Ken Burns and the Risks of Reconciliation

The opening episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War shows a series of iconic moments in film with a twist: they play backwards. As viewers we are asked to rewind our understanding of the war, to start from the beginning. In the process we are supposed to build a new understanding, through which we can all find solace in a shared history. But can we?

Ken Burns likes narrative history. An authoritative voice speaks to connect hours of historical footage and talking heads. The format harks back to earlier periods in historical scholarship when historians presumed their own objectivity. The sort of editorial decisions that go into selecting who to quote, what words to use (calling the Vietnam War a “failure” or “tragedy” rather than a “defeat”, for example), and what images to put behind them, are all acts of interpretation obscured in the guise of fact and marshalled to support an interpretation. Giving the appearance of showing all sides further glosses over the biases. With subject matter as divisive as the Civil War or Vietnam War, this framing of the story ends up flattening out the events’ complexity and decades of debates.

A major challenge of teaching history at college level is that students arrive with an understanding of history not dissimilar to that found in Ken Burns’s documentaries or their school textbooks. The past is presented as a series of facts, while little or nothing is said of how or why those facts were chosen, if indeed they are agreed upon ‘facts’ as opposed to contested issues. Historians understand, and try to communicate to students, that the past is subject to debate and our understanding of it continues to change over time. The danger of narrative history is that it makes an argument and selects evidence to support that argument without acknowledging that it does so. Whether to accept the stories these documentaries tell at face value or probe them further is left to the individual. Too many, I fear, may choose the former. Neither The Civil War nor The Vietnam War ask explicit questions of their viewers. Therein lies their broad appeal and therein lies their danger.

The films are about, in Ken Burns’s words, “ultimate reconciliation”. This may come from a noble impulse to come to terms with history and establish an American canon that bridges partisan divides. Laudable though this optimism may be, reconciliation can create moral equivalence where it may not exist. It leaves us with “a popular narrative of brave soldiers fighting for their respective causes” without sufficient critical analysis of those causes. In the case of the Civil War this very narrative enabled the glorification of the Confederacy, the reimposition of white supremacy, and willful amnesia around emancipation.[1] In the case of Vietnam, the reconciliation narrative depends on mischaracterizing the anti-war movement and apparently explaining the politically-motivated decisions and lies of successive American governments as attempts by “decent people” to “muddle through” (episode 1). The hope for closure may be premature.

This is not an indictment of either film. There are good reasons for watching both and much of value to learn.[2] Rather, it is a call to see them for what they are: particular perspectives on American history. We have a rich past. It is complicated and messy, and its meaning is far from clear-cut. We can and should ask difficult questions and engage in civil debate over how to answer them. Questions – like protests – show not a disdain for the American project, but rather a commitment to bettering it. Reconciliation may be therapeutic, but it is not a cure. Privileging it risks losing a fuller examination of our past and our present.

[1] David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Belknap Press, 2001).

[2] I will leave it to historians of the era to evaluate the content. See, for example, Christian G. Appy’s reviews of the series for the OAH blog Process: Introduction, Episode 1, Episode 2, Episodes 3 & 4, Episodes 5 & 6, Episodes 7 & 8, Episodes 9 & 10.

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Gender in History: A Personal Perspective

Most of my oral history interviewees are male and the experiences they discuss are therefore also predominantly masculine. Consequently, at conferences I am often asked ‘what about gender?’ What this really means is ‘where are the women?’ or ‘what are you (a woman) doing studying men?’ I have yet to attend a presentation on women’s history where the speaker was asked ‘what about men?’ Gender history, though based on exploring ‘the fundamental idea that what it means to be defined as man or woman has a history,’[1] is all too often synonymous with women’s history. Let’s get one thing straight: considering gender is not the same thing as writing about women. In fact, to focus only on women is just as biased as to focus only on men. In order to write gender into history we need to consider both.[2]

Despite the fact that most of my interviewees are men, in my dissertation I’ve made a conscious effort to address how and why their experiences differ from those of their female contemporaries, relying on extant sources to supplement my own interviews. In terms of employment among post-war Irish migrants, workplaces tended to be gendered spaces. Irishmen worked predominantly in trades and manual labor (traditionally male occupations), while women moved into more traditionally feminine roles including nursing and clerical work. They came together in their social lives, meeting at church events, county associations, and dance halls. However, gendered experiences persisted. Men and women started the night on separate sides of the dance floor and a man generally had to ask a woman to dance. Some men may have wanted to get married or settle down, but felt tongue-tied even trying to approach a girl to ask her to dance. An inability to communicate well appears as a theme in discussions of loneliness and isolation among Irishmen. Others justified the fact that they remained single by saying they didn’t want to be ‘tied down’, in the words of one interviewee. Men were (and are) constrained by the expectation that they do ‘manly’ work and provide for a family and women were (and are) by the expectation that they bear and raise children. The latter has received far more attention in historical scholarship.

