Join 3,494 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Professor Grumpy's Historical Manifesto
October 16, 2012 3:58 AM   Subscribe

Put another way, the historian is the ‘Internal Affairs guy’. This is a well-known figure in popular TV ‘cop shows’ and rarely a ‘good guy’. He or she is there to suppose that the hero has lied or done something wrong and that the villains might have been wronged or be telling the truth. The character rarely turns out to be as unsettling as that but it works as an analogy. For me, the historian is not there to provide comforting truths but to question them. The historian must always be prepared to wonder whether the ‘heroes’ of history are not, in fact, the villains,

Noted Late Antiquity/Early Middle Ages historian Guy Halsall shares his view of what studying history and being a historian is about.
posted by MartinWisse (23 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Until I got past the fold I was convinced this was about Howard Zinn.
posted by HuronBob at 4:03 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


The problem is that most people aren't interested I factual history. Instead, it's the myths and legends that inspire most people.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:33 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is a well-known figure in popular TV ‘cop shows’

Those who do not know history watch reruns.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:37 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


First as tragedy, then as farce, then as a Law and Order rerun.
posted by googly at 5:09 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


And now all I can think about is Forest Whitaker.
posted by mean cheez at 6:05 AM on October 16, 2012


I disagree with his take on the direct relevancy of history, or just historical facts, but this is probably because I'm a historian of the post-WWII U.S., and not a medievalist -- the people I study, are, in large part, still alive (which, according to my medievalist friends, makes what I do not quite history, but that's another story).

But this is great: Clio, the muse of history, is like Jesus: she brings not peace but a sword. She will make you rethink everything you think you know; everything you think you hold dear; she will make you question everything. Everything you were brought up with; everything you thought natural. She’s not here to wrap you in cotton wool and say ‘there, there’ everything is just how it’s supposed to be. She’s not there to bring succour to your view of your country, or smooth over the bad stuff that it did, or to soothe your conscience about the massacres perpetuated in the name of your religion, or the slaughter committed by people who at least claimed to share your political beliefs. She’s there to make you uneasy. She’s there to stop you from falling victim to her evil twin, Myth.

If nothing else, it explains why all the historians I know drink so much.
posted by heurtebise at 6:07 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Put another way, slightly flippantly, the question we are always asking is not ‘is this bastard lying to me, but why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ (an adapted quote from a famous journalist.)

I wish I'd had this guy as my history teacher in high school. I might have paid attention and actually learned something.

Anyone know who the "famous journalist" is that he's quoting?
posted by otherthings_ at 6:13 AM on October 16, 2012


Oh, it's Louis Heren, apparently.
posted by otherthings_ at 6:18 AM on October 16, 2012


> I disagree with his take on the direct relevancy of history, or just historical facts, but this is probably because I'm a historian of the post-WWII U.S., and not a medievalist -- the people I study, are, in large part, still alive

Why does that make you disagree with him? How exactly does studying people who are still alive make your slice of history more relevant (as opposed to more immediate)? His point still holds:
The past has no power; it’s dead and gone. It can’t make you do anything. These people are choosing events from their understanding of the past to justify what they are doing or what they want to do in the present.
That's as true whether the past involved is last millennium or last week. People are driven by what's in their minds right now, and if it serves their interests they'll cheerfully ignore whatever you as a historian think should be important.
posted by languagehat at 6:29 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Really interesting article. I agree with a lot of what he says. As he suggests, saying "History is important because it teaches us about today" is lazy and rarely true. Again, like he suggests, it's as much the case that history teaches us how people behave and how to think critically as anything else - in that regard his Clio paragraph is right. Historian's trust no-one because, like Dr House, we know full well that "everybody lies."

That said, whilst the Internal Affairs analogy is good, it's not entirely fair. The relationship between history and myth is not entirely antagonistic, nor is the sole job of a historian to pick apart existing beliefs. To continue the law enforcement analogy, the historian's job is sometimes to build the case as much as it is to pick holes in the witness. Good historians can build new dreams, not just tear existing ones down.

The problem is that most people aren't interested I factual history. Instead, it's the myths and legends that inspire most people

This is a belief that's pretty prevalent but which actually really annoys me, because I just don't think its true.

People like myths and legends because they like stories. That's the way we've been wired since year dot, so why fight it?

Too often as historians we fail to take our audience into account when we write, or when we talk. It's important that the facts exist, that the historian knows them and has done their research, and that he or she "can show their working out" when prompted, but for 99% of people its the underlying story that matters, nothing more. Tell that and everybody wins. The reader (or listener) gets a great story and a good fact-based understanding of things. Save the detail for those who want it - other historians, or those readers for whom that tale sparks a real interest beyond the basic story.

