Evans, Trump, postmodernism

OK, so, this might be a long one. Bear with me.

I was an undergraduate in 1999 when Richard Evans’ In Defence of History came out. Indeed, I may have been genning up for the Historical Method and Theory paper. I wound up writing about the use of archaeological evidence, which was prescient of me, but at the time Evans’ book was the latest thing, the more so since he then came to Cambridge, an event celebrated by a very public debate with Quentin Skinner and … er … someone else. It was a long time ago. In the book, Evans argued against what he saw as a postmodernist disregard for truth and further argued that this kind of thing gave aid and comfort to those with no regard for truth — creationists, holocaust deniers and so on.

I am far from being an expert on postmodernism, but I recall thinking as I read the book that I suspected that Evans was cherrypicking extreme and possibly unrepresentative examples of postmodern history to beat on, which I believe was a common complaint at the time. I’m also not 100% convinced that when Evans and the people he attacked talk about “facts” they’re really talking about the same thing at all, a criticism which I believe has been made better elsewhere. If you’re interested in the debate, there’s a good chunk of it here, as Evans and his critics battle back and forth in honour of the release of a new edition of E. H. Carr’s classic What Is History. (That’s not the exact edition, so if you want to get the one with Evans’ foreword you’ll have to look for the one with a big blue eye on the cover.)

But I’m not really interested in talking about Evans’ full-throated defence of good ol’ “common sense” empiricism, not least since I suspect that even the most radical deconstructionist still shares 90% of their historical DNA with a commonsense empiricist. It’s the other point that I wanted to talk about today, since it turns out that Richard Evans has a Twitter account.

If you missed this, which I suppose is possible, it’s about the recent inauguration of US President Donald Trump. Trump got a moderate-to-small-sized crowd for his inauguration, which is understandable given that a) he’s very unpopular, b) he’s especially unpopular in Washington, and c) it was a rainy Friday afternoon. But this wasn’t good enough for Trump, who is a) a dipshit manchild and b) the President of the United States, and he sent his hapless press secretary Sean Spicer out to give the media a tongue lashing for believing their lyin’ eyes instead of the Real Truth. He got raked over the coals for this by the unsympathetic papers, as well he might. As the totally unnecessary controversy persisted, Trump surrogate Kellyanne Conway tried to defend Spicer on Meet the Press and wound up making an even bigger arse of herself, claiming that Spicer was merely presenting “alternative facts.”

Cue outrage from everyone you might expect: there’s no such thing as “alternative facts!” Post-truth era! To what has our society come! People were quick to blame the Internet, Fox News, partisanship, whatever. And Evans jumped in to blame … postmodernism. And, in the same way that I don’t think holocaust denial and postmodernism have a lot to do with each other, I’m not wholly convinced the connection is as strong as it might be in this case.

Let’s get the two obvious objections out of the way. First, Conway probably misspoke. When she said “alternative facts,” she seems to have meant something like “facts that support another interpretation” not “there’s no such thing as truth, ha ha ha.” People who care about truth seized on this because it was the perfect two-word encapsulation of Trump’s shameless, unrestrained mendacity, not because they actually think Kellyanne Conway doesn’t believe in facts.

Secondly, the historical idea that Donald Trump is somehow steeped in postmodernist discourse is absurd. For one thing, he’s 70 years old and went to university in the 60s. For another, he was an economics major. And for yet another, he’s … I mean, he’s not a big reader. People in a position to know have speculated that he has not read a book from beginning to end in fifty years. The idea that he himself is a product of the postmodern university environment is so goddamn dumb it can’t possibly be what Evans intended.

Indeed, Evans clarified later that he was referring to people like Conway and Spicer, who graduated from university in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Kellyanne Conway went to a Catholic university, Trinity Washington (it was called Trinity College back then) and studied political science. I don’t know if it was a hotbed of postmodernism, but superficially it seems unlikely. Spicer, perhaps, is a more likely candidate — he went to a small private liberal arts college in Connecticut, so maybe it was  nothing but dope-smoking Derrida freaks, I don’t know.

But it’s not like Spicer came out and told the press corps that relative crowd size was a story inscribed on the past by the media and that they should be open to a multivocal inaugural narrative. He came out and shouted at them that they were misrepresenting what he presented as the real truth, bolstered by mock-evidence in the form of misleading photographs and made-up statistics. He didn’t act like a postmodernist, he acted like a conspiracy freak, or if you prefer, a hoaxer.

