History

Martin Luther King, Jr., the Comics, and Biography

curtis

This past Martin Luther King Day, in the comic strip Curtis, the title character asks at the dinner table—“Makes me wonder how history would have played out if Dr. King was never born, or never assassinated?” His family’s response is dumbstruck silence. Many historians might have been hard pressed to respond cogently to the fictional eleven-year-old’s question as well.

We have long debated whether great people shape history through their actions or if broader impersonal forces shape historical events and the participants. Martin Luther King, for example, was not the only civil rights leader, and undoubtedly other leaders would have pushed the civil rights agenda forward in the 1950s and 1960s without him. Yet, through his soaring rhetoric, King put his indelible mark on the movement. The story of King’s life has consequently become for many Americans the story of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century.

Though many academic historians have shied away from biography recently, the lives of great men and women are still the primary way that most people learn about the past. People like biography because it enables readers to form mental pictures of the events or actions described and thereby allows readers in a sense to walk in another’s shoes. Biography essentially makes history more accessible and real for readers than jargon-laden academic texts do. In the process, biography provides a good introduction to the politics, economics, social hierarchies, and morality of various times and places that facilitates more mature historical analysis. Biography effectively opens the door to greater historical awareness.

Biography does not need to be just a parade of great men and women either. Many projects are underway today to write biographies or biographical sketches of regular people. Such projects open the door to innovative pedagogical collaboration between teachers, students, and public history organizations. For instance, Saint Anselm students in Professor Salerno’s American Women’s History (HI 359) recently prepared biographical sketches for a national database on militant suffragists arrested in demonstrations during World War I.

Renewed interest in biography might not quell historians’ ambivalence with the genre or put to rest long-standing debates regarding causation (that is, the relative weight of individual action vs. impersonal forces). Still, more appreciation of biography by professional historians will allow us to participate more fully in public debates—even with fictional characters in the funnies.

Curtis’s creator, Ray Billingsley, of course, was not really interested in historians’ debates when he penned his strip. Rather, he rightly wanted to highlight how different American history would have been without Martin Luther King—or how the world would have changed had he lived longer.

Trump’s Election, the Way History Works, and the Arc of the Moral Universe

theodore-parker

One Thing after Another recently read Rebecca Onion’s piece in Slate where she responds to those who, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, have tried to console themselves by referring to history.

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2016/11/don_t_look_to_history_for_an_analog_to_trump_s_victory.html

Onion responds first to the “school” of thought (if we may dignify it with that name) that claims the United States has survived disasters in the past and can therefore survive future disasters. Yet as Onion points out, such an argument forms a very weak syllogism: America experienced disasters in the past; these disasters did not destroy America; therefore, the disaster of Trump’s election will not destroy America. The problem is that America today is not the America of the past, and the dangers presented by a Trump presidency are not the same as those that confronted the United States on previous occasions. Onion’s argument calls to mind the phrase that the Securities and Exchange Commission compels all mutual funds to include in their brochures: past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Second, Onion takes on the notion that “history” is against Trump. This idea amounts to the claim that events move in a particular direction, and that a Trump presidency is some sort of doomed anachronism that will soon be inundated by an unstoppable progressive tide. Most commonly, this position is expressed with a simple, “It’s 2016!” as if to say that Trump, discrimination, inequality or some other undesirable development is, at the very least, out of joint with our times or, at most, plainly impossible. Others make essentially the same case when they refer to Theodore Parker’s claim (made famous when Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased it in an article and later at a baccalaureate sermon at Wesleyan University): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Yes, so the argument goes, Trump has won for now, but the future, which becomes more just as time goes on, is against him. Onion points out, however (and quite rightly), that history has no trajectory of its own that is free from our choices or actions. In other words, following David Sessions, she writes, “we have control over any moral arc that exists,” and “the shape and flavor of the future is in our hands.”

One Thing after Another likes Onion’s essays very much because she relates history to current events in ways that anybody can understand. In this particular case, she is correct so far as she goes. However, she and Sessions make the same mistake that everybody else on Facebook has made when quoting Parker; they have removed his observation about the moral arc of the universe from the context of the sermon in which it was delivered and thus distorted the meaning of his words. Leaving out as they do how and why the arc of the universe bends toward justice, they make Parker’s famous sentence seem, to use Onion’s words, “a big theory of how history happens.” Understood this way, Parker’s statement seems to imply that if we wait long enough, justice will somehow arrive of its own accord. Such was not at all Parker’s message when he wrote “Of Justice and Conscience” in 1852 (which is where his famous statement about the arc of the moral universe appears). As we try to convey his meaning precisely, it makes sense that we use his own words (and refer to  “The Function and Place of Conscience in Relation to the Laws” where he developed his ideas about justice and conscience).