The British Space Programme is one of my own areas of study, for example, indeed I've posted on here about it before. So when someone in the pub says:

"Oi. Garius. Dave here doesn't know we used to have rockets! Tell him about the rockets!"

I could happily go on for hours about the different fuel and material studies, the political and military infighting that shaped the programme, and the budgetary rules and changes. In fact I'd love to - as a historian I find that fascinating and important. But honestly, apart from other historians and engineering junkies who on earth would want to listen to that?

So instead I tell them about secret post-war V2 launches, rocket tests on the Isle of Wight, and - if they're still obviously interested at that point - our one and only Satellite. Good stories. Good factual history. People learn something. I (normally) get a free pint. Everybody wins.
posted by garius at 6:30 AM on October 16, 2012 [11 favorites]


> for 99% of people its the underlying story that matters, nothing more. Tell that and everybody wins. The reader (or listener) gets a great story and a good fact-based understanding of things.

Aren't you overlooking a basic problem? The fact-based stories historians try to tell are often not stories people want to hear. The basic story of U.S. history is "Europeans came over here and dispossessed a bunch of people weakened and disoriented by the diseases they had brought, then brought over a bunch of other people from Africa and enslaved them, building their prosperity on stolen labor and stolen land." That's not a story most Americans want to hear. And try telling most Greeks a fact-based story about Macedonia. (This is also why intelligence services are in large part useless; when they try to tell leaders facts that don't jibe with the leaders' preconceptions and desires, they get ignored.)
posted by languagehat at 6:38 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


The basic story of U.S. history is "Europeans came over here and dispossessed a bunch of people weakened and disoriented by the diseases they had brought

Remind me to, when Eric Lund ever finishes his master thesis, to do a post about the real secret of American history, miscegenation. As in actually, too few Europeans came over to America to populate the country at the speed the history records and books show they did, so where did all those extra colonists come from? Had the native Americans really died off as dramatically as the standard story has it, or were some/many of them reclassified? Is the US, in other words, not that different from a country like Mexico or Brazil in its (racial) history, just more in denial about it?
posted by MartinWisse at 7:01 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Aren't you overlooking a basic problem? The fact-based stories historians try to tell are often not stories people want to hear

Well that's back to the "tailoring to audiences" thing. Yes, sometimes you have to tell stories that people don't want to hear, in which case you need load up with facts and maybe, depending on context, let them down as easy as you can.

Sometimes you also just have to write a hard-nose piece that pretty brutally says "No. What you're recounting is a myth and it is important that I address it. The true history is this." If you do that though, then you also have to accept that you're probably going to fall on deaf ears or at the very least fight your corner, because you're telling people something they don't want to believe.

Overall, though, I just think that too often its easy to, deliberately or not, take a negative approach to factual history rather than a positive one. It's easier to use the awesome power of facts to bust myths - modern or ancient - rather than using them to create new stories.

To pull on on what heurtebise said above: yeah, historians know that a good chunk of everyone's world view is built upon lies. We also know that everyone else is lying all the damn time. Just because that's driven all of us to drink though doesn't mean we automatically have to share the pain all the time.
posted by garius at 7:09 AM on October 16, 2012


As in actually, too few Europeans came over to America to populate the country at the speed the history records and books show they did, so where did all those extra colonists come from?

a) a LOT of people came - millions from Ireland alone.

b) they had a LOT of babies. Bigger families, more children surviving (overall better nutrition than in Europe). It's amazing what only a small change in birth rates will do - the population of England and Wales more than doubled after 1750 due to a small change in births (thus exceeding deaths).

Unlike Mexico, Central and South America, there is very little evidence of extensive intermarrying in the now US and Canada. From the start, the English colonies were much more racially segregated than French or Spanish colonies, and people of mixed-race less accepted. The "one-drop rule" was essentially the English approach; the French, for example, were racist, but in a much more graded way.

So away from kooky history and back to the article: maybe he feels the way that he does because he does early medieval history. But I still find that early modern and even medieval history is relevant all the time, like "where did THAT come from?" and "how well did this go the last time we tried it?" and "is there any evidence that an economy/society actually works that way?".
posted by jb at 8:16 AM on October 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh: and combating nationalist myths isn't anything to scoff at. It's probably one of the very most important things that a historian can do. Some people talk about the harm that religion has done over the centuries -- but that pales compared to the devastation that nationalism has wrought.
posted by jb at 8:17 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


After reading this, I finally connected some dots between my major (history) and my career in software testing, which I arrived at on a rather circuitous path. The most important commonality? Question assumptions.

Thanks for posting this.
posted by Currer Belfry at 9:04 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Checking out grave mounds of wandering German hordes: best job evar!
posted by No Robots at 1:52 PM on October 16, 2012


I think it's a good article, but the "The historian must always be prepared to wonder whether the ‘heroes’ of history are not, in fact, the villains" pull-quote does it a disservice (and is actually kind of contrary to the point of the rest of the article).

