Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Academic/Popular History as it should be

It really is possible to write academic history for a popular audience. I know it. I've just read it.

A few days ago Shirley Tillotson asked the great question, in a comment on this blog, 'Wouldn't it be great if every month there were two or three really interesting trade paperbacks on Canadian historical topics on the Globe's bestseller list?'

Wouldn't it, though?

How about this as a model: Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern? (Although I note the British edition had the more accurate subtitle, How the Renaissance Began, which is itself part of an answer. I guess North American publishers assume that we won't know what the Renaissance is!).

The Swerve is the best example I've read of how smart history can, and should, be written for a popular audience. It tells a deceptively simple story about the rediscovery, in 1417, of a single manuscript - Lucretius's On the Nature of Things. But in the process, it covers a world of ground, going back to the ideas of the ancient romans and greeks, not only to Lucretius but also to Epicurus before him. Going back and forth from the world that rediscovered this book in the 15th century, we learn of book culture in the Roman empire and its demise. We learn of the monasteries in which literate culture was maintained for centuries. We feel and smell and almost taste the reading rooms at the monasteries. We are sitting next to the monks as they copy these old manuscripts, being careful to only (it was hoped) pay attention to the Latin. God forbid (or St Benedict forbid anyway) that they think about the heretical ideas in many of these documents they were copying and reciting.

Up we come to the 15th century and the world of Poggio Braciolini and the other humanists who were searching for these manuscripts for the ancient world. We get a brief, poignant history of the Renaissance through this one story.

Greenblatt is splendid as he glides over the surface of academic debate. He takes in what is necessary but then continues his stride. Listen to him on the many ways in which the obsession of folks like Braciolini (and the Renaissance itself) wasn't, in fact, quite so unprecedented:

'Modern scholarship has found dozens of ways to qualify and diminish this obsession'

Oomph. That hurt! What does he mean? He is referring, of course, to the many other mini-renaissances, the many earlier points during the middle (not dark, no never dark) ages that had already flirted with the same ideas and practices and desires that Braciolini is bringing back to life.

Greenblatt does his duty. He covers these many qualifiers. Then he also gets on with the business of explaining just how revolutionary this moment was. Entire cadres of academics have spent their lives on those qualifiers. They get their due: a few pages. Then it's time to move on...

This is what makes Greenblatt's book such a wonderful read. It's learned, but not academic. It tells a magnificent story. The research is rooted in years of complex academic scholarship. The story to be told, though, does something else. It tells a fascinating story. And it tells it well.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Should Academics Blog?

Great question, and I've just been reading a really thoughtful answer over at the "Novel Readings' blog. Take a look here.

Heck, perhaps send it to some academics you know who don't blog. See what they say.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Do You Really Want to Know About Canadian History?

It has been great to see that TerryGlavin’s column in the Ottawa Citizen last week  has inspired such an interesting debate. Most have been critical, if judiciously so,  of Glavin and Granatstein and me. Those I’ve seen include the comments by Jerry Bannister and Steve Hewitt on my own blog, a post by Jim Clifford over at Active History, and another by Roderick Benns on his blog. There was fair bit of amusing chatter on twitter as well.

I ought to clarify one point up front. It was Granatstein – and not me – who fretted about the absence of a ‘proud national story'. Personally I absolutely agree with Jerry Bannister who says ‘My job is to teach Canadian history, not to instill nationalist pride in what our ancestors did.’ In fact, this was exactly what I said to Glavin. He asked me how I differed from Granatstein and this is the point I made: that I had no desire to see history celebrate anything. Our duty is to understand. In fact, I made just this point in a post last year – the prime duty of historians isn’t to respect anything. Our only duty is to be curious.

‘So why go along with Granatstein?’ you might ask. Why talk about the historical community as being hijacked by activists?

I’m very conscious that Steve Hewitt might be right when he says that to make these comments is to invite reprisals against the profession and to only make the case for the funding of things like archives even more tenuous. But my case would be as follows:

We are doing it to ourselves.