A prominent Unitarian minister who was heavily influenced by the Transcendentalists, Parker (1810-1860) (whose portrait is above) preached in Boston for most of his career. Parker argued there was a natural law that expressed itself, among other ways, as the law of Morals. This law of Morals was immutable, universal, and absolutely right. When one acted according to this law, one fulfilled the moral purpose of his existence and carried out justice. According to Parker, God gave all of us a “Conscience” by which to apprehend this law. The conscience, of course, was imperfect, but it was “adequate to the purpose God meant for it.” If one cultivated one’s conscience, he or she could come to internalize the law and love it. Parker set a high store on the conscience, for it showed the way to “Duty” which was nothing more than obedience to God’s will. Parker stressed that duty trumped everything, including “Business,” which consisted of the obligations laid upon us in our roles as citizens or workers. In making this argument, Parker took especial pains to show how notions of duty then pointed in an abolitionist direction—people ought to follow their duty as dictated by their conscience, disobey man-made laws like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and free their fellow humans from slavery.

Because of their consciences, Parker asserted, people naturally inclined toward justice. Unfortunately, the world did not always reflect this inclination. In the pursuit of their own self-interest, the wealthy and powerful, whether they be “crafty aristocracies” or “monopolists,” had shunned “moral culture” and “scorned justice.” Partially for this reason, government had become “an organization of selfishness” that seemed “to foster the strong at the expense of the week” and “protect the capitalist and tax the laborer.” In such a world, it should come as no surprise that the unjust did not always appear to receive their due punishment.

It is in this context of a world that only poorly reflected divine justice that Parker argued:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged for long.

Why? Because human nature, which yearned for justice as conceived by the conscience, would not tolerate evil forever. The important point is that people would have to take action to bend that arc toward justice. As Parker put it, “In human affairs the justice of God must work by human means.” “You and I can help forward that work,” he told his audience, to “prepare the way for the republic of righteousness.”

And so, in his way, Parker did agree with Onion and Sessions. We are responsible for the arc. We determine how, when, and whether it approaches, asymptotically, the law of Morals. This vision of the world is liberating—we are in charge—but it lays a great obligation upon us as well. Of course, this view of matters raises the question of whether we possess a conscience that truly can recognize justice. The next several years might give us an opportunity to find out.

NOTE: One Thing after Another is indebted to the following post on David Weinberger’s blog: “Does the moral universe arc?”

History Students Rock the NEHA Fall Conference

History 359 Class Celebrating

On a recent fall Saturday, eight Saint Anselm College History majors and minors, one Saint Anselm College alum, and Professor Beth Salerno headed down to the New England Historical Association Conference held at Rivier University in Nashua, NH. The New England Historical Association (NEHA) is the regional branch of the American Historical Association (the largest professional organization for historians in America) and offers a conference twice a year. Professor Sean Perrone currently serves as its Treasurer.

Professor Salerno, Lily-Gre Hitchen ’18, and Sarah Hummel ’19 presented research they did in History 359 American Women’s History (see our related post). Other history majors and minors came along to experience their first history conference and explore areas of particular interest. One Thing after Another caught up with the attendees to find out what they learned at the conference.

Q: What made you decide to propose a faculty/student panel for this conference?

Professor Salerno: During the American Women’s History course, I collaborated with Professor Laura Prieto at Simmons College, sharing assignments and research materials. She suggested that we put together a panel for NEHA so our students could experience a professional history conference. I agreed and we wrote up a proposal for a Roundtable on “Teaching and Learning Historical Skills through a Crowdsourced Women’s History Project.” It included the two of us as Chair and Commentator, plus two Saint Anselm undergraduate students, one Simmons College undergraduate, and two Simmons College graduate students.

Q: What motivated the students to participate on the panel?

Sarah Hummel ’19 (History): I agreed to present my research experience because I was eager to share with other students and educators the lessons that the project taught me. The NEHA Conference seemed like the perfect place to network and share my experience as a historian with like-minded history students and professors.

Lily-Gre Hitchen ’18 (History) It was an opportunity in itself to be able to reflect on work in front of an interested audience. There are many times I have completed a research paper for class that I am very proud of, but the paper is never seen by anyone besides my professor. I was also excited to be able to express my enthusiasm about the assignment, because the crowdsourcing project was a memorable process for me.

Q: It must have been a bit intimidating to give a presentation in front of professional historians.

