If Historians Ran the World

Historians are all atwitter over the “Applied History Project“, the brainchild of Harvard scholar Graham Allison and globetrotting virtual historian Niall Ferguson. With what would seem like hubris in lesser mortals, the two projectors call on the next US President to create a “Council of Historical Advisers”: a body of historians to help with policy much as the current Council of Economic Advisors does.

This is open to criticism from numerous angles, from the anti- to the über-academic, with a large middle ground in between. A particularly good piece by Jeremy Adelman raises the important question of what such a creation — and such a direction for the practice of history — might mean for different kinds of history; it’s all too easy to imagine a narrow kind of political history, suddenly gifted with the relevance and trappings of power, coming to dominate what historians and those who fund them think history should be about. As Adelman also points out, Allison and Ferguson promise rather a lot: nothing less than the systematic identification of the pertinent past examples to consider when confronting any emergent situation — clarifying thereby the way to meet it — all based on the “[Ernest] May Method” of listing the things that make each potentially relevant past example similar to the present situation, and then listing in another column the things that make it different. (We used to call this method “comparing things”.)

A deeper problem, it seems to me, is that the authors don’t address just how the analytical categories involved in this apparently common-sense method are decided or defined, and what procedure guarantees their validity and prevents the whole exercise from being arbitrary. Consider this:

Our initial search for precedents and analogues for ISIS includes 50 prior cases of similarly brutal, fanatical, purpose-driven groups, including the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution. Deciding which characteristics of ISIS we consider most salient – for example, its revolutionary politics or its religious apocalypticism – helps us to narrow this list to the most instructive analogues.

In other words, the starting point for locating “precedents and analogues for ISIS” is identifying “similarly brutal, fanatical, purpose-driven groups”. But how exactly does one measure brutality, fanaticism, or purposiveness so as to determine their “similarity”? Is there an agreed historical method for this? And what makes these three particular characteristics — rather than, say, organizational structure or specific ideology or anything else — the obvious ones from which to proceed? No specifically historical criterion (or expertise) seems likely to decide this, since the relevant history is itself only determined afterward; and it does not help that these basic questions are reopened in the second sentence after the initial selection has been made.

Instead of bringing the richness of history to bear on the present, this method seems liable to take currently prevailing prejudices of a privileged handful of political historians — or of their political masters — as an authoritative grid for the past. (Have we not been here before, with social scientists?) The authors decry once-fashionable analogies between Saddam Hussein and Hitler, but they don’t say what was wrong with these, methodologically speaking, other than that they were “amateur”, and they do nothing to establish that their method would not produce, professionally, more of the same. (“Our initial search for precedents includes 20 prior cases of similarly brutal, authoritarian, and purpose-driven dictators….”) The method as applied here has a whiff of typological exegesis about it: the past becomes a kind of Scripture, teaching by example; historians become its honoured priests and prophets. But the core of the science is a matter of orthodoxy resting on faith.

Prophets indeed, for another troubling (yet “vital”) task Allison and Ferguson propose for their Council is predicting the future — offering specific prognostications anchored by what seem like fairly general observations. “Will Russia invade a Baltic state?… Two and a half years ago, how many believed it probable that Vladimir Putin would invade Crimea, that his proxies would shoot down a Dutch airliner or that he would commit combat forces to Syria?” Yes, the unexpected happens. Did historians predict these events? Had the Council of Historical Advisers existed before the invasion of the Crimea, what would it have done? The implication is that things would have gone differently, but it’s not clear how. Would unexpected possibilities have been more expected? Which ones? On what basis — Russian diplomatic history, Putin’s past, demographic or social changes, wider regional or global contexts? If these point in different directions, are historians better equipped than other experts to weigh the probabilities? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but Allison and Ferguson imply that they do. It would be nice to hear more.

But what bothers me most about the proposal is the kind of alliance it proposes, even fetishizes, between the profession of history and the projection of state and de facto imperial power. (It’s not surprising, but it is worth noting that “the most consequential modern practitioner of applied history” Allison and Ferguson identify is Henry Kissinger.) I am not about to get all trahison des clercs, and I am not naive, either. Besides social and ideological overlaps there have often been elective affinities between certain historiographical and political tendencies. Moreover, I am by no means against “applying” history to the present, including to present politics. But multiple kinds of history, multiple contextualizations, multiple historical frames are relevant to the decisions we make and the problems we face now, to say nothing of the kinds of skills that historians, in common with other humanities scholars, promote; and they are for all of us to apply. Bringing those skills and that knowledge to bear in a responsible and open-ended way in the service of opening, widening or deepening public debate is a very different thing from granting scholarly imprimatur to policies — and the seal of historical truth to the self-flattery of politicians — in exchange for a seat at the high table.

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2 thoughts on “If Historians Ran the World

  1. Pingback: Arguing for history: If not skills, then what? | memorious

  2. Pingback: Is Our Historians Learning? Popular, Academic, and Political History | memorious

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