Bravery, and historical pursuits

Recently on twitter,  Maureen Ogle  suggested that we historians have "ceded the field" of writing history for a mainstream audience. Journalists, novelists, and others, have filled the gap. I don't entirely disagree, but I'm not sure I'd characterise it as "ceding". Many historians just don't have the access to the popular media and trade publishers that established journalists do.        Vida's study of the under-representation of women  in many literary venues—and the editorial responses to it—show that editors might not be consciously trying to keep women out, but they tend to stick with the (male) writers they already know. The same situation is probably true for academics trying to break into the mainstream market. If  Harpers  wants to run a historically themed piece, they're likely to give that assignment to a writer they already work with, not start looking for an academic. Indeed, an academic is probably the last person they'd ask. Far from serving as a qualification to get one's foot in the door, I've found that having a PhD in the subject area makes magazine editors very wary. One admitted as much to me, saying academics tend to be bad writers. I do want to engage a popular audience, I'm trying very hard to do so. So it's not a case of my ceding anything, but not having the platform.    But are we, the experts, the best at communicating our knowledge of the past? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. William Cronon (President of the American Historical Association),  rekindled the debate on whether academic writing is too dull to appeal  to a wide audience, which  prompted a range of replies , including that not everyone in academe wants to appeal to popular readers.    I tweeted recently about trying to peel the sticky resin of academese from my writing. Writing a PhD and various other academic works has made my writing worse than it was before. Mark Twain may have said that "Education is the path from cocky ignorance to miserable certainty", but a PhD program is the path to miserable  uncertainty . We use the passive voice, we equivocate, we acknowledge multiple interpretations of the the events of the past. Partly this is to pre-emptively fend off critiques from fellow academics, who will nail us for not addressing various sub-issues and tangential debates. We lack confidence. There's an acquired style in academe, and I acquired it.     This confidence is partly why journalists and other non-academics can produce more readable, arresting, historical texts. Dan Snow (who has not passed through the confidence-eradication process of graduate school) has a twitter account, "Dan's History Fact", in which he posts various nuggets of historical information, frequently incorrect. He's been called out on this many times, but doesn't seem to care. I mention this because any academic historian would have curled up dead from embarrassment at having posted so many things as historic "facts" that were urban legends or just plain wrong. But why should Snow care? He still has a large number of followers.    I'm struggling right now to regain some confidence and authority in my  writing. I received comments on a recent piece which could be summed up as "be less dull". I have to remember how to write  as myself , not as the platonic academic ideal.



Recently on twitter, Maureen Ogle suggested that we historians have "ceded the field" of writing history for a mainstream audience. Journalists, novelists, and others, have filled the gap. I don't entirely disagree, but I'm not sure I'd characterise it as "ceding". Many historians just don't have the access to the popular media and trade publishers that established journalists do.

Vida's study of the under-representation of women in many literary venues—and the editorial responses to it—show that editors might not be consciously trying to keep women out, but they tend to stick with the (male) writers they already know. The same situation is probably true for academics trying to break into the mainstream market. If Harpers wants to run a historically themed piece, they're likely to give that assignment to a writer they already work with, not start looking for an academic. Indeed, an academic is probably the last person they'd ask. Far from serving as a qualification to get one's foot in the door, I've found that having a PhD in the subject area makes magazine editors very wary. One admitted as much to me, saying academics tend to be bad writers. I do want to engage a popular audience, I'm trying very hard to do so. So it's not a case of my ceding anything, but not having the platform.

But are we, the experts, the best at communicating our knowledge of the past? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. William Cronon (President of the American Historical Association),  rekindled the debate on whether academic writing is too dull to appeal  to a wide audience, which prompted a range of replies, including that not everyone in academe wants to appeal to popular readers.

I tweeted recently about trying to peel the sticky resin of academese from my writing. Writing a PhD and various other academic works has made my writing worse than it was before. Mark Twain may have said that "Education is the path from cocky ignorance to miserable certainty", but a PhD program is the path to miserable uncertainty. We use the passive voice, we equivocate, we acknowledge multiple interpretations of the the events of the past. Partly this is to pre-emptively fend off critiques from fellow academics, who will nail us for not addressing various sub-issues and tangential debates. We lack confidence. There's an acquired style in academe, and I acquired it.

This confidence is partly why journalists and other non-academics can produce more readable, arresting, historical texts. Dan Snow (who has not passed through the confidence-eradication process of graduate school) has a twitter account, "Dan's History Fact", in which he posts various nuggets of historical information, frequently incorrect. He's been called out on this many times, but doesn't seem to care. I mention this because any academic historian would have curled up dead from embarrassment at having posted so many things as historic "facts" that were urban legends or just plain wrong. But why should Snow care? He still has a large number of followers.

I'm struggling right now to regain some confidence and authority in my  writing. I received comments on a recent piece which could be summed up as "be less dull". I have to remember how to write as myself, not as the platonic academic ideal.