Lily-Gre Hitchen ’18 (History): I learned that it is important to relax. When I was preparing my talk, I was continuously second-guessing the language of my presentation. I wanted to use complicated diction to express my experiences, but I learned that simplifying the language is necessary for clarity. When giving the presentation, I realized that taking a few breaths to calm down really made a difference. Being too serious or too nervous can sometimes hurt a presentation, and calming down before speaking really makes a difference. It took a certain amount of confidence to be able to relax before the presentation, and this confidence came from trusting myself and my abilities.

Sarah Hummel ’19 (History): Presenting in a conference setting forced me to focus not just on paring down my ideas, but also expressions. I also learned that if you are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the information you are going to present, those two factors make presenting much less nerve-racking – but it’s okay to be a little nervous too!

Q: Did all the student attendees come to your session?

Professor Salerno: Whitney Hammond ’18, Alexis LaBrie ’18, and Chris Griebel (’16, now a fourth-grade teacher at St. Pius School, Lynn, MA) all attended our session. They had been part of the American Women’s History class and done the project as well. They contributed their observations about the impact and value of the project during the audience discussion. The rest of the students attended other sessions during the same time block. They had five choices during each block, giving them a wide variety of options.

Q: For those of you who were not presenting, what drew you to the conference?

Caitlin Williamson ’19 (History): I signed up for this conference because I had never done anything like this before and wanted to see what it was like. Before the event, I was a little nervous (despite not having to present anything) just because I wasn’t sure what to expect out of something like this!

Whitney Hammond ’18 (History): I signed up for the conference because as a senior history major I want to experience as much as I can before I graduate. I think attending this conference was a great opportunity for history majors because we were able to listen to historians and connect what they study to what we studied in our own history classes. It was also nice to be a part of a community of historians and listen to the work they dedicate themselves to.

Q: Can you describe your favorite session?

Cody Face ’20 (History): One panel I went to was War and Order. I found the presentation by Nathan Marzoli (Historian, US Army Center of Military History) rather intriguing. He discussed the 12th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, a Union regiment during the Civil War that fought at Chancellorsville. This battle happened to be one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, and a major Union defeat (It is often seen as one of Robert E. Lee’s greatest victories). Instead of focusing on the battle itself, Mr. Marzoli focused on the view of the soldiers. We heard about two brothers lying next to each other amidst the chaos of gunfire, shrapnel, and screams of agony when all of a sudden one of the brothers was shot and killed instantly. Such an incident was eye-opening in that it gave us a sense of what these soldiers faced. It added a sense of gravity to the Civil War, as if I myself was affected by it. His presentation was engaging, and his use of technology made it easy to imagine the battle being fought (he provided pictures of the battleground). All in all, it was a very effective performance on his part.

Lisette Labbè ’19 (Psychology Major and History Minor):  I went to one of the panels that discussed new and different historical approaches—which made me realize that although history is the study of the past, the discipline is still very much alive and adaptive. I think it’s fascinating to see historians find different ways to approach history, because it seems like there are many different approaches that have yet to be discovered.

Caitlin Williamson ’19 (History): My favorite panel of the day was focused on the 1860s and 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement. I immediately chose this panel because I’m in Professor [Andy] Moore’s Civil Rights Movement class this semester and was excited to see what different perspectives the papers on the panel would give me. My favorite paper out of the whole day was from this panel. It was on modern civil rights action and how college campuses are confronting their various histories, especially with notable alumni of many prominent institutions being slaveholders or having otherwise done something in the past that is unacceptable today. The professor had many examples at universities like Harvard and Yale, and her paper got me thinking more about how the Civil Rights Movement that is thought to be a thing of the 1950s and 60s is not over just yet.

Q: Did attending the conference change your sense of the past or the profession?

Alexis LaBrie ’18 (History and Criminal Justice Major): I gained a better sense that much of the historical profession is devoted to research. A person picks a topic that she find interesting and then she spend her whole life analyzing it. The other side of that is historians are constantly reevaluating moments in the past to incorporate new findings and perspectives. The questions that most commonly came up were, “What was the impact on the community/state/country?” I was struck by historians’ curiosity concerning the effect of the event and its lasting impact.

Sarah Hummel ’19 (History): Up until now, I thought the bulk of what historians did was researching and writing. This conference, both in presenting and in attending other panels, taught me that while writing and researching are important, the process of sharing this knowledge is just as important – and just as thrilling! It is comforting for me to have a better idea of how people can make a living and enjoy their career in a major that is often overlooked or underappreciated. Now, I am even more excited to be a history major – there are so many ways to share knowledge which are just as exciting as acquiring it.

Q: Would you recommend this opportunity to other history majors?