But the questions I am asked at conferences are not only about my subject of study; they are about my right to study it. Oral historians are taught to reflect on the nature of the interviewer-interviewee relationship:[3] Did they know each other before the interview? Are they of the same sex? The same race? The same age? The same generation? The same political outlook? How do these factors affect the interview? While these are important questions, they give the impression that there is a right or a wrong type of relationship. They suggest, for example, that a man could never get ‘the best’ interviews with feminist activists or that (in the words of someone who ran a training course I attended) ‘young people’ don’t understand their elderly interviewees. While undoubtedly a man’s experience is different from a woman’s and a teenager’s from an eighty-year-old’s, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Oral history is about listening, about capturing untold stories or hearing familiar ones in new ways. Though my interviewees and I have a common interest (Irish music), I am a different gender, a different generation, and a different ethnicity to most of them. This can lead to enlightening moments: descriptions of how people charged radio batteries in the days before rural electrification or of styles of dress in the 1950s. Because of the differences, they feel the need to explain what life was like and to reflect on why. Where tacit, mutual assumptions exist between interviewer and interviewee, stories may remain unspoken.

Last year Emma Watson launched the UN’s HeForShe campaign. In her speech, she reclaims the term feminism from its negative connotations and defines it as the support for equal rights and opportunities. It is therefore a men’s issue too, because they ‘don’t have the benefits of equality either’. She argues that gender inequality will not end if it is seen as an issue concerning only half the population: everyone needs to participate in the conversation and be part of the change. The same is true for academia: in Ireland, female students outnumber their male counterparts in third-level institutions, but women constitute only 29 percent of senior academic staff.[4] Ending gender inequality is about more than closing the achievement gap; it’s about changing attitudes. As historians, we need to extend the same courtesy to each other and to the past. Women’s history should not only be about, by, and for women; nor should history be only about elite white men. Gender in history – like class or ethnicity – needs the whole population in the picture for it to make sense.

_________________

[1] Sonya Rose, What Is Gender History? (2010)

[2] Joanne Bailey, ‘Questions of Gender’, History Today, vol.64, no.6 (June 2014); Joanne Bailey, ‘Is the Rise of Gender History “Hiding” Women from History once again?’, History in Focus (2005)

[3] For example, see: Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 2nd ed. (AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2005), pp.157-87.

[4] Higher Education Authority, ‘Gender and Academic Staff’, figures based on Dec. 2013. Women are 29% of senior academic staff in universities and ITs in Ireland.

Revisiting E.H. Carr’s What Is History?

My most-read post on The Dustbin of History so far, from 2 November 2013.

Carr What Is HistoryMy first introduction to historiography came in the shape of E.H. Carr’s 1961 text What Is History? in a European History course in my final year of high school. I had long been interested in history and had the benefit of excellent teachers but had never read anything specifically on what it meant to do or to write history. Carr’s book, based on a series of lectures delivered at Cambridge but aimed at a much wider audience, is clear and thought provoking and its central ideas have stayed with me ever since. (I still have the original essay I wrote about it for the high school class so that provides accurate evidence of my perspective at the time!) I recently bought a newer edition of the book and decided to revisit it, to see if my training as a historian has altered my perspective. The purpose of this piece is not to evaluate him in relation to contemporary thinking but to reflect on his core ideas, many of which have remained the subject of historiographical debate in the subsequent decades, though the language we use to discuss them may have changed.

On the first encounter, at the tender age of sixteen, What Is History? provoked two main reactions in me: First, it reinforced some ideas about history that I had only picked up subconsciously before – that how history is written depends on when it is written and who writes it and that the narratives created are not objective because they involve the selection of facts or evidence. Second, I remember being frustrated by its somewhat theoretical or abstract nature – even though Carr uses examples, they were probably more familiar and current to his audience at the time and left me still wanting to know more about the application of his ideas.

