Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

What is a 'debate that isn't a debate'? Is this some kind of zen koan?

The phrase has come up in reference to the recent instalment of 'History Wars' north, and in particular in response to Tom Peace's recent post 'History Wars: The Terms of Debate'. Peace is responding to  Terry Glavin's column that took on the familiar, but ever prickly, topic of how well professional historians tell the story of Canada to Canadians. The piece quoted both Jack Granatstein and me, and was given the provocative title (a play on my words), 'Stephen Harper is right not to trust the history establishment.'  Provocative stuff.

Or maybe not.

Adele Perry replies that this is a 'debate that isn't a debate'. Sean Kheraj talks about the 'so-called' history wars. Other historians on twitter talked about being glad that Peace had finally set things straight. As if to say: 'Yes, this is what we ought to be talking about. These are the real terms of the debate.'

Peace's reply has much in it that is laudable. It is lamentable -  indeed, it is shameful - that Library and Archives Canada  has faced the kinds of cuts it has over the years. It is a disgrace that LAC is pretending to go about a process of modernization, while what is really happening is that it is reneging on its duty to collect historical documents and papers and to serve as the central national repository for archival information across the nation. If these are the terms of the debate, then I guess there really isn't a debate. I can't imagine any historian disagreeing. Certainly not me. And not even the much maligned Jack Granatstein.

But perhaps these aren't the only terms of debate.

This isn't the place to extensively rehash many of the ideas I put forward in my 'After Inclusiveness' article published in Contesting Clio's Craft . There, I talked about the way historians write, the art of history, the kinds of questions we ask, the way we analyze material, and the subjects we do and don't tend to write about and to teach. I joined a pretty big and longstanding conversation about how historians can talk to the broader public, and what the situation looks like now (or back in 2009 anyway).

Peace is right when he says that much of what is published today is pretty diverse. In part, this was always the case. People continued to publish on many topics, but they did so in more and more isolated silos, and in the midst of a profession that increasingly gave its laurels to a certain kind of history - and in particular to a certain kind of politicized history.

That is where we might have something of a debate on our hands.

I won't profess to know why LAC is being cut back and why the government is funding certain kinds of memorial projects such as the War of 1812 and the coming celebration of the Great War. I imagine there are quite a range of reasons - related to wider government cutbacks, and to the lobbying of various figures and institutions within and near government. Someone might some day write the insider account of the Harper government and history. My guess (and it's only a guess, based on hearsay) is that they'll find out that Harper himself had little to do with it.

But I would say that for quite some time, a large chunk of the profession has talked pretty openly and proudly and defiantly about the role of the historian as activist - or has perhaps too quietly sat by and listened while others talked in this way. It doesn't help when folks like Perry talk about the 'particular obligation' of historians to support movements like #IdleNoMore. I haven't seen anything by a single Canadian historian disagreeing. This is but one example amongst many.

Can we really be surprised if a Conservative government decides it doesn't want to fund institutions that it likely sees as enabling leftwing activists? Can we really make claims about the importance of historical research to the nation, when few historians have anything good to say about that nation?  I don't think so.

Does this mean history isn't or shouldn't be political? Does this mean historians shouldn't have political views or adopt a complacent view of contemporary or past politics? Of course not.

But it is naive to think the voice of the profession can be seen to lean in a certain direction (accurately or not) and nothing will happen.

Now my own sense is that many, many great Canadian historians have a more complicated sense of their professional role. But it might be good to trumpet this a little more.

To end on a positive note, I can't think of any better example of the profession at its best than the recent  book Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America by Andrew Parnaby, Gregory Kealey and Reg Whitaker. Here is a deeply political book that is also scholarly; a book that is carefully judgmental; a book that is written by scholars with political commitments but which also manages to be much, much more than this.

I sure hope we can have wide-ranging debates in Canadian history, along wide terms. The sound of one hand clapping is great for meditation. But for scholarly exchange? Not so much.


  1. Hi Chris,

    I wouldn't say that Tom Peace "finally set things straight" -- I don't do twitter, so I don't know the context of such comments -- but I would say that he offered a thoughtful post.

    What you're saying seems quite similar to the point that Steve Hewitt made in response to one of your earlier posts: there are consequences to what we say and how we portray our profession. Which means that we need to be careful when we make generalizations about whether our profession leans politically one way or another. I have no idea whether a quantitative study would reveal whether the majority of Canadian historians and/or the majority of Canadian histories tilt markedly to the left, in part because so much depends on how we define "left."

    My impression is that most Canadian historians are like their academic colleagues in other countries and in other disciplines across the humanities: they tend to be skeptical of conventional wisdom and they are often critical of those in power. But being skeptical and critical hardly qualifies one as a leftist. If "a Conservative government decides it doesn't want to fund institutions that it likely sees as enabling leftwing activists," then that says more about how Tories see the world than the actual politics of the average Canadian historian.

    As you've heard me say before, I believe that there is a large group of independent historians who could be best described as centrists. Many of them, like the public at large, may lean leftward on a particular issue; but they hardly qualify as committed leftwing activists. The problem, as your post infers, is that most of these independent-minded historians do not participate in the high-profile debates, in part because they are ordinary professors who are busy focusing on their jobs of researching and teaching. They may surf blogs and follow twitter, but they are not going to take a stand publicly.

    Which brings me to your question of why historians have not disagreed publicly with comments such as Adele Perry's post about the Idle No More movement. I think we need to be careful not to read a lack of commentary necessarily as tacit consent, because, especally in this instance, a lot of people are simply learning about a new movement and are trying to develop an informed opinion. From what I have read and heard, Idle No More comprises diverse peoples and politics, and it's very unclear to me how it will evolve politically.

    If some historians choose to become actively involved in the Idle No More movement -- or in any other movement, for that matter -- that is, as you say, their choice. I'm not sure where the line is between a historian who is politically engaged and one who is a political activist. (I'm not even sure such a line does, or should, exist). But, if we're going to talk about activists on the left, we should also talk about those on the right.

    What we're witnessing now in Canada is a rightist activism sponsored by the Harper government that is no less harmful than extreme leftism. Both extremes rely on, and propagate, the type of closed mindset that most Canadian historians would reject. In saying this, I realize that I'm opening myself up to the charge of being a member of the much-maligned mushy middle of Canadian politics. The problem for the independent middle of Canadian history -- like the problem these days for the large centre of Canadian politics generally -- is that it lacks an assertive voice.


  2. Chris,

    I'm not sure what you're arguing here with the Adele Perry example? Are you saying that historians should not take political positions that differ from those of the government of the day or that they shouldn't take political positions at all? I could understand your point if she was advocating the skewing of scholarship to fit a political agenda. Perhaps, I missed that, but I didn't think that was her point. Otherwise, why shouldn't academics be free to take political positions, even advocate for certain legal causes that they believe in, without expecting to be punished in a democratic society for holding those views? Otherwise, you seem to be saying that the government is justified in punishing academics for exercising the right to freedom of speech because many of them are taking a position that runs counter to the views of the government.

    As for the Harper government's motivations for the cuts, I can speak to the experience of international Canadian studies. Last year, without warning or any consultation, the government ended the Understanding Canada program that put $5 million into Canadian studies associations around the world and which had existed in various forms since the 1970s. It did so despite the fact that for years the associations had been directing spending towards DFAIT and Canadian "priorities" and despite an internal DFAIT study which found that every dollar spent on international Canadian studies generated $8 of direct economic benefit to Canada. In the end, none of that mattered when it came time for John Baird, who a few years before tried to cut the program while he was at Treasury Board, to wield the axe.

    Steve Hewitt