Whitney Hammond ’18 (History): I think it is a great opportunity for those interested in History, and I would definitely try to attend at least one conference before you graduate. I was even thinking of attending the next one because of how much I enjoyed it. It was really great to be surrounded by a community of people who all care about and appreciate history.

Lisette Labbè ’19 (Psychology Major and History Minor): I think more students should go to these conferences to really experience the culture of historians and learn about new topics that you may never have thought about. I think it is also a great opportunity to listen and learn about topics you are truly passionate about and to be able to talk to those scholars who specialize in it.

Caitlin Williamson ’19 (History): I learned from this conference how specific research such as this gets. Many papers looked at one specific individual, or a specific time period, rather than an entire group of people or a trend throughout decades. This was especially helpful as I look forward to possibly writing a thesis in the coming years. This conference presented me with examples of what historical research really looks like.

Gladwell’s Revisionist History is Neither Revisionist Nor History

gladwell-revisionist-history

It is difficult to describe to people who have never heard of Malcolm Gladwell what he does for a living. He is a journalist, author, and public speaker who writes about the kinds of things calculated to appeal to the movers and shakers of the new tech world: tipping points, intuitive thinking, innovation, the secrets to success, and so on. A staff writer at The New Yorker, he has produced a number of influential books, including, most recently, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). Gladwell has recently launched a podcast entitled “Revisionist History” which studies the same types of questions in the same Gladwellian way.

http://revisionisthistory.com/

An essay by Allison Miller, “History and You: Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Revisionist History’ Podcast Cleanses History of the Past,” which recently appeared in The Baffler, has taken Gladwell to task for masquerading as a historian:

http://thebaffler.com/blog/gladwell-podcast-miller

Miller points out that crafting history is an act of empathy. As she puts it, “Analyzing the past requires you to see a particular set of circumstances from someone else’s point of view—knowing full well that the gulf between then and now will prevent you from truly understanding them and what they faced.” To analyze people from the past, though, Gladwell relentlessly employs the latest concepts garnered from the social sciences. These concepts generally do not recognize that people from the past were fundamentally different. Miller chooses the example of Episode 1, “The Lady Vanishes” to explain the faults of Gladwell’s modus operandi. A concept that he borrows from the social sciences (in this case, “moral licensing,” which comes from social psychology), she argues, is an inappropriate tool for explaining why Victorian artist Elizabeth Thompson did not obtain admittance to the Royal Academy for her widely acclaimed painting, The Roll Call (1874).

thompson-roll-call

Having listened to a number of episodes on “Revisionist History,” One Thing after Another couldn’t agree more with Miller. Gladwell’s podcast disregards one of the most fundamental truths established by the discipline of history: everything—including people’s behaviors and world views—changes over time. Miller does neglect, however, to mention another important way in which “Revisionist History” fails to live up to its title. The way in which Gladwell applies his various concepts from the social sciences indicates that he does not understand what the word “revisionist” signifies when associated with history. Over time, for a wide variety of reasons, historians constantly revise their understandings of the past—they employ different methods to interrogate it, they use different sources, they bring different world views to the task, or they use their imagination in different ways. History is an ongoing conversation in which many interpretations are provisional; no matter how well they explain the past, they are usually superseded by subsequent understandings. This process of revision is what revisionist history is all about. For Gladwell, though, revisionist history appears to consist simply  of revisiting certain past incidents and solving their mysteries definitively. There is no sense that his findings are part of a larger exchange or that they are in any way tentative. Gladwell provides clarity and closure. One obtains the impression that for Gladwell, the past is merely a scene where he can demonstrate the utility of his latest interesting theory in cracking various paradoxes.

This attitude on Gladwell’s part may be the product of sloppy thinking (surprising in someone who was a history major as an undergraduate). One cannot help noting, however, that Gladwell himself benefits from peddling this point of view. Using the social sciences to solve many puzzles from the past, Gladwell dramatically expands their jurisdiction and gives the impression that they produce immutable, universal laws that transcend time and space. Who should benefit from this impression but the popular purveyor of social scientific explanations, Gladwell himself?

One Thing after Another is not merely attempting to defend history’s turf for turf’s sake. The questions Miller raises about how to do history have important implications. As Miller points out, those who wrestle with the past can develop the judgment to provide a variety of feasible alternatives for the future. Gladwell’s vision is very attractive; he provides easily grasped certainties. History is less attractive; it asks us to wrestle with an alien past for the sake of sharpening our judgment. At the end of the day, as we confront the future, Gladwell supplies answers. History, on the other hand, compels us to struggle, but in so doing, it gives us the opportunity to develop wisdom.

