Blogs > Cliopatria > A historian’s place in (current) politics

Feb 13, 2012

A historian’s place in (current) politics

After the grinding pessimism of my previous post, I think it rather behoves me to also look at the question, what can we do, and specifically for this audience, what's the role of the historian in this? I'm much less certain I have any answers here, but I have some thoughts so I thought I would put them up to be shot at.

I suspect, myself, that the morally correct response for the committed democrat in a situation like this is to quit his or her job, whatever it may be, start and then manage and fund-raise for a new party eschewing the principles they'd actually like to see mattering in politics. It wouldn't work, probably, but it would be ethical, and I honestly think that's what I should do. But I really really don't want to, I want to pay someone else to run the country for me so I can get on with my research, which is what I'm actually passionate about. So hopefully there is a rôle for a historian in this, right?

There are some obvious reflections. History is about politics, as often as not, and ever more so since we have increasingly taken on board that the personal is political. Study after study reflects the influence of contemporary politics on historiography, such that an apolitical historian is likely a conformist one without realising.1 Even if consciously opposed, however, the publicly-funded historian is ethically crippled by the fact that they are paid by the people they critique. But sold out to the service of the ruling order, even history done properly, where no-one is a hero and the facts are always complex, has no friends in politics, for all the reasons of the previous post. As a result, history is never really used; it is misused. We at Cliopatria have increasingly seen this with the special, simple, versions of history in play among the Tea Party movement and, well, Sarah Palin's brain, and we could go on back to Hitler's primitive Germanism and the weird pseudo-Norse paganism of the SS, and British teleological `Whig' history, as well as more recently the nasty argument in UK medieval history circles about people who refer to the barbarians who supposedly caused the fall of Rome as `immigrants' or the less obvious one in US circles about the pejorative senses of the words `medieval' or `feudal'.2

These issues are live, and almost anything in the history we study bears on some similarly live issue, be it the place of women, religion or indeed education, the rights of man, the way power works. So if we consider our subject or our practice of it apolitical, we damn ourselves to irrelevance. But if we think we're relevant and politically engaged, then firstly we're probably doing bad history, and secondly we're probably selling something, and quite possibly to ourselves.

So, as yet, I haven't found a way out of this; as long as we make a living out of history it's predictable that we'll speak in protection of the order that permits us to do so, or to move back towards one that permitted it more, and of course what we are seeing with the politics, if I'm right in my suspicions in the previous post, is exactly the same self-serving instinct on the part of the politicians. Perhaps, then, the problem is in twenty-first-century Western man, and in that case, I think it might be fair to ask for help from the philosophers, for as long as they're allowed to continue! But meanwhile, given that we cannot suspend judgement as well as we think we can, we are either going to have to learn most of all to pitch that perfect balance between density and digestibility, or else accept our decreasing relevance, because it seems to me that good historians have no place in politics.

1. The most recent one of these I read was Catherine Hills, Origins of the English, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology (London 2003, repr. 2006), where the second chapter covers, for example, the way that UK archaeologists became much more ready to believe that Britons might have survived the Anglo-Saxon invasions, and that maybe those invasions weren't very large, after their country had faced off against Germany in two World Wars without getting invaded.
2. Beyond the links above I don't think the former of those has resulted as yet in publication anywhere, though Bryan Ward-Perkins, "The Decline and Fall Industry" in Standpoint (September 2009),, is perhaps one of the starting points. On the latter question, however, there is the repetitive but important Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularism govern the politics of time (Philadelphia 2008).

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