Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Is History History?

I recommend that you read Bret Stephens fascinating NYTimes piece. Some clips:
The End of History was supposed to have happened back in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and Francis Fukuyama announced the conclusive triumph of liberal democracy. We know how that thesis worked out. But what happens when the other kind of History — academic, not Hegelian — starts to collapse?...That’s a question that James H. Sweet, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the president of the American Historical Association, tried to raise earlier this month in a column titled “Is History History?” for the organization’s newsmagazine. It didn’t go well...Sweet’s core concern in the piece was the “trend toward presentism” — the habit of weighing the past against the social concerns and moral categories of the present.
Sweet was immediately attacked by the cancel culture of left-wing academics and felt obliged to issue an apology. Stevens notes that
...the larger shame is that Sweet had important things to say in his thoughtful column — things that the reaction to the column (and the reaction to the reaction) now risk burying...Between 2003 and 2013, a dwindling number of history Ph.D.s, he noted, were going to students doing work on topics preceding 1800. At the same time, historians were producing works that “collapse into the familiar terms of contemporary debates,” particularly those connected to identity politics.....“This new history,” he wrote, “often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines.”
...Sweet was warning that historians risked doing an injustice both to their own profession as well as to the past itself by falling victim to “the allure of political relevance.” His main example came from a recent visit to the Elmina Castle in Ghana..which has become a kind of shrine for African Americans seeking a place to memorialize enslaved ancestors...Sweet says as a historian of Africa, “less than 1 percent of the Africans passing through Elmina arrived in North America” — most...ended up in Brazil or the Caribbean. And those who were enslaved were often first brought to Elmina by other African brokers who promoted the slave trade just as cruelly and greedily as the Europeans with whom they did business.
That does nothing to diminish the evil of the trade, much less its relevance to America’s past and present...But it helps put it into a global context in which the roles of victim and victimizer seldom fall neatly along a color line. If that challenges current orthodoxy, it’s only because that orthodoxy is based on a simplistic understanding of history. The proper role of the historian is to complexify, not simplify; to show us historical figures in the context of their time, not reduce them to figurines that can be weaponized in our contemporary debates.
Above all, historians should make us understand the ways in which the past was distinct. This shouldn’t prevent us from making moral judgments about it. But we can make better judgments, informed by the knowledge that our forebears rarely acted with the benefit (or burden) of our assumptions, expectations, experiences and values. There’s a lesson in humility in that, as well as a reminder that we are only actors in time whose most cherished ideas may eventually seem strange, and sometimes abhorrent, to our descendants.
Sweet's column...
— which bent over backward to showcase his liberal bona fides — ignited the usual progressive furies. Anyone looking for further confirmation that modern academia has become a fundamentally ideological and coercive exercise masquerading as a scholarly and collegial one need have looked no further. It will be interesting to see if Sweet manages to hold on to his post as the American Historical Association’s president...If people are wondering how history ends, maybe this is how: when a scholarly discipline tries to turn itself into something it isn’t, making itself increasingly irrelevant in its desperate bid for relevancy.

1 comment:

  1. I tend to look at this from the other direction. There are a lot of people strutting around now who are in for a shock in a few decades when the current "correct" positions have been replaced by whatever comes next. It's seems more than a little conceited to believe that one reached the final position on any subject. We are as likely as people in the past to be wrong on a slew of issues.