Kane Lands Job with Brown Brothers Harriman

lili-kane-cropped-final

Lili Kane ’16 (Lynn, MA) had scarcely graduated last May before she obtained a real plum of a job (involving history no less!) with Brown Brothers Harriman in Boston, MA. One Thing after Another contacted Kane to ask her about her experiences at Saint. Anselm College and her new position.

On November 1, at 7 PM, Kane will appear with other alums at the Living Learning Commons (new dorm) to discuss career opportunities for History majors. Appearing with her will be:

  • Lisa Palone ’95, Editorial Research Manager, WGBH (where she is the content manager for the Emmy-winning public affairs program, Frontline)
  • Dan Puopolo ’98, Managing Director, NextShares Solutions LLC
  • Stephen Shorey ’11, Staff Attorney, Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Public Records Division

Q: What brought you to Saint Anselm College, and why did you major in History?

A: I came to Saint Anselm College not only because of the fantastic food and gorgeous campus, but also because of the sense of opportunity. I knew I wanted to attend a college that was academically challenging and offered small class sizes so I could easily engage in class conversations and get to know my professors personally. I also valued how invested the school was in setting up volunteer opportunities around Manchester. Saint Anselm College immediately created a sense of community for me, and I never for a second regretted my choice.

When I started my freshman year, I had yet to declare a major, but I knew I was interested in history. I’ve always loved to read, so I decided to take a couple of history courses. The introductory course I took with Professor Masur (History 100: Introduction to the Study of History) was challenging, intriguing, and super fun. At the time (and even at graduation) I had no idea what I was going to be doing with a history degree, but that didn’t matter because I knew I was receiving a strong education and that was all the confidence I needed.

Q: Back in July, you landed a job as an Enterprise Services Senior Specialist at Brown Brothers Harriman in Boston, MA. Tell us a little bit about the firm and what you do there.

A: Established in 1818, Brown Brothers Harriman is the largest private bank in North America and by far the oldest. A linen merchant by the name of Alexander Brown emigrated from Ireland to Baltimore where he created a private, family-owned merchant bank with his four sons. Strategic investments and innovative business decisions have transformed Brown Brothers Harriman from leaders in merchant banking and transatlantic trade to an integrated worldwide financial services firm. My role as an Enterprise Services Senior Specialist has given me a unique perspective on the firm. I work in General Administration where I help the team with any administrative support, but my main focus is on managing the firm’s historical archives and research.

With the firm’s bicentennial (in 2018) quickly approaching, my knowledge of the firm’s past will prove helpful to any department looking for historical information. Also, since Brown Brothers Harriman is very proud of its history and longevity, it is publishing a book that will tell the story of their last 200 years—and I will be assisting the author in his research!

Q: In what ways do you think your history background might have helped you obtain the job and prepare you to undertake the tasks associated with your position?

A: If it had not been for my history background, I am certain I would not have this role at Brown Brothers Harriman. I had applied for an entry-level operations position, and a woman from HR contacted me about this role because my major at Saint Anselm caught her eye. Brown Brothers Harriman was looking for someone who could do research, enjoyed history, and was able to multitask while doing additional administrative work. When I went for the interview, I told my future boss that this role had my name written all over it. I still have a lot of researching ahead of me, but with the skills I learned at Saint Anselm—how to actively read, critically think, and look at the bigger picture—I have no doubt that I will succeed in this role.

Q: While you were at Saint Anselm College, you also minored in Communication and got an internship with the Office of College Communications and Marketing (CCM). What were the tasks associated with this internship? What did you learn that helped you at Brown Brothers Harriman?

A: My internship with the Office of Communications and Marketing really helped me develop my writing skills. In my history classes, I was always a decent writer, but I frequently struggled with getting all my thoughts effectively on paper. As an intern at CCM, my daily tasks were to draft news stories for the college website. I never realized how challenging journalistic writing was. My experience as an intern at CCM strengthened my ability to write in a simpler manner, which is valuable in my role at Brown Brothers Harriman since what I write there tends to be shorter (e.g. informative news blurbs) than, say, a history research paper.

I truly cannot emphasize enough how important internships are. I felt so confident in myself when this job began because I knew I had the education and a significant amount of experience that could all be tied into this role.

Q: You’re from Lynn, MA. What’s the best thing about your hometown besides Marshmallow Fluff?

A: Well, fluff is pretty awesome, BUT what I think the best thing about Lynn is that we’re called the City of Firsts. Lynn had the first baseball game under artificial light, the first iron works, first fire engine, and a bunch of other stuff. But I bet you’ll never guess that Lynn had the FIRST roast beef sandwich. Marshmallow Fluff and roast beef—Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin likes classy food.