Over fifty years have passed since Carr first delivered his ‘broadside on history’[1] and in any analysis of it we cannot escape the statement he made at the beginning: ‘When we attempt to answer the question, What is History?, our answer, consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answer to the broader question what view we take of the society in which we live.’[2] This principle applies not only to texts on historical subjects, but also his own, which does indeed reflect his position in time – the atmosphere of post-war Britain and the Cold War. Certainly it’s now unacceptable to refer to the historian consistently using the male pronoun, but I’ll excuse Carr on that point given his generation! Many of the examples he uses to illustrate his points also come from the realm of political history, though there are occasional hints at the emergence of social history: ‘People do not cease to be people, or individuals individuals, because we do not know their names,’ even if he only attaches significance to these nameless individuals when they act en masse.[3]

The idea that a historian’s writings reflects his/her own era is related to Carr’s more general ideas about bias and interpretation. The term bias is often taken to have a negative connotation, but in this case it means something closer to perspective that effects interpretation. These ideas largely come through in the first chapter, ‘The Historian and His Facts.’ Carr’s argument gets a bit bogged down by his attempt to define what a ‘fact’ is and how it becomes a ‘historical fact’, but for the purpose of examining his ideas they can be viewed essentially as the raw materials of history or, the term most commonly used today, evidence. History, then, is written through selection of facts/evidence and this process is an act of interpretation. (I have found this idea one of the most difficult to instil in students, who, coming straight out of secondary school still seem to think books equal unquestionable truth.) Based on Collingwood’s ideas, Carr states three main points: ‘history means interpretation’ (historians tend to find what they’re looking for); the historian needs an ‘imaginative understanding’ of the mindset of the people he/she studies; and we can only look at the past ‘through the eyes of the present’ as even the language we use embodies that perspective.[4] However, he recognizes the dangers of complete skepticism, subjectivity, post-modernism, and all the other post-isms that this view might seem to suggest, that we could be left with either with a history that has no meaning or an infinity of meanings.[5] The way he seeks to resolve this apparent contradiction is through the idea of ‘reciprocal action’ on two levels, ‘between the historian and his facts’ and ‘between the present and the past’.[6] And thus we have the idea of historiography! For example, I don’t think any scholar of American immigration history today sees Oscar Handlin’s The Uprooted and its narrative of assimilation / Americanization as the definitive text on the subject, and yet they still read it and reference it because of its place in the development of the field and to show the distance between it and contemporary work. We are in the business of constantly revising the past.

Much has changed in the world and in historiography since Carr’s time and from the standpoint of the present we recognize his shortcomings: his somewhat elitist view on the eve of the revolution brought by social history, his focus on the political and on history as a ‘science’, his belief in ‘progress’. Nonetheless, I think his ideas about the working process of the historian, with its subjectivity and continual series of revisions, remain central our discipline at all levels – teaching, research, and writing.

—————

This post is dedicated to Dr. Christian Nøkkentved, affectionately known to generations of students as ‘Doc Nok’, a member of the history faculty at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy who retired this year. I am forever grateful to him and the other members of the department for their time and enthusiasm, which continue to inspire me today. I first read Carr’s book in his class and he is in many ways responsible for my interest in social history.


[1] E.H. Carr letter to Isaac Deutscher, March 1960, in Richard J. Evans, introduction to E.H. Carr, What is History?, 2nd ed. (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2001), p.xix.

[2] Carr, What is History?, p.2.

[3] Carr, What is History?, p.44.

[4] Carr, What is History?, pp.18-20.

[5] Carr, What is History?, pp.20-21.

[6] Carr, What is History?, p.24.

Transnational Ireland?

A post from The Dustbin of History, 2 May 2013

Last Friday (26 April) I attended a workshop at Trinity College Dublin organised by the Transnational Ireland Network. It brought together members of the network, founded about a year ago, and postgraduate students to discuss definitions of and approaches to transnational history, particularly in an Irish context.