So we can rule out the idea, I think, that Conway, Spicer or Trump subscribe personally to postmodern theories of, I don’t know, incredulity toward hegemonic narratives. Did I say I wasn’t an expert on postmodernism? Conway and Spicer are the usual combination of cynical opportunism and partisan blindness, while Trump is a combination of a bullshitter in the Frankfurtian sense and a goofy old dope who only knows what he sees on television. You don’t need to have “imbibed relativism” to be a powerful man’s cringing toady or a self-involved fantasist. So what does this have to do with postmodernism?

As it happens, Evans thinks that postmodernism has created an academic environment in which conspiracy freaks who might otherwise be laughed to scorn now get an equal hearing. And there’s … a leetle bit of evidence to support that. I was once at an archaeological confidence where goofball fantasist Michael Cremo (who is a very nice and affable man in person) was invited to speak. And while everyone at the conference knew that this was some kind of weird academic performance/joke/provocation by organiser Cornelius Holtorf in which young defenders of archaeological orthodoxy were tested by their exposure to a pseudo-archaeologist in person, it’s just possible that someone was persuaded by Cremo who wouldn’t otherwise have been because he was able to put “invited to speak at the 2007 conference of the European Association of Archaeologists.” I don’t think it’s likely, but I won’t rule it out.

So perhaps post-modernism has made people more willing to be tolerant of goofuses. But, and assuming this is directed at the media and the left generally, I have not noticed that kind of tolerance being extended to groups like, say, the Tea Party, who most people are happy to point out were a bunch of conspiracy fabulists. The US media’s ludicrous refusal to call a lie a lie until recently, so decried by the left during the Bush years, actually stems from the opposite of postmodern concepts — a strict insistence on “objectivity” and “neutrality.” As I understand postmodern thought — and again, not an expert — postmodernists don’t believe in those things. And not like “don’t believe in slavery” don’t believe, but like “don’t believe in unicorns” don’t believe.

So I think it’s very hard to identify the roots of either Trump’s lying or people’s responses to it in relativist indoctriation.

One of the things that people always say about Trump is “this is not normal.” And within the confines of 20th-century American politics, it’s not. But within the sweep of global history, outrageous political lying is hardly unusual. Hitler accused the Jewish community of all kinds of shenanigans, French revolutionaries saw counter-revolutionary conspiracies where there were none (and sometimes where there were), medieval preachers accused Muslims of horrible atrocities, blah blah blah. People often propound, and almost as often believe, what they need to be true. Obviously, this is a historical phenomenon that predates Trump or American politics generally.

The specific form this takes is one that’s bolstered by a world in which there is no longer a single, authoritative voice to heed. There’s no longer someone you can just rely on, whether a Pope, a king, or an expert. Authority hasn’t spoken with a single voice in a long time, not since printing presses became cheap enough that there was one per political party. And with the growth of cable news, the internet, social media, well … you know the story. Your friend shows you a link from realobviousnews.com and you think well, maybe. But the way in which these different truths are contested isn’t the postmodern one; it’s the conspiratorial one. The real facts are these — the man / big business / SJWs / whoever don’t want you to know them!

You could argue, I suppose, that postmodernism as a way of thinking about knowledge had to result from a society in which this diversity of opinion existed — and furthermore, perhaps, from a society in which some sort of more-or-less, rough-and-ready sense of empiricism was the force that was supposed to counteract that. But it seems to me anyway that opportunistic political liars and/or cranks would use the proliferation of partisan and conspiratorial viewpoints as cover, with or without postmodernism. In fact, surely you can see that exact phenomenon in fields that have never had any real dealings with postmodernism? If you look at medicine, for instance, it’s not like there aren’t snake-oil salesmen, quacks, well-meaning but wrong mystics, “alternative” medicine advocates and whatever other kind of pseudoscientist you can think of, all peddling their wares and increasing their power in a field that you can hardly say has been corrupted by the creeping relativism of the Continent. But the same media and technological trends exist for doctors as for everyone else.

(Medicine, in fact, provides a fine example of the idea that the certainty of truth claims and the, er, truth of them aren’t correlated. In the Middle Ages everyone was pretty much on the same page in terms of the value of truth and falsehood, but they didn’t know shit about anything. But that’s a separate issue.)

Anyway, I thought wild generalisation unsupported by evidence was what we objected to about the French.

