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An interview with Colin Kidd


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#1 John Simkin

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Posted 29 May 2006 - 09:11 PM

Professor Colin Kidd teaches at the University of Glasgow. He is the author of Subverting Scotland's Past: Scottish Whig Historians and the Creation of an Anglo-British Identity 1689-c.1830 (1993) and British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800 (1999).

(1) Could you explain the reasons why you decided to become a historian?


(2) Is there any real difference between the role of an investigative journalist and a historian?


(3) How do you decide about what to write about?


(4) The House Select Committee on Assassinations reported that the “committee believes, on the basis of the available evidence, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”. However, very few historians have been willing to explore this area of American history. Lawrence E. Walsh’s Iran-Contra Report suggests that senior politicians were involved in and covered-up serious crimes. Yet very few historians have written about this case in any detail? Why do you think that historians and journalists appear to be so unwilling to investigate political conspiracies?

(5) David Kaiser, the author of Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler (1990) and American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (2000) said this in his interview:
"The basic rule is that before-the-fact (in this case, pre-November 1963) documents are more important than after-the-fact ones. There's a hierarchy of evidence. People who come forward years later with stories are suspect, and if they said something different at the time, one has to discount them heavily. Meanwhile, one has to read as many documents as possible to understand the context of a particular event."
Do you agree?

#2 Colin Kidd

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Posted 29 May 2006 - 09:18 PM

(1) Could you explain the reasons why you decided to become a historian?


I have always had a love of the past. It was certainly a prominent feature of my childhood. I think, however, my initial choice of the eighteenth century as a period of specialisation was inspired by my love of ther literature of the period, particularly the work of Sterne.

(2) Is there any real difference between the role of an investigative journalist and a historian?


Yes, I think, in general, there is a considerable gulf. While investigative journalists focus largely on telling particular stories, not all historians are committed to the construction of narratives. Indeed, many historians are more intrigued by explaining contexts and backgrounds. It is this primary interest in contexts which, I believe, differentiates most historians (or at least the type of historian I am) from investigative journalists.

(3) How do you decide about what to write about?


There is an element of serendipity here, of course. But , in general, I formulate questions to ask of the past based on issues which surface in the detritus of the past, usually printed matter, pamphlets especially. To some extent I am an archaeologist of old arguments, and I particularly enjoy reconstructing the terms of bygone debates. These are my primary inspiration.

(4) The House Select Committee on Assassinations reported that the “committee believes, on the basis of the available evidence, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”. However, very few historians have been willing to explore this area of American history. Lawrence E. Walsh’s Iran-Contra Report suggests that senior politicians were involved in and covered-up serious crimes. Yet very few historians have written about this case in any detail? Why do you think that historians and journalists appear to be so unwilling to investigate political conspiracies?


I suspect that most historians are very sceptical of the existence of conspiracies, or at least of unrevealed conspiracies. We tend to be more attuned to the roles of unfolding processes in combination with unplanned contingencies in the working out of historical events. We are also very suspicious of monocausal explanations of complex events, and similarly not so interested in simple events - such as the actual assassination of one man by another, say - which tend to be simple events in themselves which do not require complex explanations.

(5) David Kaiser, the author of Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler (1990) and American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (2000) said this in his interview:
"The basic rule is that before-the-fact (in this case, pre-November 1963) documents are more important than after-the-fact ones. There's a hierarchy of evidence. People who come forward years later with stories are suspect, and if they said something different at the time, one has to discount them heavily. Meanwhile, one has to read as many documents as possible to understand the context of a particular event."
Do you agree?


Yes, I am in broad agreement. There is a hierarchy of evidence, and the historian is duty bound not to believe all of it - such as, for example, legal evidence from witchcraft prosecutions which speak of the real existence of supernatural practices. Generally, the historian is in debt to his sources and, but sometimes he has to reject evidence in the sources which appears suspect.

#3 J. Raymond Carroll

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Posted 31 May 2006 - 01:29 PM

I suspect that most historians are very sceptical of the existence of conspiracies.


Yes, but why is that? Do historians ever read history?

Would historians prefer to believe that the assassination of Napoleon was the work of some deranged lone poisoner, and if so, why is that?

We are also very suspicious of monocausal explanations of complex events,


That is most definitively NOT the impression I get from reading explanations of the JFK assassination by academic historians. In fact I get the impression that academic historians positively LOVE "monocausal explanations of complex events" like the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK.

Since the mindset of academic historians is so transparent, perhaps the actual murderers of JFK, RFK and MLK were smart enough to know that they could get away with murder, because they could count upon historians (and their poor relations in journalism) to respond in the Pavlovian manner that they actually did?

There is a hierarchy of evidence, and the historian is duty bound not to believe all of it....


It seems to me that historians place "official explanations" at the very top of their hierarchy, and then refuse to budge. When did you last hear a historian admit that he was wrong, even though we all know that only the Pope is infallible?

I can't remember where this quote comes from, (I know I have the source somewhere) but here is my best recollection:

"Too often it has been the historian's task to remember things that did not happen, and to forget the things that did"



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