The four discussion sessions took as their starting point the following topics: transnational history so far, the futures of transnational history, doing transnational history, and transnational history in the Irish context. (As a side note, it’s going to be impossible for me to write this blog post without being incredibly repetitive and saying ‘transnational history’ far too many times, so apologies in advance.) Some of the central questions raised in the course of discussions were:

  • How do we differentiate transnational history from global, international, or comparative histories? (And related to this, a question that wasn’t discussed – what is the difference between transnational and diasporic approaches?)
  • Can you employ transnationalism in the pre-national era?
  • If part of the goal is to move beyond grand narratives of the nation state, to what extent do narratives of globalization replace them and is this not an equal danger?
  • Who has a right to call the world borderless? Is this not somewhat self-indulgent on the part of academics?
  • Can transnationalism be about more than just ‘crossing borders’? How is it experienced ‘at home’ and is it possible to do a transnational micro-history?
  • Is transnationalism simply new terminology for the same methods employed before, such as in Atlantic history and imperial history?
  • Why do transnational history and are there certain subjects for which it is particularly suited?
  • Is transnational history a challenge to Irish (or any other nation’s) exceptionalism?
  • To what extent does transnational history address issues of connection vs. disconnection and inclusion vs. exclusion?

I am now realising that in my notes on the discussions I wrote down far more questions than answers! Nonetheless, without even having direct answers, the act of thinking and talking about these topics was itself very worthwhile.

Much of the first half of the workshop was devoted to defining transnationalism and its key questions, issues raised in numerous academic articles, which despite their length do not always provide decisive conclusions and when they are particularly abstract they also tend to leave questions of application. While I do think it worthwhile to define the terms we use for clarity, sometimes debates over exact distinctions can eclipse their usefulness and become somewhat pedantic. A useful short definition suggested by Enda Delaney is the movement of people, goods, and ideas across national boundaries and the effects of that movement. This is broad enough to encompass different methodological approaches: political, economic, intellectual, social, or cultural history can all be transnational and it becomes instead a ‘way of seeing’.[1] Its intention is not completely rewriting the canon of history, but revisiting familiar sources and retelling the story.[2]

The push towards transnational history began in the US in the early 1990s, but it has continued to retain currency. A brief search for ‘transnational’ in Perspectives on History (a publication of the American Historical Association) turns up four articles in the last six months, suggesting the approach has, if anything, gained popularity and prevalence in historiography.[3] However, it is only relatively recently that Irish historians have begun to heed this call. Despite the large and widespread diaspora, Irish history largely developed a hegemonic ‘island story’ focused national political issues and events. As Delaney writes, ‘what has emerged over time are two separate fields of historical writing: one covering the “homeland”, or domestic history, the other concerned with the “diaspora”, or migrant communities, and only rarely do these historiographies collide’.[4] Transnational history offers the potential to integrate these and give them more equal weight and by doing so it opens new areas of research and creates new historical knowledge. This is particularly relevant to my research, which focuses on oral histories of migration from Ireland to the United States and Great Britain between 1945 and 1970. Doing transnational history enables me to follow the life stories of migrants, connecting their point of departure with that of arrival (and sometimes with return), while offering an element of comparison between Irish communities across the diaspora. This also challenges the issue raised during the workshop that elites were somehow ‘more transnational’ than ordinary people, which is an incorrect assumption, particularly in the Irish context. Likewise, the focus on political aspects of transnationalism during the latter two sessions of the workshop also in some way suggests elitism. Many different people, from the working class up, lived transnational lives. This approach to history offers the potential to reconstruct their worldviews and the complexities of their experiences and in doing so to create a fresh perspective.


[1] ‘Ideally, transnational history is a “way of seeing”’, writes Sven Beckert, by which he means it can include a variety of methodologies and questions. He elaborates on this by saying, ‘it takes as its starting point the interconnectedness of human history as a whole, and while it acknowledges the extraordinary importance of states, empires, and the like, it pays attention to networks, processes, beliefs, and institutions that transcend these politically defined spaces.’ ‘AHR Conversation: On Transnational History’, American Historical Review, vol.111, no.5 (Dec. 2006), p.1454, p.1459.

[2] Matthew Pratt Guterl, ‘AHR Forum: Comment: The Futures of Transnational History’, American Historical Review, vol.118, no.1 (Feb. 2013), pp.130-9.

[3] The increasing popularity of transnational history has been referred to as the ‘transnational turn’. Luke Clossey & Nicholas Guyatt, ‘It’s a Small World After All: The Wider World in Historians’ Peripheral Vision’, Perspectives on History (May 2013); Lisa A. Lindsay, ‘The Appeal of Transnational History’, Perspectives on History (Dec. 2012); Mae M. Ngai, ‘Promises and Perils of Transnational History’, Perspectives on History (Dec. 2012); Mart A. Stewart, ‘Teaching Transnational American History in a Study Abroad Program: America and Vietnam’, Perspectives on History (Mar. 2013).

