent use.

Table 1.2, 4 pages (19-22), is an exquisite typology of abuses within irresponsible history.

Table 1.3, 3 pages (26-28) is a delightful itemization of 19 general motives for historical writing, with many more refined motives included as subsets.

Table 1.4 on page 34 lists 22 attributes of abusers, and I cannot help but think of how easily they describe the most senior officials of most governments and corporations.

The author discusses the nature of dictatorships and their abuses as well as the post-dictatorship abuses that characterize the handing of their archives. I am of course reminded that the USA today is “best pals” with 42 of the 44 dictators discussed in Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025, *and* that Leon Panetta, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is refusing Congressional demands for archives on CIA's role in rendition and torture.

I learn from the chapter on defamation and how restrictive defamation laws are used to repress the truth. I also learn that the courts have made clear that charges of anti-Semitism as a means of repressing honest criticism of Israel and the Jewish lobby do NOT enjoy the same standing as normal charges of defamation because the anti-Semitic smear campaign violates rights of others rather that addressing the truth of the matter.

The author provides a fascinating discussion of judicial deference to historians in recognition that arriving at a best truth is a specialized craft.

The second half of the book on responsible history is equally engaging and most professional. It covers the duties of the living to the dead and the rights to memory and history. The author concludes that the dead do not have rights, but the living do have duties to both the dead of the past and the unborn of the future. Table 4.2 on pages 134-137 is a phenomenal listing of moral and or legal wrongs to the dead.

In examining memory and history, the author concludes, with full and proper documentation of work by others, that memory is a foundation for thought and therefore is a right; and that in exceptional cases the government can and must intervene to establish a right to the truth that is an essential aspect of transitional justice and is a right of the larger social group that has been wronged, not just of an individual. I learn–and perhaps this is Dutch humor but I appreciate it–that habeas corpus has a counterpart in history, habeas data.

The final chapter discusses and rejects eight reasons not to have a code of ethics for history, and then lists ten on page 187 that I provide in abbreviated form below.

09-enhances-autonomy, transparency, and accountability

He concludes that the past will not go away and will remain both an area of conflict and abuse, and an area of reconciliation and responsible use. I am taken with one of the last lines in the book, on page 198:

“…historical writing is not an ordinary operation of memory. It is a rather peculiar operation of factual memory, based on freedom and integrity, r3espect, and the careful and methodically determined search for truth.”

This book is unique! It is in my view one of the most important works published in recent memory, and it has value for the future of humanity in defining the moral obligations of all professional researchers, not least of which are the spies–intelligence collectors, analysts, and managers.

Other recommended books on a positive note:
Speaking Truth to Power
Infinite Wealth: A New World of Collaboration and Abundance in the Knowledge Era
Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems
How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, Updated Edition
The New Craft of Intelligence: Personal, Public, & Political–Citizen's Action Handbook for Fighting Terrorism, Genocide, Disease, Toxic Bombs, & Corruption
Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace

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