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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Fischer's Historians' Fallacies as peace history...

Many of us are familiar with David Hackett Fischer's Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. It has been a useful text in many graduate methodology seminars since its publication in 1970. I discovered it only recently when I "overheard" some of my online students "talking" about it in one of my classes.

In it, HAW's own venerable Staughton Lynd comes in for several pages of criticism in the chapter on Fallacies of Significance. Lynd, along with others, is accused of the "pragmatic fallacy," that is, selecting "useful facts in the service of a social cause." Examples are found in several of Lynd's early works. Lynd is quoted from his 1968 essay A Profession of History as writing, "As one considerably alienated from the American present, I wanted to know if there were men in the American past in whom I could believe." If that is a fallacy, it is one we face as an organization as well as one which some of us face in other contexts. Whether we consciously or unconsciously pick historical examples to suit our current views, whether that be as a true reflection of our views on history or as a conscious corrective to what we perceive as dishonest propaganda history from others, there is an inherent tension between history as a science and history as context for current policy. I have done this myself - whether it be drawing attention to particular facets of the historical record here at this blog to provide aid, comfort and context to a peace position or whether it be encouraging my students to investigate figures such as Bartolome de las Casas, Friedrich Spee or even someone like Robert G. Ingersoll as examples of voices of opposition to prevailing trends in the past.

Fischer lands another blow in the concluding chapter of Historians' Fallacies as well. After dismissing (rightly, I think) several of the commonly forwarded justifications for the study of history, he singles out the historians of the New Left and their search for a "usable past" as an example of history as propaganda. Although they are writing from the left, they are "methodologically reactionary." History used to legitimize some subversive policy or view is no more accurate than history used to legitimize power.

It is surprising then to read how the book ends several pages later. When he finally turns to what history can be good for, we find a peace agenda. Writing during the Vietnam War and against the background of the Cold War arms race, he closes the book with a warning about nuclear proliferation and makes good history writing a matter of human survival in the 21st century. The connection is found in several of the reasons he lists for the study of history.

History can, for example, "...clarify contexts in which contemporary problems exist." It can put historians' "temporal sophistication" to use in making suggestions about the future, something historians usually shy away from, or in mobilizing the algorythmic kind of thought in which economic historians engage, illuminating the conditions under which certain things are likely to happen. It can train people to think historically and help them avoid the political extremism that results from the abuse or misunderstanding of the past. An historian "against the war" can find no small degree of encouragement in these pages of Fischer's book.

Finally, with history, we can "learn about ourselves" and "about other selves." "And nothing is more necessary to the peace of the world." He is not, he argues, making a special plea for any "humbug" about the brotherhood of mankind. It is not, he writes, about "goodness," but about "survival." I understand this to mean that an historian is not trapped in a fallacy, is not abandoning history as a science, if he or she consciously sees his or her work as a contribution to the understanding of policy or current events (whether for or against a particular ideology or policy, left or right). If we remind people of the colonial history of Iraqi statehood, that is a contribution to understanding the "other self" that is the Iraqi citizen who knows that past. If we teach about traditional Afghani approaches to conflict resolution, we are not justifying sharia or siding with terrorists. We are showing that there are real differences between peoples that need to be taken into account and providing relevant information for formulating more nuanced views of the problem. If we talk about the anti-imperial tradition in the United States, we "clarify contexts in which contemporary problems exist" by showing that opposing empire is not new, not solely a product of recent invention.

I do not think that David H. Fischer has himself landed on the horns of a delimma or trapped himself in a fallacy or contradiction. There is simply no sharp dividing line between a truly scientific history useful for survival on the one hand and that written by those consciously concerned with that survival for the explicit purpose of contributing to that survival on the other. We must make every effort to be fair to our sources and to the context, we should not distort the record for the purpose of legitimizing a political state of affairs or policy position, but we cannot pretend to have a no perspective, to occupy some kind of "view from nowhere."