While you’ll often hear historians arguing against Granatstein and others who claim that history ought to serve nationalist purposes, what you don’t often hear are the voices of historians criticizing the way activists try to make political uses of our history in the exact same way. We seem, en masse, ready to throw Granatstein under the bus, but we mostly look the other way when others (our own colleagues) use history in the same deliberately partisan ways.

Here are a couple of examples, though there could be many, many more.

Example 1

So, for example, the most important concept animating historical discussion in the country for more than a decade has been Ian Mckay’s Marxist reading of Canadian history as a project of ‘liberal order’. You can’t stumble through the beer tent at the  CHA without hearing about yet another new project talking about the ‘liberal’ (read oppressive) nature of some topic in Canadian history.

There have been some very thoughtful critiques of McKay’s work, but I can’t think of anyone that has come out and written about this as the kind of politically partisan rewriting of history that it is. The political nature of the project is on the surface. McKay even writes about this in his long introduction to the whole project, Rebels, Reds, Radicals. This isn’t the place to go into the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of McKay’s ideals. But let’s be clear. The whole liberal order project as a way of rethinking Canadian history is deliberately partisan in its intent and operation. In my view, historians should take out from it the good ideas, but be very wary of when ideology blinds one to what the evidence actually shows.

Example 2

A second example might be the way historians have acted as spokespeople for aboriginal groups, including the recent Idle No More movement. Here, many historians have taken it upon themselves to explain the historical origins of many of the claims in the movement, notably the history of treaty rights. Partly, this has been great historical research, and in fact I gave a lecture to my own students on exactly this point. (In fact, I imagine that my students would be surprised by what I say below.)

But the history of relations between aboriginal peoples in Canada is a case of how history has been reshaped by activism in a different way: by questions we no longer ask, issues we no longer talk about.

What do I mean? Here I’m thinking of agency and power. Just about any recent (and here I mean over several decades) work on aboriginal history emphasizes the agency of aboriginal peoples. Historians have taken it upon themselves to make sense of aboriginal actions,  and have come up with some fascinating research that shows the complexity of aboriginal peoples’ responses to colonialism. This was a response to a previous historiography that was largely concerned with the logic of building the Canadian nation state, and largely didn’t examine aboriginal peoples’ actions on their own terms.  But as this issue has taken over the profession, the other side of the equation, the views of settlers, the government, Euro-North American culture in general – have been ignored and ridiculously simplified.

It’s now standard to talk about how, in the period of early contact, aboriginal people had much more power than we previously thought, and that early Canada was still really aboriginal space. The implications for contemporary politics are direct: these really were ‘nations’ and relations between the early BNA or Cdn state and aboriginal peoples really were on a nation-to-nation footing.

But so much of this conclusion is based on silence – on not admitting that this position of relative ‘equality’ was between, on the one side, entire aboriginal societies and, on the other, a small handful of explorers and settlers at the initial point of contact. When larger settlement occurred, and when European societies took a much larger interest in aboriginal spaces, any notion of equality and ‘nation-to-nation’ dialogue quickly went out the window. In fact, this is what lies behind the westward expansion of Canada and the United States, and the very different experience in Canada. Much of the land in Canada, for a much longer time, was considered marginal and not fit for settlement.

You don’t need to follow Tom Flanagan’s morally bankrupt (in my view) justification for this process to still see that too many historians of aboriginal peoples in Canada have trumpeted the agency of aboriginal peoples because it meets the needs and sympathies of contemporary politics. A fuller account of the past would be less uniform in its assessment than what we have been reading for several decades.

I can’t resist adding a couple of more examples:

Why is there no great article/book on the sexual revolution in Canada? Answer – historians are too busy telling us how it wasn’t revolutionary, how it was hetero-normative, etc.

Why aren’t Canadian historians talking about the incredible rise in the standard of living of Canadians over the course of the 20th century? Why do we just continue to write ‘Yes, but…’ histories? Perhaps it would cause troubles to so many whose basic line of thinking is essentially Marxist. (though see John Lanchester writing inthe LRB for someone on the left, who says we need to deal with this fault in Marx.)

