Thursday, April 10, 2008

Historiography agonistes

It will be a positive sign that this country is getting itself right again with its core values if some of the senior members of the Bush regime are eventually brought up on war crimes charges for approving torture. For the sake of our country's moral integrity, we must hope that one day we as a nation will look back at what went on in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc. with the same sense of national shame that attends today to the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII or the McCarthy inquisition during the 1950s. Even John Ashcroft appears to have worried that "History will not judge this kindly."

However, we would be foolish to take for granted that the values of the country will naturally right themselves in this fashion. Whether such a collective national shame about the Bush era takes root will have a lot to do with the pattern of asymmetric historiographical contestation that Small Precautions referred to the other day.

Anyone who is complacently confident that the Bush era will go down as a shameful period in the nation's history should bear in mind that even today, the Japanese internment or McCarthyism are not universally regarded as shameful events. On the contrary, the right-wing counter-academic historical industry has been industriously attempting to redefine the meaning of these events over the last few years, realizing that the historical memory of those events from the past will color the political understanding of the Bush administration's actions in the near-term political future. For example, the single most popular individual political blogger in the United States, Michelle Malkin, has published a book defending the Japanese internment. Likewise, Ann Coulter--who despite her buffoonish character continues to receive rapturous applause at top-drawer right-wing functions--has written a book defending McCarthyism as a wrongly maligned instance of righteous American nationalism.

Professional historians can scoff at the historiographical credentials of Malkin and Coulter all they want, but the sad fact of the matter is that writers such as these often have a greater impact on popular understandings of key historical episodes than all but a handful of professional-academic historians. Books such as these can have far more political impact on the national memory of these events than do peer-reviewed scholarly articles or books on the same subjects. This is true because books such as these are explicitly written and marketed as political tools, with a functional goal of impacting current debates on contemporary policy choices. This contrasts sharply to most academic historiography, which aims to uncover the actual truth about the past, with the functional goal of promoting the author's career within the academy.

As long as there exists this fundamental asymmetry of historiographical methods, progressives would be wise to not assume that there is anything inevitable about this country's eventual shame about the Bush era.


Robby said...

Are you suggesting that the left should be more political in its approach to history or just that the right's political approach should be more seriously addressed?

Nils said...

The left is already plenty political in its approach to history; what the left is not is marketing-savvy about how to package their historical arguments in ways that bear on contemporary political debates. That packaging is partly about a style of narrative history, but also about the venues chosen for publication.

The challenge here is that traditionally the academy has had no appreciation for -- indeed, often nothing but scorn for -- academics who "popularize" their work, or who have the temerity to actually attempt to impact policy directly through their historical argumentation. This attitude has roots in a long-standing prejudice that true intellectualism is defined by its commitment to knowledge as an end in itself, as opposed to an instrumental view of knowledge, and in particular a disdain for politically instrumentalist views of knowledge production. Put in less rarified terms, most intellectuals refer to writers who write like that as "hacks."

The right's political approach should also be seriously addressed. But my larger point is that it's absurd to think that one can beat back the likes of Malkin or Coulter by offering carefully footnoted rejoinders in professional academic journals. Instead, they need to be fought in the public sphere.

In sum, I'm calling on historians in particular to become much more "public intellectuals." Historians who want to do that will need to think hard about how to make historically informed interventions in the context of today's rapidly evolving contemporary media environment, and will have to show a willingness and capacity to compete in the intensely competitive marketplace for audience attention.