Crowdsourcing historical research: an experiment

Yesterday I put on google docs an article draft. The piece is called "Landscape Projections" and it is about the presentation of Australia's environment in historical film. You can see it here:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1uaByekdygE3h7qRPgRKbPl-Nf3b3cDvmZu_dwubSz...

I am interested to gather people's responses to the piece, and any suggestions they may have for improvement. (I was also curious to see how many people actually read it, and I've been pleasantly surprised on that score).

So, take a look, and let me know what you think.

Every you, every me

I was struck by something Timothy Burke wrote at Easily Distracted, as a comment on one of his own posts, which was progressively threadjacked.

He was writing in relation to the discussions of rioters in London, vs. the bankers responsible for the economic meltdown. The contrast between those scrambling to make excuses or find cultural explanation for rioting, while not looking at financial practices in the same way, reveals a blind spot in a lot of people's thinking. As Professor Burke wrote:

But you’re singing my song on a point that I frequently harp on (including in classes, to my poor students) which is that for a very long time much qualitative social science has shown very little interest in elites or powerful social groups like soldiers or bureaucrats in the same terms that it takes an interest in many other social groups, e.g., as groups that have “cultures”, that are the products of social conditions, and so on. Lazy or simple versions of the social-conditions-produce-and-justify-practices ought to be just as forgiving of neoconservative bombing of Iraq. Admittedly, part of the reason that there are very few ethnographic studies of military or security force cultures of torture (for one example) is methodological: the powerful have very little interest in welcoming ethnographic inquiry into their habitus, even when that’s not strictly secret in some sense. But part of it is also the assumption by a lot of people on the left that the elite are already fully understood in this sense. Which I don’t really see: if I had to teach a class on the everyday cultural world of the most elite financial capitalists, I would have very few studies to put on the syllabus that would compare with what I can offer in a course on everyday life in rural southern Africa. I’d have to use memoirs, novels, and journalism, which is fine, but it’s still a notable gap. Unless what people mean by assuming that these worlds are already known to inquiry is because academics or leftists typically believe that they themselves are part of or known personally about such elite social contexts or that the self-representations of elites in the public sphere are accurate or useful guides to their everyday practices.

This relates to the kind of problem I bump up against regularly in my research, which involves assessing the cultures of colonialism at different sites. I don't often see scholars finding culturally determinist explanations for European empires. However, at the the high point of European expansion, we could easily say it was a longstanding part of European culture to beat people up and take their land. The defeated either sucked it up and learned to bow to a new king, or they rallied their friends and pushed the invaders out. (see Spain, reconquest of). And pretty well every part of Europe had been on both sides of that equation (conqueror and conquered) at some point in their history.

Historians, whether we like it or not, tend to vew the colonialist elites of the past as our equals, to be judged on our terms, while the subaltern groups are condescended to and excuses are made for their culture-bound hopelessness. I'm reminded of this response to the Aztec exhibition at the British Museum, which said a lot of what I was thinking at the time. If an exhibition of the history of the slave trade showed shackles and whips and did not say "look at this evidence of human cruelty" but "look at the fine workmanship on that!" most of us would be horrified and outraged. Why wasn't the Aztec show seen in the same way?

If Europe’s explorers and conquerors are condemned as invaders, pillagers and exploiters (which means judging them by our contemporary standards of morality), then we have to hold other groups to the same standard. Otherwise it’s like saying “oh, those poor benighted tribal people, with their simple understanding of the world, we can’t condemn them for their child sacrifice/cannibalism/cruelty. But those white Europeans, we can condemn them for witch hunts/slavery/torture, because they should have known better.”

Evil people and nasty practices have existed everywhere, at all times. So have good people. I am certain there would have been some Aztecs who thought the murder of children was wrong, and who tried to stop it. Diversity of opinion within a group isn’t something we in the educated West have exclusive claim to, either. “People of [group], believed x....”. Really? All of them? Can you think of one thing today that “everyone believes”?

Either we're all trapped by our cultures, or nobody is. I'm frequently annoyed with people who describe themselves as "very spiritual". This irks me because I regard "spirituality"—in the sense of having an interior life, rather than adhering to any particular religion or philosophy—as an essential element of being human. To say one is "very spiritual" is like saying one is "very human".

Which brings me back to Professor Burke’s useful point about rioters and bankers: if we’re to excuse the rioters for their culturally determined behaviour, the same excuses have to apply to the bankers. Or conversely, theft is theft. If you expect better from someone because they wear a suit and work on Wall St than you do from a teenager in a hooded sweatshirt, what kind of class snobbery is that?

 

Black interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg

This is a great film from Mondo Black about the role of African American interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. Starting with considering what people will do for employment in the recession, this documentary asks: would you be willing to play a slave? 

I've written about Williamsburg before, and it has wrestled in the past with how to present the history of slavery for visitors.

Hat tip to Larry Cebula of Northwest History for posting this video.

International Women's Day: in numbers too big to ignore

This month is the 100th anniversary of the first International Women’s Day. The day was commemorated for the first time on 19 March, 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, following its establishment during the Socialist International meeting the prior year.