[4] Enda Delaney, ‘Directions in Historiography: Our Island Story? Towards a Transnational History of Late Modern Ireland’, Irish Historical Studies, vol.37, no.148 (Nov. 2011), p.86.

Historical Revisionism (and some detective work)

For six weeks this autumn I am tutoring third year students for a core module titled Historical Debate. The key focus of this module is not the content of history, but historiography – how history is written and used, by whom, why, and how those elements change over time. These are central issues in historical research but can be extraordinarily difficult to convey to students. They still tend to want to think of history as ‘what happened’, as an objective perspective on the past, rather than something constantly written and rewritten.

This week they began the section of the course on modern Irish historiography, with particular focus on historical revisionism, so I assigned some background reading, the introduction to D. George Boyce and Alan O’Day’s book, The Making of Modern Irish History: Revisionism and the Revisionist Controversy. Overall it provides a fairly good survey of the issues and developments in twentieth century Irish historiography. I’ve studied revisionism before, but in preparation for the tutorials then I decided to brush up and look more closely at the sources mentioned in that chapter, which led to an interesting discovery (as I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat for Halloween!).

Boyce and O’Day draw quite heavily on an article written by Brendan Bradshaw, ‘Nationalism and Historical Scholarship in Modern Ireland’ (first published in Irish Historical Studies, vol.26). For the most part their summary of his arguments are accurate. However, on page 9 they write:

The difficulty of being at once a professional historian, engaged with these issues, and a political polemicist, deeply committed to a special interpretation of the past, can be illustrated again by Brendan Bradshaw’s dual role, as nationalist and Catholic polemicist, and as professional Cambridge historian. As the former, Bradshaw has gone so far as to insist that the popular perception of Irish history constituted a ‘beneficent legacy – its wrongness notwithstanding’, andeven to demand the reinstatement of ‘the popular perception of Irish history as a struggle for the liberation of “faith and fatherland” from the oppression of the Protestant English’. (emphasis added)

Essentially, they suggest in quite strong terms (insist, demand) that Bradshaw advocates the popular, nationalist version of history. In the footnote they cite as the source for these quotations only his article mentioned above. So I went back to it for a closer look. Now I haven’t read Bradshaw’s other historical works, but based on my reading and understanding of the article in question, they quite blatantly misquote, misread, and misrepresent his arguments. For the first quotation they give, the full sentence Bradshaw actually wrote is:

In a nutshell, the issue raised by Butterfield’s exposition of the positive values of English public history [in The Englishman & His History and The Whig Interpretation of History] is whether the received version of Irish history may not, after all, constitute a beneficent legacy – its wrongness notwithstanding – which the revisionists with the zeal of academic pursuits are seeking to drive out.

He does not say, as Boyce and O’Day suggest, that ‘the received version of Irish history’is definitively a beneficent legacy. He says that the issue is whether it is and his statement hinges on that word, making it something entirely different than the way Boyce and O’Day quote it.

The second part of what Boyce and O’Day write relates to the ‘reinstatement’ of the preeminence of popular, nationalist history. However, a very basic problem is that this quotation does not come from the article cited at all. It comes from a different article by Bradshaw, titled ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ (Fortnight, no.197, 1991), which they fail to mention in their footnotes. In the context of that article, Bradshaw addresses the combination of empirical skepticism and the whig interpretation of history in the revisionist project:

The practical consequence of this combination was a determination to debunk the popular perception of Irish history as a struggle for the liberation of “faith and fatherland” from the oppression of the Protestant English. On the contrary, the implications of my own insight seemed to be that “national consciousness”, comprised of precisely those elements, lay at the heart of the historic “Irish problem”.

I think few would disagree with his assessment of the revisionist focus on challenging national myths and the narrative of rebellion against 800 years of oppression by the English. He suggests not that these ideas should be reinstated, but that their significance and relevance within Irish history should be recognized. Whether or not the nationalist version of history is in any way accurate, many people believed in it and we cannot understand Irish history without some discussion of nationalism. Thus, far from arguing that Bradshaw is an incontrovertible nationalist, after this bit of historical detective work I would tend to agree with his own assessment of the article ‘Nationalism and Historical Scholarship’ as much closer to a post-revisionist manifesto than a nationalist one. And as much as this sort of detective work can have its rewards (I can’t deny getting some satisfaction from the ability to call out the mistakes of established scholars) let there be one lesson: always properly cite your sources! In this day and age all Sherlock Holmes needs is Google (and access to JSTOR).