Do I have to do the monuments thing?

whoseheritage-timeline150_years_of_iconography
This chart from the Southern Poverty Law Center shows construction dates of Confederate monuments.

So, in the last few weeks, the issue of historical commemoration has come up a lot in the news, with predictable (and presumably self-interested) expressions of concern about preserving history, good and bad. I’m referring of course to the controversy over preserving or removing statues of Confederate leaders in the southern United States (and, bizarrely, in places where the Confederacy didn’t really happen, like Arizona).

I don’t want to explain what others have explained many times, so let me get the obvious stuff out of the way in bullet points:

  • Despite the name, Confederate statues do not (mostly) date from the Confederacy period. They are mostly from the late 19th and early 20th century or even from the 60s. They represent periods of racial resentment and serve to create a narrative of “our” past, where “our” specifically excludes African-Americans.
  • Many other figures of historical importance are commemorated despite their flaws. For instance, George Washington owned slaves, Woodrow Wilson was a racist jerk, Winston Churchill was Winston Churchill, and so on. But these people are not commemorated for the awful things they did (mostly), and in history classes they are usually taught in a nuanced way (at least in my experience). Quick, name something else Nathan Bedford Forrest did that would account for all these statues of him.
  • The US government has historically adopted a calculated policy of leniency toward what can only be described as traitors taken in arms against it. This was the result of specific historical circumstances, including but not limited to the desire to return to some kind of economic stability following a costly war and also a fundamental sympathy to the aims of white supremacy.
  • Not everyone who thinks Confederate statues should be preserved is a racist, but there is a significant overlap that non-racists who oppose their removal need to think hard about.
  • A museum would be a fine place for some of these things, but most could be scrapped without any real loss to the historical or aesthetic value of the areas they’re in.
  • If their purpose is to tell us about an ugly period of American history, which is indeed a valuable purpose, it’s kind of a shame that there aren’t more statues honouring the enslaved people of the era and their struggles — and if you think their purpose is to tell us about an ugly etc., then surely you agree with that statement.

OK, so those are the specific issues of the Confederate statue removal issue. It’s amazing to me that people are just coming to it now, honestly: “both sides” commemoration was something I discussed during my undergrad admission interview at Cambridge (we were talking about postage stamps in those days), and that was in 1996.

You can see parallels in British public commemoration: the most common example would be when some civic philanthropist type turns out to have made his money in the slave trade. People don’t like that because it shows some kind of ambiguity: Jeremiah Whatsisface gave money to the orphans! But he was also a slaver! Whaaaaat? Surely two things can’t be true! The problem, of course, is that statues hold up the whole person as a unitary image.

I think that a lot of people feel that way about Civil War statues, thanks to a media tendency to portray Southern generals as noble and heroic. Robert E. Lee was dignified, courteous and good at being a general. That’s good! But he fought for slavery, although he said it was reluctantly. That’s bad! People don’t like that conflict. They want him to be just a good guy. I don’t think that people who want the statues torn down want Lee to be just a bad guy; they just seem to think (correctly, I would say) that people who fought for bad causes but were not Doctor Doom don’t necessarily merit a billion heroic equestrian monuments.

We don’t seem to have this problem in other conflicts. Erwin Rommel was a nice guy by WWII German standards, which isn’t saying much, but that’s turned him into a chivalrous character in popular imagination. And yet there are not a lot of statues to him in France for some mysterious reason. People seem to have figured out which of the two factors is more important.

Ultimately, and I can’t believe I’m saying this in the context of the murderous clown show we’ve been witnessing over the past few weeks, this is a discussion about the purpose of public history. Are these statues educational? Inspirational? Are they expressions of mourning? Here we see the frustrating ambiguity of historical symbols and the ways in which bad actors can use that ambiguity to slip and slide from one meaning to another. (Well, honestly, everyone does that, just not necessarily with malicious or deceptive intent.)

Leaving out the racism and the people getting murdered, this is a real boon to some of my teaching. One of the things that I try to stress to my students who aren’t really big history fans (it’s a mandatory course for one of my student groups) is that people will use the language of history to try to influence them, and that they need to speak it in order to really understand that.

Not that I think this is some great teachable moment about public commemoration. I think it’s a mess. I’m just trying to get what good I can out of it.

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Do I have to do the monuments thing?

Books I don’t need but still buy

Over the last few days, as is my wont, I bought some used books. Some came from a book stall at the fair that happened this past weekend in my neighbourhood, others from charity shops.

Here are the history-relevant recent purchases:

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I read Ray Page’s book ages ago, and although I’m sure it’s out of date now, hey, it was £1 and it will be handy to look some things up for someone who is not a runes guy. And I gueess I do tutor the impact of Empire part of the history GCSE, so a big illustrated book about it could come in handy.

I have no earthly use for a collection of engravings from 17th-century alchemical texts. But it was £1 and they’re so cool.

This … is the kind of thinking that has led me to own a lot of texts relating to esotericism and the occult.

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Well, I say “lots.” It’s obviously not “lots” by the standards of someone who actually studies the subject, but I’m not that. And insofar as I care about magical and supernatural beliefs — and I do — the things I care least about are alchemy and sort of 18th-19th century ritual magic. And yet I do keep acquiring books about them.

Partly it’s because there are a lot of books out there on the topic, and partly, I think, it’s because they look so cool. I can’t pass them up!

I suppose it does provide lots of material and cool set-dressing for other creative endeavours, but I do worry that people will get the impression that I’m some kind of genuinely knowledgeable occulty type, when I’m just a sort of aesthetic dabbler.

Books I don’t need but still buy

Stories, history, Movie Monday: an example

Imagine that it is the moderately distant future and you are a historian. Some highly specific catastrophe has wiped out historical records except for films (let’s say a cautious film buff built a very secure archive on the moon). Your task is to reconstruct the history of the Second World War, but the only tool you have available is war movies.

You would actually be able to get quite a lot, I should think: for instance, you’d be reasonably easily able to work out the dates, the places and the major combatants. You would be able to identify characters who almost certainly existed (Churchill, FDR, Hitler, various generals, various celebrated heroes, villains or victims). You could probably reconstruct a lot of the uniforms, equipment and technology, even some of the slang and language. You would know that there was a lot of fiction in your sources, but there would also be a lot that even the fantastical sources would agree on.

You would probably get a very exaggerated idea of the role of the US and Britain relative to the USSR, but you’d be a smart, critical person and you would think to yourself that this might be because of the much larger English-language film industry. You would know a lot less about the war in

When it came to specific incidents, though, it would be a lot harder. There are plenty of major battles that have several films about them, so it wouldn’t be hard to pin those down, but I suspect that there are a lot of quite real people and incidents which appear in only one film. You’d be unsure about those: you would know that “based on a true story” was a literary trope (with only a film archive surviving of Earth’s culture, you’d be something of a film-studies expert, after all) and not automatically credit it. So there would be a huge range of stories where you just wouldn’t be able to tell whether they were real or false.

You’d wind up arguing about historical events largely as works of art: so, for instance, Kelly’s Heroes has all the tropes of a comedy film, and comedy films are typically not historically accurate, so that one is probably unlikely. But there would be debate about it in each case. And there would be a huge number of events which were important but which, because they were simply never made into a movie, were completely lost to your knowledge — people whose actions influenced history greatly but who no one of your era would ever hear of.

You would be very conscious that you were studying, not a thing, but the stories told about that thing, and understanding those stories would be a challenging task in itself, requiring its own specific expertise.

This is — a little bit — what it’s like being a historian in most periods.

Now, I’m not saying that Movie Monday is anything more than just an excuse for me to mock things for the kinds of stories they tell about history. I just thought it was a fun analogy.

Stories, history, Movie Monday: an example

I fought the Milanese and the Milanese won

I don’t usually write about gaming on this blog, seeing as how I have a whole other blog for just that purpose. When history and gaming interact, however, I do post about it here. And they interacted for me this past weekend, when I went to the UK’s largest miniature wargaming convention, Salute.

In addition to all the shopping and chatting to friends, I spent much of my time playing a game of Lion Rampant, a medieval wargame. We were refighting the Battle of Lodi Vecchio, a 1239 clash between Milanese crusaders and the inhabitants of the town of Lodi, backed by the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. You can read a blog about the game’s development here.

The game was only part of a larger project being run out of the University of Edinburgh about gaming and history. They hosted a roundtable discussion last year, which got a write-up in Wargames Illustrated. You can read about that here.

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This is a topic that comes up a lot — lots of historians are gamers, after all, and plenty of gamers are history buffs — and I think it’s interesting to see it explored. A lot of people think of gaming and history as sort of … putting some sugar on top of boring old history to get dumb kids interested in it, which I think a) doesn’t work, b) is kind of insulting and c) assumes that one part of the equation is the most important.

On the other hand, it clearly sort of works. Every year in my history class, I get one kid who is surprisingly knowledgeable about the military history of the ancient world. The first time this happened, I thought it was just weird but when it happened twice I realised that the kids were just big Total War fans. And although they get some funny ideas, they are genuinely pretty well-informed, so clearly something is working.

The other question that gets asked is whether we can use gaming to learn something about history, and here I’m a little more skeptical. Ultimately, simulations encode assumptions about reality, from kriegspiel to its digital descendants. The ideas is to teach people practical skills based on your real-world knowledge. But I don’t know how you take that and turn it into a research tool — creating the terms of the simulation requires provisional answers to the very questions you’re asking. I suppose you could just run a bunch of simulations with different assumptions and see how they come out differently, but even then I have some gut reservations about games as simulations.

I do actually use a simplified wargame in one of my history classes, but I’ve never used miniatures in it, if only because it would be a pain to transport them from class to class and I wouldn’t really have a place to put the map in one of my classrooms. Perhaps that will be different in the coming year? I would just need to paint some Turks and Egyptians.

Maybe.

I fought the Milanese and the Milanese won

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.

Evans, Trump, postmodernism

Obituaries and first drafts of history

So Fidel Castro died.

I’m currently teaching a fair amount of Cold War history, so I’ve been thinking of Castro and Cuba, of the way in which both became symbols in American foreign policy. It’s a sad truth that this enemy state is — and, apart from a few weeks in 1962, always has been — so basically harmless to the US that the US can treat it like a symbol despite the fact that it is full of real people.

Harmless other than symbolically, of course.

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Nothing inspires confidence like a ruler-for-life in a military uniform.

So Fidel Castro died. Cue three responses, each no doubt sincere:

  • Fidel Castro was a real piece of work, a dictator who ruled without challenge for decades and then handed power off to his brother, which isn’t exactly the most anti-tyrannical thing you could do. Jailed journalists, oppressed homosexuals, looted businesses, show-tried political enemies and generally demonstrated a complete disregard for civil liberties second only (and crucially) to the rotten gangster he replaced. The fact that leftists are sad about the death of this villain only shows that they don’t live in the real world. Yes, OK, the US’s policies toward Cuba are silly, but that doesn’t mean Castro wasn’t a son of a bitch. BONUS POINT: Jesus Christ, Justin Trudeau/Jeremy Corbyn, what the hell is your problem.
  • Fidel Castro stood up to US imperialism for decades, surviving the malice of a much larger and more powerful enemy that explicitly aimed to kill or topple him (although how seriously they pursued this goal is up for debate). The fact that he could do this — and do this while theoretically more powerful allies dried up and blew away — is a vital corrective to the myth of US omnipotence. He also showed that a country — even a poor country, even a country suffering from a crippling economic embargo enforced by its largest obvious trading partner — could focus on social services in a way that provided a much better standard of living for its citizens than its wealth would suggest. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, but he resisted the unfair attacks of the US and that’s what really matters. BONUS POINT: Jesus Christ, Donald Trump, what the hell is your problem.
  • Criticism or praise of Fidel Castro falls more or less like you’d expect on political lines. What matters, good or bad, is that he was important, a historical figure who punched way above his weight and had a huge impact on politics not only in his own country and the region but around the world. Probably came closer to genuinely starting World War III than anyone else, which … is good? I guess? Not sure about that one.

Naturally I tend to fall into the third category, since the impulse of my temperament is to look at binary thinking and go “must be some possible synthesis” even when there might not be. In this case, I think there is and I think it’s obvious: you can think that the Bay of Pigs was a bad thing and Castro is a bad guy simultaneously, even if prominent politicians in this and other countries don’t seem to be able to.

But the truth is that the people we look up to were often pretty bad guys in ways other than the ways we look up to them. We just gloss over that because it’s history and in history we try to be conscious of and accept contradiction (I guess, maybe). And here we have, I don’t know, current events becoming history, and that transition seems to be painful.

Obituaries and first drafts of history

Teaching and learning

In addition to teaching history, I tutor students in both history and English. Usually I’m much more in demand for English, which everyone takes, but this year I seem to have quite a lot of history students so far. My students all go to different schools, and as a result they’re all doing slightly different topics in preparation for their exams.

Although I’m mostly used to it by now, there’s still something a little odd to me about the way the British system teaches history. Not bad at all, but odd; where US schools tend to go for the broad sweep of world or American history, with a focus on local history in younger years, the British system focuses in the teen years on a very limited number of topics but in great depth.

The idea behind this is that it’s supposed to give the students skills in source analysis, critical thinking, and so on, rather than just memorising a simple timeline and some key dates. Once you’ve developed those skills, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re studying the history of surgery or the rise of Hitler or whatever. The skills are, as they say, transferable.

My point isn’t to argue that this is or isn’t a good idea — like any teaching strategy, it has good points and bad ones. But in some cases, it can be quite hard to separate the specific unit you’re teaching from the background knowledge the students need but don’t necessarily get in this system.

For instance: one group of students are currently doing a thing on the history of migration into and out of Britain. Interesting stuff, actually — they’ve done some stuff on the Jewish community in the middle ages and the early modern period, and they’re just moving on to the Huguenots. Now I have never known much about the Huguenots — like, I could say “they were French Protestants who moved to England to escape persecution in the late 17th century,” and maybe add a few details about the, er, evolving position of Louis XIV on religious topics. Um, and I guess there are some legacies of the Huguenot presence in English names and stuff?

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Huguenots were essentially a “model minority” for many English writers and artists, portrayed as pious, hardworking and respectable compared to their London neighbours. 

So I was a little unsure about this unit and brushed up on the Huguenots a bit before we got going. I’m glad I did; it was interesting stuff. But talking to the students I discovered that the whole thing started with explaining to them what the different between a Catholic and a Protestant was. And … I mean, basically in terms of how decorated churches were supposed to be.

And that took me aback. There’s an immediate impulse to go “what the hell?” but honestly it’s not that surprising. For most British kids, religion in general and the differences between various flavours of Christian in particular — these are not terribly important topics. Most are probably not aware of the religious proclivities, if any, of their classmates or neighbours. And when you zoom in on specific periods or themes only, a lot of the kind of basic background stuff can get lost. Of course, the idea is that this unit teaches kids what the difference between Catholics and Protestants is, what an absolute monarchy is, etc., etc. But if you came up in a system that did it the other way around it can be a little perplexing.

(I may be biased because for me, university was the experience of being thrown in at the deep end in British history, an experience that was certainly educational but also frustrating and confusing.)

Teaching and learning