The court historian is as old as history itself. Early states were based on the monopolization of information—accounting tablets at first, for taxation, but then “official” histories so that rulers could legitimize their ongoing theft of other people’s resources. Someone had to write these “histories” of the righteous, divinely sanctioned persistence of the ruling house, and thus the court historian was born. From the moment the first scribe took the first stylus in hand, he was working in the shadow of a strongman, sitting at his table and sending drafts to his keeper of the royal seal. The scribe could have little doubt about where his loyalties were to lie. The court historian’s job has always been to airbrush the past and line-edit the present, all at the pleasure of the person on the throne.
The castration of the prototypical court historian, Sima Qian—for disputing the “official” position of his lord, Emperor Wu, on a battle that had not gone the sovereign’s way—is a metaphor for every court historian before and since. I have studied under a gaggle of court historians in modern-day America, and I can attest that they are a crowd of emasculated yes-men (and masculine yes-women) eager to sell their services to the highest bidder, no matter what the cost in their own dignity.
Court historians are also perfect dousing rods for gauging political realities. The court historian is the most sensitive instrument available for detecting where true power lies. For example, American court historians are routinely anti-American, but few dare utter a word against their real master, Xi Jinping. Curating the status quo for the benefit of the strongest statist in the game is simply what court historians do. In their craven obsequiousness and willingness to eat the bread of their inkpot labors out of the iron fist, the court historian tells us exactly how the map of politics lies.
Those who spurn the dominant paradigm always pay a heavy price. In the past, those in the history trade who refused to toe the party line and flatter the imperial mythos faced execution, gelding as in Sima Qian’s case, or exile. Until very recently exile or execution for personae non gratae of the historical persuasion remained common. Charles Beard, Harry Elmer Barnes, David Irving, William Appleman Williams, John Koster, John V. Denson, M. Stanton Evans, James J. Martin, and everyone who questions the “official” history on Twitter or Facebook has faced the usual shunning by the in-crowd. Our dissident friends in the Soviet Union, North Korea, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have fared much worse. Disagreeing with the court historians without suffering any consequences has been unheard of throughout history. We know this because the court historians have been at great pains to tell us so.
Until now. As a mark of the ridiculousness and decadence of our age, we have the phenomenon of so-called dissident historians gathering on luxury ships to give lectures to insurance executives and hedge fund managers as all cruise around the fjords of Norway or the Greek isles. The cruise ship historians pretend to be exiles from the mean old liberals in the universities, but something seems off. Never was exile so posh. Are these cruise ship historians perhaps not just court historians under a minor princeling? Sima Qian lost his testicles for saying that his emperor had gotten his historical facts wrong. A certain contemporary historian of the Peloponnesian War, by contrast, finds himself in the buffet line for beef Wellington and invited to pontificate about all manner of subjects on cable news. We are clearly not talking here about the fate of Fang Xiaoru, a scholar-official literally cut in half at the waist for refusing to parrot the historical lies of a murderous emperor.
Not every truth teller or naysayer has been so dispatched, of course. It is true that dissidents, historians or otherwise, have often sought refuge in other palaces. Voltaire, Josephus, David Brooks—when your pen is for sale you may just find a patron to suit your vanity’s conditions. “Dissident” historians who slumber in first-class berths on cruise ships are not out of character with freethinkers of the past. Some people have a knack for being defiant but also toadying at the same time.
But what does it say when so-called refugees from court historians flee to a camp which flourishes even though surrounded by the nominal enemy? This is what is odd about the cruise ship professors. Conservative, Inc., which underwrites the cruises and the banquets and the self-important seminars where the “exiled” historians hold forth, is revealed here to be no adversary of the dominant paradigm, only a variation on the same theme. The “dissidents” who ink six-figure (seven-figure? eight-?) deals with the same publishing houses which put out the works of their so-called intellectual rivals are not dissidents at all. They are part of a performance, wrestlers in a fixed match. One side loses, but backstage, when the spoils are divvied up, both sides come out just fine.
Alert readers will recall that the court historians who while away the hours on luxury cruises were among the most fanatical cheerleaders of the Yankee Empire. There was no land too foreign for the Yankees to carpet bomb and then bring in to the Washington grift network. “Huzzah!” cried the court historians. “Long live ‘limited government’!” I watched a passel of court historians on Fox News over the years, goading Leviathan on to its next conquest. Never saw a court historian at a military funeral, but never mind.
Conservative, Inc.’s parasitism should alert us to a much more important truth than the remember-good-old-Normandy platitudes of the cruise ship set. Cruise ship historians are a nostalgic relic of a time when being a court historian meant sucking up to Washington and not Beijing. But since Beijing is now Washington’s parent company, what difference does it make if the old court historians are kept around on retainer, placed in a luxurious holding pattern forever giving speeches about Dunkirk and Gettysburg? “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and in his own house, and among his own kindred,” said Jesus Christ. If that logic still holds, then it makes perfect sense why the “prophets” of Washington’s once and future glory are feted by the rich and powerful of the realm.