The Historian’s Job
July 31, 2013 § 2 Comments
Three times in the past three days I’ve been reminded of what it is that we historians do. And let me be clear, by “historian,” I mean academically-trained holders of advanced degrees who study the past. Yeah, call me pretentious or whatever. I don’t care. The first reminder I got was the now notorious interview of Reza Aslan by FoxNews concerning his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In the interview, Aslan had to continuously remind the FoxNews host that he was a trained historian, not just some Muslim dude writing about the founder of Christianity. Jesus Christ isn’t usually a topic I find interesting, but after hearing the NPR interview wherein Aslan actually got to discuss the book, I almost want to read it. Almost.
The second reminder of what it is that an historian does came yesterday. Against my better judgement, I got involved in a Twitter discussion with a conspiracy theorist. I should’ve tuned out when he told me that Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whom many (including me) consider Canada’s greatest Prime Minister, was a communist. Trudeau, you see, made Canada communist. But, wait, there’s more! The communist path was paved for Trudeau by his predecessor, Lester B. Pearson, who was PM from 1963-8. Pearson, this guy claimed, had been named by a Soviet spy before US Congress as having passed on secrets to the Soviets during the Second World War. I have, believe it or not, seen this claim before, I have a vague recollection of having read something of it in connection to the Gouzenko Affair. The author of whatever this piece was addressed the Pearson claim in a footnote and gave his sources. As an historian does. My interlocutor, however, did not consider this enough. He dismissed this academic article as a MSM source (mainstream media) and biased, blah blah blah. I found myself thinking of Aslan repeating ever-so-patiently noting what it is that makes him qualified to speak on the subject of Jesus Christ. I thought, well, let’s see, I’ve read somewhere around 5,000 books and articles over the course of my career. Maybe more, maybe a little less. I am trained to critically assess an argument, its logic and its evidence. As are all the rest of us academic, professional historians. My interlocutor had offered up a Google search as his “proof” that Pearson and Trudeau were dirty commies. But he dismissed my evidence as “nothing.” Ah, wonderful, anti-intellectualiam. Carry on then, good sir, and good luck with your alternate reality.
The third time I was reminded of the historians’ path came today when reading The Times Literary Supplement. I allowed my subscription to lapse last fall. I regret that. I just renewed, and the first new issue came yesterday (note geek excitement here). In it comes a review of Brian Levack’s new book, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World, by Peter Marshall. I thought several things of this book and its review. The first was it appears to have been a colossal miss in terms of Public History. Levack is bedeviled (pun intended) by the fact that it is well nigh impossible to rationally explain possessions. And yet, people continued to believe they happened. I’m more interested in that cognitive dissonance, I must say. Anyway. Towards the end of the review, Marshall opines that “The folie de grandeur of historians is that we are conditioned to believe we can explain anything.” Huh. Not sure I agree with that. Certainly, the rational, positivist bent of our training is given over to such pursuits. And we tend to take on rational topics, things we can explain. Certainly, anything I’ve tackled in a research project from undergrad to now fits into this category. But there are some things that are harder to explain. Like, for example, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. Or a belief (or unbelief) in God. Or, possessions, demons, and exorcisms. Here, the historian is left with this cognitive dissonance, of attempting to conduct a rational discussion (and argument) about something that may not actually be rational. Herein lies my interest in exactly that dissonance. What is it that makes people persist in their beliefs? Even in the face of all rational evidence to the contrary (as in the case of, say, possessions)? The very fact that the subject of discussion is not explainable is exactly what makes it so interesting. So, in a sense, then, Marshall is incorrect, historians cannot explain anything. Nor should we wish to.
Certainly out in the world of social media, there’s two forms of arguing: trying to convince with evidence and reason, and trying to prove your interlocutor is evil and not worth listening to because that person holds some value or idea that you absolutely know is wrong.
The ad hominen attack is an ancient tactic, though, something which has been beaten out of us through many torturous years of graduate and post-graduate school. It’s boring and, quite frankly, a sign of stupidity.