Assessing Historians against Trump

trump-2

Yes, it’s time for Trump yet again! Back in July 2016, Historians against Trump (HAT) produced “An Open Letter to the American People” in which they enunciated their objections to Donald Trump and articulated the special role historians ought to play in opposing Trump’s candidacy.

http://www.historiansagainsttrump.org/2016_07_01_archive.html

This open letter elicited a sharp response in the New York Times Sunday Review from Stanley Fish, the legal scholar and prominent literary theorist best known, perhaps, for developing reader-response theory:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/17/opinion/sunday/professors-stop-opining-about-trump.html

As indicated by the History News Network, scholars have assumed different positions on this dispute between HAT and Fish:

http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/163390

What is the proper role of historians in relation to a Trump candidacy?

One Thing after Another does not wish to recapitulate HAT’s entire argument in detail, but to generalize, it seems to revolve around the following points. First, Donald Trump’s candidacy presents an “exceptional challenge . . . to civil society.” Second, historians are especially well positioned to recognize this challenge, partly because of their knowledge of the past and partly because of skills they have developed in assessing documentary evidence. Third, the “lessons of history” compel historians to speak out against Trump. Fourth, historians have a special role to play in educating the public so that it is better capable of protecting civil society and resisting the appeals of people like Trump.

Fish contests the view that historians are especially qualified to assess Trump or somehow inoculate society against political charlatanism. As he puts it,

while disciplinary experience qualifies them to ask and answer discipline-specific questions, it does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom.

Fish is adamant that history does not produce objective truths in general, and historians acting as historians should not confuse their political opinions with facts.

The dispute over HAT, then, is not really about Donald Trump (Fish claims his disagreement with HAT is not inspired by support for Trump). Rather, it concerns a) what role historians should play in public political discourse and b) on what basis they should play that role. At the risk of sounding a bit wishy-washy, One Thing after Another thinks HAT has overreached while Fish’s view of history’s jurisdiction is too narrow.

Fish and others have charged that HAT has assigned a privileged position to the discipline of history. HAT, of course, does not explicitly claim that historians are better than anybody else, and there is some justice in David Schlitt’s claim that Fish has engaged in a “bad-faith reading” of HAT’s letter.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/19/opinion/historians-sound-an-alarm-about-donald-trump.html?

The introduction to HAT’s letter, however, does seem to imply that historians possess special insights derived from the unique nature of their discipline that allow them to understand the challenges presented by Trump better than anybody else. They “recognize . . . ominous precedents,” they “understand” the consequences of the ugly side of politics (e.g. “the enduring appeal of demagogues, the promise and peril of populism, and the political uses of bigotry and scapegoating”), and, most important of all, they know the “lessons of history.”

One Thing after Another will leave to one side the question of whether HAT thinks the discipline of history should assume a particularly distinguished role in opposing Trump. First, while they sail close to the wind on this issue, they don’t explicitly come out and say that history is primus inter pares among disciplines in this particular case. And, second, if they did, such a position would be unsupportable. Many other fields have important contributions to make on this question (take economics, for example):

http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2016/08/25/economists-whove-advised-presidents-are-no-fans-of-donald-trump/

What interests One Thing after Another more is HAT’s claims about “precedents” and the “lessons of history.” “As historians,” HAT claims, “we recognize . . . the ominous precedents for Donald J. Trump’s candidacy.”  What exactly are these precedents, and what do they signify? We are none the wiser upon finishing the letter. For a missive written by a collection of historians on behalf of historians, this piece is curiously bare of references to the past (there are some links buried in the text, but nothing particularly sophisticated).  If HAT intends to take a leading role in educating the public, it needs to do better than that. The only clue HAT provides explain its reference to precedents is a photograph of Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First rally in 1941. The problem is that Donald Trump is not Charles Lindbergh, and the United States in 2016 is not the United States in 1941.

HAT cannot loosely refer to precedents without explaining them—otherwise, how can we scrutinize the group’s argument? Use of the word “precedent” suggests an analogy is being made, but HAT must actually produce the analogy so we can measure its soundness. We cannot take analogies for granted; as this blog has repeated many times before, historical analogy is a very tricky art. To name one particularly pertinent example, over the last year, historians and others have referred to a wide variety of historical figures in an attempt to locate someone who resembles Trump. Is he like Andrew Jackson? William Jennings Bryan? Huey Long? Joe McCarthy? Nelson Rockefeller? George Wallace? Pat Buchanan? Is he a Mussolini in the making? Or is he sui generis? So long as we cannot fix on a particular person, it is hard to claim that we have established a definitive precedent, let alone “lessons of history.”