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Evans, Trump, postmodernism

Sundiata and Alexander

I have been trying to read more this year, trying to get off social media and actually put a book or two in my head. So far it seems to have been working! One of the books I read this January was D. T. Niane’s Sundiata: an epic of old Mali, which I picked up in a charity shop ages ago and then just never got around to reading. It’s a fascinating read — the epic tale of West Africa’s equivalent of King Arthur. Sorcerers! Battles! Prophecies! Severed heads! It’s got everything you want from a medieval epic; I sort of want to see the movie. Sadly, this one’s out of print, and the revised edition seems really expensive, but there are other books on Sundiata you can check out.

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One thing that I thought was really interesting about the story was the historical comparisons. Sundiata is a 13th-century figure, and the stories about him are mostly later, of course. But the figure that Sundiata gets compared to most isn’t a medieval figure. In fact, it isn’t even an Islamic figure, although his dynasty does claim descent (or early association?) with one of the companions of the Prophet. No, it’s Alexander the Great.

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He also listened to the history of the kings which Balla Fasséké told him; enraptured by the story of Alexander the Great, the mighty king of gold and silver; whose shone over quite half the world.

And this isn’t just one case. Sundiata is compared to, or said to be inspired by, Alexander frequently throughout the text. Indeed, he’s compared to him more than to any other historical figure. Heck, I think it might be the only historical comparison in the story. Apparently there was a historical tradition that said there were seven conquerors in history, with Alexander being the second and Sundiata the seventh and last. This looks like it comes from the Muslim traditions about Alexander.

I don’t know what my point is here, other than that I was not expecting to see such an interest in Alexander in medieval West Africa, although in retrospect it should seem obvious that there would be, just as there was in medieval Europe and the Near East.

Sundiata and Alexander

TV Tuesday: Frontier

I have only watched one episode of Frontier, the new Canadian historical drama showing on UK (and presumably other) Netflix, so this isn’t really a review of the show. It’s more of a commentary on what on earth is happening in the world of entertainment and what that means for historians and history lovers.

So, first things first, I don’t know if this show is any good yet. It is definitely an attempt to fit into the gritty-historical-violence school of things. I watch Netflix shows with the subtitles on, and the captions were all bloodcurdling scream and wet stabbing sound for much of the show. It starts with three dudes getting their throats cut and pretty much goes from there. So it’s definitely going for that RomeGame of Thrones audience, I suppose. Jason Momoa plays a half-Irish, half-Native American fur trapper operating rogue outside the limits of the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly, with Alun Armstrong as the Company official sent to stop him. Those are your big names (well, apparently Raoul Trujillo is also in it) but then there are various scrappy thieves, drunk priests, up-and-coming businessmen, world-weary barkeeps, ambitious young officers, desperate Native American warriors, beardy voyageurs and so forth in the rough and tumble 18th-century wilderness.

Now that sounds like a pretty good premise for a show, and it’s entertaining enough, although pretty predictable for the most part. But what is completely bizarre is that I stuck this thing on my Netflix list and later that day said to my wife “oh, I added this new show where Jason Momoa and Alun Armstrong play fur trappers in 18th century Canada.” I mean, just think about that statement. That is nuts.

It’s not that there have never been historical television shows before; of course there have, your I, Claudii and so on. The BBC churned them out to a consistently high standard. And there are definitely certain genres that keep recurring: westerns, for instance. But I do think it’s weird that there’s a … what looks like a relatively high-budget … adventure show about fur trappers in 18th-century Canada. I mean, at least Black Sails is about pirates. Everybody loves pirates. Do Canadians think about fur trappers in the same way as everyone else thinks about pirates? Canadian readers of this blog, I’d love to know. Because, I mean, I’m going to watch it, obviously, but it seems like a tough pitch for most people. Or maybe the pitch is just Jason Momoa smouldering at the camera.

It just seems like an era for this kind of thing, and in a way that is sad, because it means that some quite good shows get left behind. It’s like … if you had told 12-year-old James that in his adulthood there would be so many DC Comics TV shows that he literally wouldn’t have time to watch them all, he would have laughed at you. But it’s true! And there are more coming! And the same applies to weird little historical dramas. Of course, thanks to Netflix I can just stick ’em on the list and catch up at my leisure. Perhaps that’s the difference; with a transformed model of TV viewing, you can target directly to your history buff audience or what have you.

I don’t know; I just thought it was an interesting example of a change I’ve been noticing.

 

TV Tuesday: Frontier

Movie Monday: The Siege of Jadotville (2016)

I tend to just stick any historical film that turns up on Netflix in my list with the aim of writing about it for this blog, even if I don’t really know anything about it. That was the case with The Siege of Jadotville, a 2016 Irish movie about the, er, siege of Jadotville, in which a force of Katangan militia and mercenaries attacked a force of Irish UN peacekeepers in 1961. The film is based on a 2006 book about the battle, which reopened interest in a battle that had basically been overlooked for many of the intervening decades.