No doubt many will argue with much of what I’ve said above. But it’s worth thinking about this when asking why the media doesn’t stop talking to Granatstein. Who else are they going to talk to? Nationalist history is one thing. But Canadian historians specialize in anti-nationalist history. Canadian historians seem bent on telling us that so many things that you might think of as reasonably positive developments – universal education, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, etc – were actually inherently oppressive. A more open approach to the past might lead us to, if not agree with Granatstein all the time, at least not always disagree.

My own sense is that we need an update to his book Who Killed Canadian History?
If I were to write it, it would be called Do You Really Want to Know About Canadian History? The gist would go something like this:

A full understanding of Canadian history isn’t kind to any political agenda. Those on the left and right both want to use the past for their own purposes. At the moment, those on the right have more influence in government and in the mainstream media. Those on the left have more room – though they aren’t alone – inside the academy. But what we really need are historians who don’t find their arguments ready-made for them by either partisan politics or academic theory (ie politics in pseudo-scientific disguise).

It’s too easy to sit back and say that all of the politics is in the House of Commons, and that academics are more professional in their assessments. Equally, it’s too easy to say that everything is political so therefore, everything goes. Surely, all of this means we just need to sit down and do what good historians always do: look at the evidence; see things from as many different view-points as possible; tell the story as best we can; continue the conversation.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

The History Commemoration Wars keep going

I'm not going to be popular in some Canadian history circles today.

Last week I had a great long conversation with Terry Glavin about a column he was writing for the Ottawa Citizen. He wanted to talk about the ongoing battle over commemorating Canadian history. Aside from being a journalist Glavin is a historian in his own right, and I was struck by how familiar he was with many of the debates and personalities in Canadian history.

The column is out today (see here). But what he says, and what he quotes me as saying, are bound to make a few Canadian historians splutter.

First, he talked to Jack Granatstein and conveyed his sense of how Canadian historians have given up any effort to celebrate the nation's past. Then he drew on many of the arguments I made in my own article on the state of Canadian history  - published a few years ago in an article called 'After Inclusiveness' in the book I coedited with Mike Dawson (Contesting Clio's Craft). This is the story of how inclusive historians have increasingly given up telling national stories, and telling them in ways that are interesting and engaging for a wide audience.

A few years on I would modify some of what I said in that article - point to a few more exceptions of great work being done. But by and large I stick by it. And, after teaching in a grad class this week about the rise of 'history from the bottom up', I would have made what seems to me to be an even more important point. What's missing from this kind of history is a curiosity about Canada's nation makers.

There's plenty of curiosity and fascinating analysis of aboriginal peoples and the marginalized (and the many ways they have creatively exercised agency). But there is, overall, a decided lack of curiosity about other people who don't fit into these categories. And perhaps even more important, what is absent is  a curiosity about (and an openness to) fairly important features of Canadian life that make this country, by and large, not too bad to live in (the rule of law, parliamentary democracy [for all its flaws], and the making of the nation itself).

My only caveat to the Terry Glavin column is that I am ever so slightly misquoted. When he quotes me as saying that Harper is right not to trust Canadian historians, I'm sure I prefaced it by saying 'In a sense...' Harper is right not to trust Canadian historians.

Because, in another sense, he's not. There are a number of great historians doing fascinating work across the country. And this intellectually faddish phase will pass, just as others did before. Hopefully we'll take the good and leave the bad. But that might be too optimistic.

*** Update ***
Terry Glavin assures me - from his notes - that I, in fact, did not give the qualifier at the time. And so it goes....

Monday, 11 February 2013

A (private) anniversary worth celebrating?

Well, with all this talk on the blogosphere in the last few days about historical commemorations and celebrations, it almost escaped my attention that we here at Everyday History (ok, just me) have our own anniversary.

This past weekend marked the one year anniversary of the blog. From my own standpoint, amidst the annual February run of chest infections, ear infections and children who equate going to daycare with being sent to Van Diemen's Land, it is (again, for me) something to celebrate.

In case you missed it, the very first blog post was on Downtown Abbey and historian Simon Schama's surly chastisement of what he saw as the American public's naive stately-home envy.   (Alas, I may have spoken too soon back then - my wife has come to call Season Three 'Downhill Abbey').