An intimation of what HAT means, perhaps, comes from Renate Bridenthal who signed the letter and defended it in the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/19/opinion/historians-sound-an-alarm-about-donald-trump.html

She writes:

As a historian of Germany, I found our letter much too mild. Historians are responsible for the collective memory of peoples, and just like individuals with memories of past trauma, we are obliged to shout “stop!” when we see familiar signs of coming disaster.

The suggestion is that, at worst, Trump is like the Fascists and Nazis of the 1930s and 1940s. The degree to which this analogy works is debatable, and we have discussed this point on One Thing after Another some months ago:

https://saintanselmhistory.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/is-donald-trump-a-fascist/

More important, does a knowledge of 1930s Germany give one a good sense of what Trump will do or how his policies will play out? Not only is Trump different from Hitler in many ways, but the United States in 2016 is quite different from Germany in the 1930s. In this context, One Thing after Another recalls George Orwell’s observations in The Road to Wigan Pier about what British fascism could possibly look like should it take hold of that country:

When I speak of Fascism in England, I am not necessarily thinking of [Oswald] Mosley [the leader of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s] and his pimpled followers. English Fascism, when it arrives, is likely to be of a sedate and subtle kind (presumably, at any rate at first, it won’t be called Fascism), and it is doubtful whether a Gilbert and Sullivan heavy dragoon of Mosley’s stamp would ever be much more than a joke to the majority of English people.

Orwell argued that Fascism would not be about jackboots and uniforms as it had been in Italy or Germany; in Britain, it would come dressed in tweed. In other words, events in Italy and Germany were of limited utility in determining what would happen in Britain (where Fascism did not succeed). Precedent and analogy can only serve our purposes if the two things being compared are clearly similar. That is, of course, unless one uses the word “precedent” in a most general way (e.g. thoughtlessness, lying, xenophobia, and disrespect for the law will lead to stupid, unethical, bad, and criminal policy). If that’s how HAT means to use the word “precedent,” then we are not discussing some special or precise insight that only people with doctorates in History possess. Rather, we are discussing something that any person with a modicum of sense might figure out on his or her own.

As for the “lessons of history” (an expression that no academic historian has ever uttered in One Thing after Another’s hearing), there are serious problems with this concept. Fish has a point when he takes HAT to task for using these words which make history sound objective, definitive, static, and monolithic. As even undergraduates will tell you, history is a representation of the past grounded in an interpretation of primary source documents. Interpretations vary according to the way different historians understand the world which is why the field is characterized by debate. Not only that, as the concerns of historians evolve over time, the questions they bring to the documents also shift. For these reasons, history is contested and constantly changing. Under these circumstances, how does one produce “lessons of history,” especially when historians respect every event as unique?

Although HAT get some things wrong, that doesn’t mean that Fish gets everything right. Fish has a narrow view of the historian’s proper sphere. He writes that historians’

disciplinary experience qualifies them to ask and answer discipline-specific questions, it does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. . . . It’s their job to teach students how to handle archival materials, how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence, how to build a persuasive account of a disputed event, in short to perform as historians, not as seers or political gurus.

This blog is all in favor of preventing the discipline from overreaching itself, and One Thing after Another would feel uncomfortable if historians sought to become political leaders, guides, seers, and gurus. While they should do something less than these tasks, they should do something more than answer discipline-specific questions. Historians have much to contribute as the nation and the state confront important questions. For sure, the discipline will not provide definitive answers (or lessons), but it can hone our judgments and allow us to approach problems in a careful and methodical manner. This blog is reminded of The Economist’s special report on the Arab world (“The War Within,” May 14, 2016). This extended and interesting rumination on the instability and divisions that plague that part of the world—in which we are so interested today—is well illuminated by its understanding of history. That being the case, it seems to this blog that there is a public space beyond the boundaries of the discipline that historians ought to fill, but they ought to be judicious in filling it.

Ixnay on the Council of Historical Advisers to the President

Obama's Cabinet

In an article entitled “Don’t Know Much about History,” which appears in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Graham Allison (a political scientist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard) and Niall Ferguson (the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard and a Hoover Fellow) have resurrected the call for a Council of Historical Advisers to the President.

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/09/dont-know-much-about-history/492746/

One Thing after Another is all about making historically informed decisions, and this blog relishes the kind of influence that might accrue to historians (but only up to a point). However, the arguments Allison and Ferguson present on behalf of this initiative are problematic and seem to show a mistaken understanding of history’s true power or jurisdiction.