The whole thing was part of the Congo Crisis, specifically the Katanga secession, in which a mineral-rich southern province seceded from the newly-independent Republic of the Congo, backed by European mining interests. Bloody civil war over mineral rights in a Cold War context, with massacres, incompetence, and so on. Ugly stuff, today mainly remembered for the death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld in a possibly-suspicious plane crash. I suspect that the murky political nature of the conflict — and the fact that the defenders ultimately surrendered to forces that weren’t a real army — is the reason for the general silence about the event, but I’m not an expert.

In terms of war movies, this definitely is one. A tough, smart commander (Jamie Dornan), a bunch of mildly-individualised squaddies, and the double-dealing SOBs back at headquarters who hang the men out to dry. Some historical context, some scenery, plenty of exciting battle scenes and a couple of bigger-name actors in supporting roles (including Mark Strong as Conor Cruise O’Brien, here given a very unsympathetic treatment).

It’s nice to see a movie about a lesser-known conflict. It’s also nice to see a movie that focuses on soldiers who are explicitly not a bunch of battle-hardened tough guys. Indeed, much is made of the fact that this is the Irish army’s first real overseas deployment. You definitely get the appropriate sense of desperate, improvised heroism, like a more frantic Zulu: historians estimate the defenders of Jadotville killed about 300 of their attackers for losses of, er, zero. Whether that’s true or whether they see double when they’re counting enemy bodies as has been the ccase in various conflicts around the world I don’t know.

Anyway, it’s not exactly ground-breaking stuff, but it’s an enjoyable, well-made war movie about an interesting conflict that’s (mostly) effectively evoked. If you like war movies and feel like watching one some evening, this is definitely worth your time.

Movie Monday: The Siege of Jadotville (2016)

More reading: The Traitors’ Pit

So as part of my reading over the holidays I finally read The Traitors’ Pit by V.M. Whitworth, which I bought over the summer but never really had time to get around to. I wrote about the first of these books, The Bone Thief, back in July or so.

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Once again, we’re following the adventures of Wulfgar, a West Saxon cleric working for Aethelflaed, the famous “Lady of the Mercians,” in the early 10th century. I like Wulfgar because he’s a very unusual protagonist for an early medieval novel — neither a heroic warrior type nor some kind of transplanted Sherlock Holmes figure. He’s just this guy, you know? Whereas the last one was about the capture of the relics of Saint Oswald, this one is about politics and war along the Northumbrian-Mercian frontier, with politics and justice (if that’s the word) back in Winchester. It’s fascinating stuff.

I enjoyed this novel a great deal, partly because it’s, you know, good, and partly because it does some things that I wish more books set in the period did: for starters, it puts Christianity at the centre of its lead character’s worldview in a way that feels authentic and complicated. This comes through in the scenes that surround one of the main plot lines, in which one character takes an ordeal to prove that another character was innocent of a crime — only the alleged culprit is dead. It’s a great way of illustrating how concern for a person’s soul in the late Anglo-Saxon world continued after death.

On a personal note, this book filled me with a sort of pleasant melancholy. So much of it is about things I immersed myself in for years: late Anglo-Saxon society, its religious imagery, its justice system and above all its burial customs. I can see how different parts of it sprung from the research the author did for her Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England, a book I read over and over again while I was doing my PhD. It was a sort of privilege to be able to see the background of it, but it was also a somewhat gloomy reminder of back when I was a promising young scholar. Or at least after a couple of drinks it was.

Anyway, what can I tell you? It was good, I liked it, I’m gonna read the next one.

More reading: The Traitors’ Pit

New reading for a new year

Happy new year, everyone. I have been mostly cleaning my study to create space for some new arrivals, but I wanted to take a moment to mention some new additions to the bookshelves here at head office.

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It’s Larry Gonick’s two-volume Cartoon History of the Modern World, which is in turn the conclusion to his three-volume Cartoon History of the Universe, about my love of which I have written before. I loved the early volumes when I was a kid, and while there are some bits you want to fact-check (and, as in history, maybe a few things that aren’t quite appropriate for younger readers, although of course younger readers love that sort of thing), I think that for the level of detail they contain they’re actually pretty good basic history books. And, of course, they’re a lot of fun. There are five volumes in total, plus a Cartoon History of the United States, which I had at one point.

Anyway, I’ve already started on these and I’m looking forward to getting them done, although I’ve shelved them for now.

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So satisfying.

 

New reading for a new year