John Wilson: Some Highlights of the Annual Meeting of the Historical Society





Faithful readers may recall the parallel-universe cabinet proposed in our 2004 election issue (the one with "Bono for President" on the cover), which included Mark Noll as Secretary of History: "Imagine the president meeting every two weeks, say, with his historian. Everyone else around him is focused relentlessly on the present, not least on the ever-proliferating opinion polls. When his advisers venture into history, they generally do so in the spirit of a raid—to rip from its context a precedent, an anecdote, a jeweled phrase that will serve some partisan purpose. But for a half-hour every fortnight, the president simply listens to his historian telling him about another time, with its enigmas and ironies intact—yet also, always, a tale of choices made for better or worse, hence bearing on the choices to be made today."

So I fantasized in November 2004. Alas, there's no indication that such a new cabinet post is about to be created. Still, undaunted, historians continue to ply their trade, and earlier this month I had reason to reflect on just how useful their work can be. The occasion was the every-other-year convention of The Historical Society (I urge you to visit the website and check out their excellent publications, Historically Speaking and The Journal of the Historical Society), held this time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The subject was "Globalization, Empire, and Imperialism in Historical Perspective."

We urgently need an antidote to the journalistic clichés and the even more deplorable pseudo-scholarly discourse surrounding the interlocked themes of globalization, empire, and imperialism. We need the distance—the perspective—that good historical thinking affords. There was plenty of that on display in Chapel Hill, along with some muddle.

The most provocative session I attended was the concluding keynote lecture by Deepak Lal, the polymathic economist whose book In Praise of Empires: Globalization and Order (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) argued that peace and prosperity are likely to flourish under the umbrella of empire, while convulsive disorder typically follows the decay of imperial power. For his lecture at the conference, Lal summarized that book-length argument and added observations based on recent events, particularly the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Witty, urbane, gleefully contrarian, Lal added the charge (which he has made elsewhere, in The Hindu Equilibrium, for instance) that the Christian monotheism still so influential in the United States has interfered with the proper exercise of American power. Empires, you see, should be content with establishing order; in other respects they should be wisely tolerant, not attempting to impose their beliefs on the various peoples in their sphere of influence. (We'll return to this topic, and to Lal's work in particular, later in the summer.)

One of the hot scholarly trends these days is "transnational" history, and that was evident on the conference program, both for good and for ill. A paper on the expansion of British Freemasonry gave the impression that this was something unprecedented as an instance of a "cultural institution" that established an international "presence" in a way that contributed to globalization. Hmmm. What about the Catholic Church? (The paper mentions the Jesuits only parenthetically, then goes on to argue that Freemasonry marked a departure in developing "international networks." Really?) Indeed, scholars focusing on various aspects of the history of Christianity have been doing first-rate transnational history for a long time, much of which has a bearing on our understanding of globalization and empire.

In addition to the official program, of course, such gatherings offer abundant side-conversation, and the quality of the talk here was very high. I'm already looking forward to the 2008 edition.


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