According to the numbers, these were the most interesting (or most read) posts:

'The Glorious Promise of Transnational History'

'Holy F#$! Library and Archives Canada' (not an especially interesting post- but apparently if you sort of swear, people will read!)

'Christopher Moore's History News' (really about the Extraordinary Canadians series from Penguin)

'Guy Gavriel Kay: Great Historian?'

'Why Can't I walk Across Farmers' Fields?'

Personally, my won favourite posts have to do with the robo-call scandal (here and here) - mostly because I think this stuff really matters now.

And I suppose my favourite (because you really do need to look up the stand-up of Mark Little online) is 'History Makes You Funny'

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Gerrymandering in Saskatchewan...

Rules, rules and more rules... Just because you try to make a process fair doesn't mean folks aren't going to do everything they can to 'unfair' it in any way they can.

Such are my thoughts about the evidence emerging that Conservatives went more than a little over-the-top in trying to deluge the process of seat redistribution for Saskatchewan representation in the House of Commons.

In the bad old days, when prime ministers controlled the process of seat allocation, gerrymandering was pretty easy in Canada. Not only did John A Macdonald practice this assiduously, even his greatest admirer, Donald Creighton, admits that he did so.

But now we have a process that is, seemingly, hands-off. Decisions are made by independent tribunals. It's a vast improvement, but not perfect. The one key area of weakness are the commissions' democratic features - they seek public consultation. Sounds great. But in reality, public consultation (kind of like comment forums online) are just an invitation for paid and volunteer party faithful to overload the process with arguments, all the while trying to put themselves off as 'the public'.

Over at Pundits' Guide there is an incredibly interesting account of the history of how we came to have the kind of system that we currently have (in the early 1960s) as well as the events currently going on in Saskatchewan. Definitely worth a read.

Monday, 4 February 2013

1763 Revisited

Tom Peace makes an excellent case over at Active History for why we should be seriously considering the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Of course, he says, we shouldn't only be doing this on anniversaries, but it would be a good start.

As I noted in a post last week, there are lots of reasons why Harper and Mulcair both don't want to think too carefully about 1763 and to invoke its ghosts.

Why not 1763? I suspect that part of the answer to this is also about how the reinterpretation of 1763 as a kind of magna carta for aboriginal peoples in Canada is just that - a reinterpretation. It's a case that is being made - it's about rethinking and reshaping our history. Is it like the Charter? It might be. But if it becomes so, it will be part of a process of rethinking what the Canadian constitution consists of. In fact, in many ways, this is what Idle No More is partly about - as was the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples back in the 1990s.

As Alan Cairns said back in 2000 (referring to the post White Paper period), we are in unchartered territory. The way forward isn't clearly mapped out. But it involves looking back to where we have been, and perhaps reconsidering what it meant to be there. 1763 is part of that.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Politicians, history and other types of fudge

Oh, the poor Globe and Mail. Striving to keep afloat financially, looking for a national voice, it finds, again, Canadian history.

The Globe's editorial board decided that it ought to back up prime minister Stephen Harper and his use of history. When Thomas Mulcair criticized the government's use of historical commemorations as exercises in political branding, the Globe responds by calling this:

a pretty shabby characterization of the government’s wise recognition of the need to celebrate Canadian identity.
Really? Can't it be both?

Surely there is some use in celebrating Canadian identity. But does the Globe really think that anything this government does isn't also about political branding?

Of course, poor Mulcair is in a bind. He asks Harper why not celebrate 1763 and the Royal Proclamation of that year? This, as the Globe rightly states, is often now seen as a kind of Indian Magna Carta.  And so the Globe thinks Mulcair is onto something with this.

But clearly Mulcair himself doesn't want to get into too much of the historical messy detail. For in criticizing the government's war mongering historical commemorations, he's surely speaking to the left in Canada, but also particularly in Quebec.

It seems very, very unlikely, though that Mulcair would also be calling for celebrations of the other big document signed in that year - the Treaty of Paris. You know... the one where Britain fully took possession of New France... solidifying the conquest....

Something tells me that Mulcair himself isn't so keen on celebrating that fact.