Helen Reddy's I Am Woman was the official theme song when the United Nations declared 1975 International Women's Year. Since then, International Women's Day has been celebrated on March 8. (International Men's Day is celebrated the other 364 days).

 

Assume the Position

I've been flying a lot lately. Most often I'm waved through security - I
have my laptop out ready for scanning, and obediently remove my shoes. I
smile and am polite. But still, my bag is sometimes searched, or wiped with
a cotton swab to check for explosive residue. I also wonder whether due to
the increased rate of bag searches over the last decade, there has been an
increase in arrests for drug trafficking? Surely, in between confiscating
tweezers and Mountain Dew, they must stumble onto the odd reefer or small
bag of white powder?

But are the searches effective for what they're actually looking for? When
Random Breath Testing for drink drivers was introduced, people thought they
were more likely to be caught, when in fact statistically they were not.
While conviction rates went up because more people were being stopped, the
average motorist who had had an extra glass of wine in fact benefited from
herd protection and was less likely to be pulled over.

Of course, unlike many drivers in the 1980s (before social attitudes to
drunk driving changed), I am not concerned about being "caught" by airport
security. I am not a criminal, I am not carrying contraband. They can search
my bags all they please. But the 10 or 20 people who were waved through
while my bag was being searched, who weren't randomly selected? How do I
know they're not up to something? As with random breathalyzer checks, do
random bag searches actually protect some people through safety in numbers?

The TSA have also recently changed their policy for searches, allowing them
to frisk people with the palms of their hands rather than the backs. Having
received the old version, where a female agent barely brushed her knuckles
down my torso and legs, I can see why it was ineffective. And many places
outside the USA have been much more grabby for a long time. While I have yet
to encounter the TSA's new "junk touching" technique, I have had my cleavage
and backside efficiently groped by European agents many times. I have also
been through the "naked" scanner. I'm less concerned about someone seeing an
image of me in my knickers than I am about the dose of radiation I'm getting
from it. [In fact, I feel my privacy much more invaded by creeps who pester and
harass me, proposition me, and ask invasive sexual questions (and, dear
reader, you may be amazed how common such creatures are in the general
population). And I (how stupidly female is such social conditioning!),
I get embarrassed, and stammer, when it is they who should be
embarrassed. But I am intimidated, and lose my assertiveness, and don't tell
them to go straight to hell, which I should, and later wish I had. Now
that's a privacy invasion. When men follow me down the street, yell
things from cars, and I feel exposed: in a way nothing that airport security
does could achieve. When I check in for a flight, I'm prepared for what is
to come. I have my hand cream and lipstick in a little transparent bag, my
passport at the ready, and I know what to expect. Having bought an air
ticket, I signed up for it. Harassment I did not expect, or sign up for
simply by existing in public: that really upsets me.]

People used to set off across the Atlantic by ship, at much greater risk of
piracy or shipwreck than hijacking or crashes pose to air travellers today.
In fact, commercial air travel is the safest mode of transport yet invented.
But if they could have, would our 18th century ancestors have taken
TSA-style precautions? I'm sure they wouldn't have been afraid to profile.
Looking for pirates, they wouldn't have bothered searching old ladies and
children. But heavily armed men who looked like they'd been in a few fights?
"Step over here, sir. I need to search your bags. What's the purpose of your
visit? Vacation? Travel much in the Caribbean, sir?"

I don't know how much of an expectation of "privacy" in the sense that we
know it they would have felt, either. Eating, sleeping, defecating in close
quarters - as well as possibly giving birth, falling ill, or dying. Perhaps
they would think us all silly for worrying about TSA scanners.

I want to be safe when I travel, of course. I'd feel much more safe if I
knew everyone was being searched and questioned rather than a "random
selection". This is the policy in Israel, where instead of x-raying your
shoes, they are looking into your eyes and examining your body language.
Seems to work, too.

You must have seen movies where someone is sent to prison or a mental
institution. Stripped naked, cavity searched, forcibly "bathed" with a
power-hose: the purpose of this seemed to be as much about humiliating the
inmate as any real security issues. And with airport security? Is it really
their goal to break passengers psychologically? There have already been
stories of horrific treatment meted out to those who are handicapped,
wearing a catheter, or otherwise "different". Treating random innocent
people as suspects is not the way to get our cooperation in weeding out the
actual problem. But it's not airport security we need to cooperate with. It's each other.
When it comes down to it, we're the ones who are going to be there, not the
guy manning the x-ray machine on the ground. As with last year's underwear
bomber, who was stopped by another passenger: not airport security.

Like our shipbound ancestors, for whom precautions meant travelling in
convoy, carrying weapons, and praying for fair weather: they knew, miles
from home, that they had only each other to rely on. Whereas my journey
across the Atlantic takes hours rather than weeks, and I rarely speak to the
passengers around me, I have to have faith that we are all in this together.
It's all we can do.