It's all too easy to simply flip the script on the prevailing consensus and consider the critical thinking done -- indeed, that's often the most intractable kind of error, because it has all the "truthyness" of real insight, tied up in a nice neat little bow -- but it's not sufficient to just reverse the paradigm: one has to try to work outside that paradigm completely.

The historian has to be comfortable living in a world without heroes and villains, period.
posted by Amanojaku at 3:04 PM on October 16, 2012


You know, I was just talking to a friend of mine about history. She thinks it's "boring" but ironically will read 1000 page fantasy books full of made-up history, which I find odd when, well, the real world is so much bizarre (but has regrettably fewer dragons) and interesting because it actually did happen.

But the root of her problem is, essentially, the curriculum at her school narrowed the broad sweep of history down to a few names, dates, and places, so as far as she's concerned "History" is something you're quizzed on, not the history of human development. I mean, The War of the Roses has to rival Game of Thrones for "War of succession with lots of awesome battles and personalities" but we reduce it down to "Started 1455, ended 1487," so of course it doesn't seem to have relevance to anything. It's just dead dudes and dates, things you memorize for a quiz, then forget for the next quiz.

Likewise, I was talking about a history class I took with a feminist professor several years back and the white men were astonished and outraged that we didn't spend a lot of time on The Triumphant March Of White Dudes Through History (Greece, Rome, Europe, Colonization, England, America, WW1, WW2, oops we're out of time) and instead focused on great civilizations in Africa (which I literally hadn't known existed), the Americas, and China. And I was fascinated because I didn't know those things existed at all.

So I think people would be more interested in the facts rather than the legends if it was presented to them properly and less "You need to know this for the quiz tomorrow."
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:44 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Speaking of "Internal Affairs", the 1992 BBC series Between The Lines was excellent.

(yeah, Howard Zinn and Will & Ariel Durant were excellent).
posted by ovvl at 4:42 PM on October 16, 2012


The War of the Roses has to rival Game of Thrones for "War of succession with lots of awesome battles and personalities" but we reduce it down to "Started 1455, ended 1487," so of course it doesn't seem to have relevance to anything.

And Game of Thrones does?

You can't spend your whole life blaming school for your own lack of curiosity. I'd sooner give your friend the benefit of the doubt and assume she simply doesn't like history. Fair enough. I'm not keen on chemistry, however much I may like Breaking Bad.

I'd also say that history should not be reduced to black and white. Yes, the slave economy and new diseases* did factor into the rise of America. Hang your heads in shame if you must. On the other hand, all that good stuff dismissed here as feel good propaganda (rule of law, pioneer grit, social mobility - the usual) did play a role as well. If it were just a matter of slaves and theft, there are any number of cultures that should have skyrocketed but somehow never did.

*NB, however, that it was pure coincidence that smallpox and measles are easier to catch than syphilis. Try a counter-factual sometime with those microbes reversed, and you have a whole other world history.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:22 PM on October 16, 2012


I'd also say that history should not be reduced to black and white. Yes, the slave economy and new diseases* did factor into the rise of America. Hang your heads in shame if you must. On the other hand, all that good stuff dismissed here as feel good propaganda (rule of law, pioneer grit, social mobility - the usual) did play a role as well. If it were just a matter of slaves and theft, there are any number of cultures that should have skyrocketed but somehow never did.

Yeah, the important distinctions between the fates of North American, South/Central American, and Australasian cultures after their respective conquests argues somewhat against the "well, it was all just killing and theft" model. The latter being another wonderful example of a story people (in this case, a minority within the general population) want to believe.

In my experience, people are usually quite interested in history, if you take the effort to make it engaging. But only when the history under discussion doesn't touch on sore points - the colonization of the Americas being one, or the Vietnam War, or the actual political and religious views of the Founding Fathers, or certain parts of the history of Christianity. Or, going outside the Anglo-American sphere, the Vichy regime in France, or the Sino-Japanese wars in both China and Japan.

While we're bringing up Zinn and the Durants (I still have all their books! God, those two were awesome!), seems to me Noam Chomsky is a very good example of someone who, through books and lectures, seeks to illuminate recent history in a way that's both lucid and engaging and bluntly honest. And one of the interesting points he often brings up is that the people he meets and talks to (even those not of his political persuasion) are very interested in these matters, and willing to discuss them at length with him. I think the idea that people are just stupid and disinterested is a sort of sop that historians and activists offer themselves to explain a lack of success that may have other roots, or to preclude the need to make the effort at all.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:03 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow. Should have italicized that first paragraph, there.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:39 PM on October 17, 2012


« Older The operation was called Operation Barmaid, and it...  |  Alfred Eisenstaedt, LIFE magaz... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments