Blogs > Cliopatria > Know Ye Not That We Shall Judge Politicians?

Jan 5, 2010

Know Ye Not That We Shall Judge Politicians?

Mastheads of newspapers participating in the 7th December climate change editorial

This is a post that raises more questions than it answers, and speaks from a position within the discipline that, really, I hardly hold. But in as much as people are prepared to let me pretend I'm inside higher ed., so to speak, I notice when people talk about the profession with expectations, and no greater expectation has fallen on us for some time than the moral pressure that was applied to the politicians in debate at Copenhagen as I first wrote this. On 7th December, as you're probably aware, fifty-six newspapers in forty-five countries went to press, in twenty different languages, with a shared editorial calling on those politicians to get it together, sort it out, make it happen and generally act, before it be too late. The newspapers included le Monde, the Irish Times, the Suddeutsche Zeitung, La Repubblica, two Chinese and several Arabic-language papers too, though in the UK and US only one paper each, the Guardian (in which I read it) and the Miami Times, could be enticed to take part. It's an impressive effort, nonetheless, and as a parent and indeed someone who hopes to live a little while longer at least, I would have liked it to work. But for my immediate purposes the part of the message that struck me is the repeated anthem, 'History will judge you for this', or in the actual words used by the Guardian:

The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history's judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.

There's so many things about this that cry out to me for comment, I could write a long essay, but since it would essentially be my opinions based on air and unsubstantiated hearsay, I'll not do that. Let me instead try and set out the questions this immediately raises for me.

  1. Who is 'history' here?
  2. This idea implies that the historical profession (I assume) will be able to form a unified judgement of the whole affair (as well as assuming that, if the calamity is not averted, somehow there will still be historians after it all goes Mad Max, which is a comfort). But since we make our marks by disagreeing, and since consensus among us is as rare as a hen's tooth, and we usually think this is healthy, I have to wonder what the chances of that are.

  3. Why is this supposed to scare them?
  4. I don't know how much the average politician cares about what their image looks like to 'expert' opinion. There are few pundits now who do anything but excoriate Margaret Thatcher for what she did with Britain, but even when she was fully aware of the outside world I doubt she cared, and among the actual population (and indeed, the actual government) she still has defenders. If these newspapers were appealing to distant, Hari Seldon-like figures who will in centuries to come hold conferences on the ecological crisis of the twenty-first century, Earth Old Common Era, then I think that hope was as fantastic as I have just made it sound. But if they meant to warn the Copenhagen delegates that, within their lifetimes, people will call them out for their decisions that week, I have to wonder whether that's history at all. I think it's popular opinion, and 'history' just somehow sounds grander and less like being doorstepped by activists.

  5. Do we, not, then, influence popular opinion?
  6. This one's always tricky, isn't it? Some of us try, but our institutional structures do not reward it and if one really wanted to be a well-known voice on politics or culture, one would not, I fear, set about this by becoming an academic. On the other hand, these papers wanted to convey the idea that this judgement will not be made willy-nilly, but by informed and correct—dare I say, expert—opinion, and that doesn't come from nowhere. So perhaps we do have something to sell in this market: our expertise.

  7. But, do the practises of expertise produce for that market?
  8. Well, no. We do not, unless we are very lucky, produce books that millions of people read, and if there is a book on all the airport—oh, hang on, air travel's probably going to go, isn't it? On the mass transit concourse bookshop stands, then—with a title like, The Second Battle of Copenhagen: how a generation of politicians [saved|doomed] the planet, it will not have footnotes and detailed archival references. It can't, partly because to produce such a book one would need all the official documents and that would mean waiting a century and more for them to be made available and then enough translated that one historian or team could access them all. But it also can't because a book of that calibre would just be too big and expensive to sell to such a market, even in electronic format. The best we could hope for is some kind of contemporary historical equivalent of A Brief History of Time, one of those doorstops that, however good it be, far more people own than have read.

  9. Is it even our job to write, broadcast, podcast or blog for that market?
  10. Well, this is the big one isn't it? Let's stop the list and start the analysis.

Paymasters and Publication

There is enough debate around what it means to be a public intellectual that we can be sure this is something that some people want to be. But is there institutional support for such ventures? Historically, there has not been, has there? He or she who would so practise must do so in their own time, though the institution's press department will eagerly hoover up any successes. I never heard of anyone getting a course release for blogging or TV appearances. The symbolic capital of these 'third stream' activities is symbolic in its returns also. And, arguably, it's not scholarly work. No-one reviews blog posts or TV scripts before they air (well: if they do, no-one necessarily pays much attention) and they're not expected to be fully verifiable, though with the blogs at least some of us try. But it's not what we're being paid for, and so there's always the danger that it will get one into trouble either because one's paymasters feel that they're not getting the time that they pay one for, or, worse, because one writes something that does not support them. How much loyalty does that wage buy?

On the other hand, where does that wage come from? Research grants, yes, and therefore you should Do Thy Research, but increasingly, in the UK at least, grants for projects are being made partly on the basis of this nebulous quality 'impact'. Now I'd say getting into the papers or on TV is 'impact' all right, and on a lesser scale I'd say drawing thousands of page views per month is also 'impact', even if it's likely to be impact in constituencies geographically separate from the grant-awarding body's funding base. So maybe we are being paid to be pundits, in that sense, though obviously your grant's terms may differ.

Otherwise, though, ultimately an academic wage comes from endowments and from public money. Endowments, again, have terms, and they may be refined by departmental practice and immediate management. But again, I doubt many benefactors would object to 'their' people being on TV talking the big talk; that's a kind of application of their money they can immediately see, and so can their peers.

But evaluations and 'scoring' exercises do not like this work, because it cannot be measured as easily as publications and conference appearances and research moneys can be counted. So we are pressured to give all our time to those matters; our promotions (for those who are lucky enough to be inside structures that promote) hang on them and our chances of getting inside those structures are fundamentally based on them. You don't get jobs by blogging (or at least, I don't). And this is arguably fair enough: without the money that these bodies award, there wouldn't be so many jobs so it's not unfair to insist that they be prioritised.

Contradictions in terms

I see two big mismatches here, and the newspaper editorials with which I began have drawn them out. What our public funding bodies want of us and what the public want of us are not the same thing. In many cases, indeed, the academy does not want to do what the public wants of us, which is work that the public can see and understand. We have built our discipline around peer review and peer opinion, for perfectly sound reasons, and therefore what counts for our progress is what we write for each other, rather than what we write for general consumption. All our funding sources to one extent or another distinguish their recipients based on this ability that we defend to judge our fellows' work. But the source that is keenest on it is the one which is funded by the body that is least keen on it, to wit the general audience. The public, or at least 56 newspapers catering to the public, apparently want historians with respected expertise who are available to pronounce on matters in the public eye, ancient, medieval or modern, in a timely fashion, although the structures by which we create that expertise are obscure to them and actually militate against such work. That's one mismatch.

The other is that I don't think, in fact, for all the reasons that I laid out in the list above, that what the newspapers appear to think historians are for is actually what we think we are for at all. They want authoritative pronouncements and we pride ourselves on teaching critical thought and questioning ideas of authority. Or, more cynically, the public wants us to think for them and we want it to think for its several selves. Now I don't see either side changing their views any time soon and I am most certainly on the side of the angels on this one. All the same, how do we justify that those who pay the piper don't get to call the tune?

(I also have some things I want to say about how annoying it is to have the medieval warm period so politicised that people suppress it to avoid zombie arguments, but that can wait for another post.)

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jonathan Jarrett - 1/5/2010

I see what you mean, and I suppose it is what they ultimately mean, but the idea of judgement that operates in the editorial seems to me, as I say, to demand some form of learning or expertise for the making of that judgement. Otherwise, I agree, it'd not be anything to do with the historical profession at all.

Rachel Stone - 1/5/2010

I think you're being mislead by the use of the term 'history' here, but that's because the word we need no longer really exists: 'fama'. If the politicians make the wrong decisions, they will leave a bad memory to future generations, they will bring shame on their (figurative) descendants etc. This kind of memory is not handed down by historians: we are marginal to the memory of such folk-heroes or demons as 'Bony' or 'JFK' or 'Thatcher' and to pretend otherwise is unrealistic.