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to go about a process of modernization, while what is really happening is that it is reneging on its duty to collect historical documents and papers and to serve as the central national repository for archival information across the nation.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.