Michael Graves silver clock, 2018.
history pragmatic historian

Backwater Historians & Invisible Historians

Michael Graves silver clock, 2018.
Michael Graves silver clock, 2018.

I had another post prepared for today, but a kerflapple* arose on Twitter this weekend about an opinion piece in The Atlantic by Andrew Ferguson that I cannot leave unremarked.

The title alone should help you understand why: Historians Should Stay Out of Politics.

Let me take a deep breath. I’ll try not to vibrate about the mere title alone. But the opinions expressed in the article are going to make it hard to keep my cortisol levels under control.

The entire purpose of The Pragmatic Historian is to show people how history can be practically used right now, in our present day lives, and for planning for the future. Politics is a critical part of our everyday lives. It’s what creates or removes society-wide systems and programs that either help or hurt a country’s citizens.

Historians, with their access to information about past governments, systems and programs, are in an excellent position to help people understand what has and hasn’t worked before. We also can point out the ideals the United States has expressed and tried to live up to in the past in order to remind people of our better natures. And we can warn people about our failings, because this country has failed big on many counts.

In addition, historians, with our ability to suss out facts and truth by determining the credibility of information sources, can show people how to spot propaganda and resist it.

Historians are especially important during times of political turbulence, as we are witnessing today through the particularly egregious brand of politics being practiced by Donald Trump, the White House, and the GOP. It’s an authoritarian form that we are seeing rise around the world.

This is exactly the time the voices of historians are most needed (although if we were listened to more during less troubled times, we might not get ourselves into these messes).

So, reading the title alone, I’m already in disagreement with Ferguson’s position. But, as any good historian would do, I didn’t just read the title and make a snap judgment; I read the entire article and have reread it to make sure I understand his arguments.

For the first part of his piece, Ferguson spends a good deal of time expressing his regret for signing a past political petition because he signed it primarily for the prestige of seeing his name with others on the petition. Fine, we all have regrets.

Then he launches into a full-scale attack on historians who have signed a recent petition called, “Historians’ Statement on the Impeachment of President Trump.” He assumes that they, like him, have signed the petition because they are seeking attention and fame.

He says, “Historians, no less than other academics, are deeply resentful of the public’s lack of interest in what they do, and understandably lunge at a turn in the popular spotlight.”

But this is not all he has to say about the signatories, which now number over 2,000. First, he mentions the big-name “incidental” historians Ken Burns, Ron Chernow, and Robert Caro, who are incidental because they don’t have university degrees in history. Then he makes a dig at the other historians on the list, who are “obscure signatories from backwater colleges scattered between the coasts.”

These signatories, while they may not all have the big names of Burns, Chernow, and Caro, have an impressive list of titles and publications. Most of those on the list fall into two categories. They are professors or otherwise associated with universities and colleges all over the United States or they are authors/writers and independent historians.

A sparse few on the list are associated with museums or organizations outside university systems. These folks were not targets of Ferguson’s ire. Which makes me wonder how he feels about public historians working within museums and county historical societies. I mean, if he doesn’t respect professors who are “obscure signatories from backwater colleges,” he must think very poorly of public historians. We public historians are keenly aware of how academic historians are considered to be “true” historians in comparison to us. Public historians are invisible, which is a shame because we are on the front lines of presenting history to the general public.

As habitually invisible historians, public historians are pretty used to getting little to no accolades for our work. When we decide to take a stand politically on something, we do it because it is the right thing to do, not because we want to look like we rub shoulders with history giants.

Which is a lesson Ferguson could learn from this kerflapple* that has been inviting commentary on Twitter from historians like Mike Duncan, Karl Jacoby, and Kevin Kruse.

Perhaps he wouldn’t regret signing petitions if he’d look at each one for the message it sends from a mass of humanity rather than from a sense of individual ego. With the assault on our democracy by Trump et. al., we need a show of mass disapproval. Historians of all types need to speak up against the corruption and cruelty of this administration and use examples of the past to make our point.

With that, I’ll leave you with a quote from Elie Wiesel, survivor of the Holocaust and Nobel Peace Prize winner. The quote is from his Nobel acceptance speech.

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”

This is the reason historians speak out about politics, not to bask in a spotlight.

*Kerflapple – a portmanteau I made up by blending kerfuffle and flap

Note: In solidarity with the backwater historians from The Atlantic article, historian Seth Cotlar has changed his Twitter handle to “Backwater Historian Seth Cotlar.” I have done the same. 🙂

Screen shot of Seth Cotlar's Twitter profile, which has been changed to Backwater Historian Seth Cotlar, December 21, 2019.
Screen shot of Seth Cotlar’s Twitter profile, which has been changed to Backwater Historian Seth Cotlar, December 21, 2019.