Sunday, December 07, 2008

HAW Member Andrew Bacevich Interviewed

Here is an audio of Scott Horton's interview of Andrew Bacevich, a member of Historians Against the War. Bacevich is professor of international relations at Boston University and author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. According to the description of the interview, he "discusses the negative net returns of U.S. expansionism from the 1960s onward, the establishment of a permanent national security apparatus that made non-interventionism impossible, the Carter Doctrine’s faulty premises and continued influence in Middle East policies and the current Pentagon reassessment of U.S. military limitations that may inhibit a troop surge in Afghanistan and force a more realistic political solution."

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Monday, November 10, 2008

A New New Deal? Krugman in the NYT about Franklin Delano Obama...

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman compares the present to the beginning of the Great Depression and encourages Obama to pursue a New Deal. He warns against the errors FDR made by actually doing too little.


The arguments are similar to those in his book The Conscious of a Liberal.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Medieval analogies in policy discourse and the role of historians...

The most recent issue of the AHA’s Perspectives on History (September 2008) has a lead article by the organization’s president, Gabrielle M. Spiegel, titled, ”Getting Medieval”: History and the Torture Memos. It is about neomedievalism - a “cache of analogies about the medieval nature of contemporary non-state actors, including terrorists, which subsequently influenced the reasoning behind the legal judgements expressed by the authors of the torture memos”, John Woo and Jay S. Bybee. She discusses the increasing use of medieval analogies in public discourse as well as in policy making.

I first encountered the analogies in the political science textbooks I was teaching from. They compared the trends in globalization, with the weakening of state power and the increasing power of international corporations, to re-feudalization of international relations. Articles in the press also made analogies, comparing, to cite an example from a German editorial, the United States of America to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation – a feudal network of diffuse power relationships under the overall guidance of an “emperor” (the federal government). The major actors were not the seven Electors who chose the emperor in medieval Germany, but the largest corporations who exercised real control over American foreign influence and policy.

Spiegel points out that analogies with medieval times were the only historical analogies to appear in the torture memos. Bybee wrote in his memo that Taliban commanders were “more akin to feudal lords than military officers” and emphasized the non-state nature of both their regime and the Al Qaeda organization. Failed state status was equated with a fall-back on medieval times – and used to justify supposedly medieval methods of dealing with American enemies.

She goes on to cite the analysis of Bruce Holsinger that these analogies have become commonplace in describing the post Cold War world in think tanks and in U.S. government institutions. The problem is not that those who influence or make policy are thinking historically, it is that they are not: “the ‘medieval’ in neomedievalism matters not a whit.” The conclusion that we as historians are thus powerless to correct the analogy is perhaps unduly pessimistic. Spiege quotes Holsinger: “For what motivates the analogical use of “medieval” has little to do with historical understanding, couched though it may be in terms of medieval epithets.” Spiegel summarizes: It is a “rhetorical strategy of demonization by which the present government sought to induce adherence to its extralegal politics and operations.” She notes that medievalists themselves have become involved on the other side of the debate by using analogies with medieval torture to show that torture doesn’t work.

Spiegel would like to discourage all the analogizing as distractions from substantive criticism and engagement. Historical analogies misleadingly imply genealogy and legacy (as if, I suppose, the Taliban regime or the practice of waterboarding are somehow legacies of medieval Europe), decontextualize the real history, and are less effective than comparisons and contrasts.

I like to use analogies from politics and the press as learning moments in the classroom. I have students evaluate buzz-words such as “Islamo Fascism” or "American Empire" and take a closer look at how these terms are used in the press.

Outside the classroom, as historian-activists, we need to consider possible ways of using our expertise about the past in current debates while being true to our trade by avoiding decontextualization and oversimplification. If our field is relevant to understanding the human condition - and the great public interest in historical films and genealogy and the effectiveness of historical analogies in propaganda and discourse indicate that it is - we can assert ourselves more boldly. We don't have Whether we can be the ones with our hands on the history in a media environment hostile to context and nuance is hard to say. I would like to be more optimistic than Professor Spiegel seems to be. That is difficult, however, when I imagine a bearded scholar trying to deconstruct "Islamo Fascism" or "medieval" in a five-minute shouting match with Bill O'Reilly.

But somehow getting the nuance, the context, into public consciousness might well serve an activist purpose. The real historical background to events is always complicated and ambiguous. Contextualization thus tends to subvert ideological abuse. History is messy and not conducive to supporting simplistic policies.