Monday, February 28, 2011

The Historian-Pundit: Oxymoron or Moron?

The American Historical Association is encouraging historians to engage issues of public concern more actively. I am not sure I think that good historians are or should be particularly effective in such a role, and I fear that this may encourage historians to become pundits.

I strongly agree with the somewhat skeptical response by Tomiko Brown-Nagin at the Legal History Blog. Dr. Nagin, who teaches American social and legal history at UVA, writes that the historian may not be suited to advise on policy in large part because of
the "problem" of historical indeterminacy. Good history is multi-layered and may not provide definitive answers to questions posed. Historians may discover new facts or offer interpretations that illuminate public controversies, but they do so—at their best—through nuanced discussions of the past. Such nuance often make history less "usable" in the context of policy and adversarial legal settings—where clear answers and easily packaged explanations of complex phenomena have the greatest currency.
She does suggest that historians should play a corrective role of sorts in the public sphere.
When history is featured in policy battles or litigation, partisans much less inclined than professional historians to tell the truest story possible, given the available evidence, often are the first to trumpet historical arguments. Or, the partisan in question might be a professional historian, one who clings to the virtue of "objectivity" while engaging in partiality—excluding certain actors, viewpoints, events, interpretations, and analytical tools.

In these situations and others, perhaps it is irresponsible to disengage from public conversation. And one can appreciate the request to "say something historical!" and oblige. Context is everything.
Again I can't agree more.

I do not think historians ought to be saying things like, "History teaches us that [insert highly dubious claim]." There are fewer more misleading phrases than "history shows/teaches..." That really means, "I am using historical evidence [of whatever accuracy or truth] to argue that..."

I do think historians ought to complicate simplistic pictures and correct untruths, and that, if they feel so inclined and are capable, they ought to do so for the public.

This brought to mind a passage from Timothy Garton Ash's In Europe's Name (1993). He writes
…the end of Soviet communism and of the Cold War posed the largest questions to those disciplines, or branches of disciplines, that made some claim to quasi-scientific prediction.

Most historians make no such methodological claims. Some would agree with E.H. Carr that they should at least have in their bones the question ‘whither?’ as well as the question ‘why?’ Others would dispute even that. Yet in his wry way, Adenauer identified a real problem. It is surely reasonable and right for politicians to ask historians to make informed personal guesses–so long as everyone clearly recognises that they are just that: personal guesses. These guesses are related to the history they write, but separable from it. The history may be good but the guesses bad–or even vice versa. . . . [These guesses] can be overtaken by events in a way that the historical analysis cannot be. For the one thing historians can confidently predict is surprises.
I have to add that Garton Ash has been doing quite well for himself writing on current events for the Guardian.

Do read the rest of Dr. Nagin's excellent post. And a hat tip to Peter Haworth at FPR for bringing Dr. Nagin's post to my attention.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

I know that the public sector is a bureaucratic mess of inefficiency, waste, and complacency. Nevertheless, I can't help but find Russell Arben Fox's view compelling:

The deal Wisconsin made with its state employees was simple: Accept lower wages than you could get in the private sector now in return for better pensions and health-care benefits when you retire. Now Walker wants to renege on that deal. Rather than stiff the banks, in other words, he wants to stiff the teachers–but the crucial twist he’s added, the one that’s sent tens of thousands of workers into the streets, is that he wants to make sure they can’t fight back once he does it.

The reason you can’t stiff bondholders is that they can make a state or country regret reneging on the deals they’ve made. They can increase borrowing costs far into the future, slowing economic growth and, through the resulting economic pain, throwing politicians out of office. That gives them power. An ordinary teacher does not have access to such artillery. Unless, of course, she’s part of a union.

Read the rest at Front Porch Republic

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Nearly ran over a cat coming home from work. White, not black. I got my brake pads replaced a month or so ago, so streaking-cat-in-the-dark was spared.

This past summer a coyote darted across the road just before sunrise. Originally I wrote "just before sunrise after dropping my father off at the airport." I, and not the coyote, dropped my father off at the airport.

I translated, "Book printing had already in the 16th-century great intellectual meaning." Professor circled the final three words, drew an arrow to the verb, and took a point off. I wanted that stilted sound, and it's not incorrect.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Time for Pittsburgh to win number seven.
I've spent the afternoon blasting Okkervil River, Cat Stevens, and Otis Redding and trying to get my mother to dance in the kitchen while she's peeling potatoes.

Better than listening to the talking heads blather about the impending Steelers victory, yessir.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

When choosing between words and not-words...

Note to academics: "problematize" is not a word, nor should it be. "Complicate" works just fine. "Problematic" is an adjective, not a noun. "Problem" works just fine.

The Nation and its Fragments by Partha Chatterjee was... fragmented. Chatterjee argues that the standard, unified story Indian nationalists tell leaves too much out, excludes too much. He substitutes instead a very messy picture. It's possibly more fair to the variety of groups, but it does not make for an enjoyable read. For that matter, neither does the jargon, repeated use of Bengali words without adequate context and definition, and the occasionally muddled prose.

There were some beautiful passages. His examination of Keshabchandra Sen and his analysis of 19th-century autobiographies of Bengali women were particularly lucid and interesting. I also do not doubt that if I were more familiar with Indian historiography I would have liked it better. For most of us, who were coming at it from outside the field and with only loose familiarity with the subaltern school, it was largely inscrutable.

PS: Do check out #035. Except skip the first video, and instead watch the far, far superior version I posted long ago. One of my favorite live TV performances of all time.