Allison and Ferguson lament that “for too long, history has been disparaged as a ‘soft’ subject by social scientists offering spurious certainty.” What they would like to see is a “new and rigorous ‘applied history’—an attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing precedents and historical analogies.” Through these means, applied historians would “find clues about what is likely to happen, then suggest possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences.” Practitioners of this history could provide the President and his Cabinet with the advice on which sound policy could be framed. Allison and Ferguson argue that if historians had counseled President George W. Bush in 2003, he might have realized that regime change in Iraq would probably lead to a Shiite regime beholden to Iran. They also claim that if President Barrack Obama had understood more about the history of Russia’s relationship to the Ukraine, he would have handled Russia’s annexation of the Crimea better.

These examples seem ill-chosen. It would not have required a historian to make the kind of judgments that Allison and Ferguson would have preferred to see in both cases. Even more questionable and significant, though, is Allison and Ferguson’s faith in history’s ability to provide definitive answers to contemporary problems. Unfortunately, when it comes to worthwhile questions, history is only occasionally definitive; more frequently, it is a running conversation or debate among historians that may have a tendency toward an answer. History, after all, is a part of the humanities. Allison and Ferguson envision a situation where applied history would be to mainstream history what medical practice is to biochemistry or what engineering is to physics. The analogy is instructive. Biochemistry and physics are natural sciences. For sure, these fields are characterized by debate, and their models of the natural world are constantly revised to account for various anomalies. Nonetheless, biochemists and physicists can speak with more confidence and exactness about a host of phenomena in their fields than a historian can in his. Yes, historians deal in facts, and in history there are wrong answers. But historians do not and cannot establish historical theories that bear some resemblance to scientific theories—largely because historians cannot isolate the effects of each independent variable in an experiment that can be reproduced. It is for this very reason that in many previous posts, One Thing after Another has inveighed against the careless and over-frequent use of historical analogies. Events across time are usually too dissimilar to do the work of replicated experiments.

The kinds of questions that Allison and Ferguson propose sending to such their council also do not inspire much confidence that they fully appreciate this point about historical analogies. For example, they ask: “As tensions increase between the U.S. and China in the South and East China Seas, are U.S. commitments to Japan, the Philippines, and other countries as dangerous to peace as the 1839 treaty governing Belgian neutrality, which became the casus belli between Britain and Germany in 1914?” One Thing after Another is not really sure how the 1839 treaty governing Belgian neutrality was dangerous to the peace in 1914. It is sure, however, that questions such as this one are based on mistaken premises:

https://saintanselmhistory.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/2014-is-the-not-the-new-1914-china-is-not-the-new-germany-and-america-is-not-the-new-britain/

The short answer is that the causes of war in Europe in 1914 (let alone the circumstances of that time and place) are not really comparable to the potential causes of war in Asia in 2016.

Or what about when Allison and Feguson propose posing “what if?” questions to this council, such as: “What if Obama had enforced his ‘red line’ against the Assad regime, rather than working with Russia to remove Syrian chemical weapons? Was this decision, as critics maintain, the biggest error of his presidency? Or was it, as he insists, one of his best calls?” It is hard to see what historians bring to the table in assessing this moment from the very recent past, unless Allison and Ferguson have a particular historical analogy in mind. This suggested question probably comes from Ferguson who is a big proponent of counterfactual history and even edited a collection of essays entitled Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997). Such exercises are useful in pointing out that developments in the past were often contingent and not determined. However, counterfactual claims in history are impossible to prove, and they are uncertain ground from which to issue strong judgments of policy.

Finally, Allison and Ferguson suggest a whopper of a question for the council to tackle: “Is the U.S. in decline?” On its face, this issue is not necessarily one for historians to study (it does not have a historical dimension). If Allison and Ferguson believe they can use historical analogies to crack this nut, it is hard to see what state or empire from the past they propose employing for the purpose. Assyria? Rome? Spain? Austria-Hungary? Britain? All of these comparisons present huge challenges. This question of decline does bring Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987) to mind. Kennedy was an ambitious historian who sought to gain entry into policymaking with this book. In other words, Kennedy did the kind of applied history that Allison and Ferguson recommend. While The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was influential in its time and had the appearance of a magisterial work, it aged fairly quickly, its findings were not always useful, and its predictions were not necessarily fulfilled.

At this point, one may ask, if a council of historians cannot offer us much help through a new “applied history,” what’s the point of studying history? One Thing after Another responds (patiently, since it has been over this point before in previous posts) that history does not provide precise answers about questions arising from our immediate predicaments. At most, it helps us understand how certain situations came to be. In general, though, it should hone our judgment, provide insight into human nature, inspire empathy, and inform (but not determine) our decisions. Such an answer might be too “soft” for ambitious historians, but it is important that they do not promise too much, overreach, and bring unwarranted discredit on the discipline when they cannot deliver.