This week the Modern British Studies program at Birmingham launched their first paper towards a discussion of #MBS2017.
It included the question “As we enter a moment of genuine crisis, are some kinds of history more important than others?”
The question is more controversial among historians than I would have assumed. This is my attempt to work out what I think about this, although I’m afraid some of the issues are intractable.
I think that history is inescapably political, and I think it is good practice to acknowledge and explore the politics that shape the histories we do. Others on Twitter this week disagreed, and with good reason. Emily Rutherford pointed out three problems that arise when historians treat their discussions in a way that explicitly evokes a political position, often assumed (among academic historians) to be left-wing. She wrote on Twitter:
- I don’t think study of history must/should be pegged to present political/social circumstances
- We don’t know what current PhD theses will turn out to be SUPER relevant in 20 years’ time, even if they don’t seem so now
- At #MBS2015 I saw a preference not just for pol/econ hist, but pol/econ hist from one partisan perspective
The dangers are manifest: the kinds of question MBS have asked are at risk of producing a homogenous, and self-congratulatory type of history, where dissident voices are excluded, and where approach is dictated by political correctness.
How some participants experienced the first MBS conference in 2015 confirms that these dangers are real. Most importantly, do we really want to talk in terms of a hierarchy of histories, where some types are better than others, where some topics or approaches are considered inherently superior? I think historians are right to worry about where this leads.
But I want to speak in defense of history that is explicitly political.
The two questions I would ask of any history (in order of declining importance) are 1. Is it true? 2. Why do it?
I don’t think I’ve ever met a historian, academic or otherwise, who thinks you can bend the rules significantly on 1: within the best of our ability we write true things about the past. But things get stickier when you start discussing 2.
Most historians (and the people who read them!) would agree that you have to have a good answer for 2: what is the point of doing what you do? And what I find hard is the idea that – however deep down – the answer always comes back to personal decisions that I would consider ‘political’.
This is a view of politics that extends beyond the question of ‘how you vote in elections’, which is one way Emily Rutherford put it in the Twitter discussion. It’s politics in the sense of: who (or what) gets to have a history, what factors do we consider when writing history, what do we owe to the people we write about, and similar questions.
The obvious objection, and a good one, is that how our histories are ‘political’ in this sense is beyond our power: as historians we do not have such a capability to instrumentalize our materials. Once we write our articles, books, or blog posts, the words escape us, take on a life their own, and recirculate in ways we may not like.
But surely we write them with an intention for how we hope they are used and understood? That’s the sense in which I think history cannot help but be explicitly political.
And in response to the criticisms of the effects this can have on a conference such as #MBS I would suggest that there are equally worrying consequences of not asking the political question.
The obvious one, and one that I have as yet to see convincingly deconstructed, is that there is no such thing as ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ history, and to pretend so is intellectually dishonest. We all bring specific questions to the history we study, and yes, those questions are informed by our politics. I have always felt that explicit reflection and exploration of those positions makes for clearer and more coherent work.
What goes along with the myth of objectivity is a willful blindness to shared assumptions: if we do not have conversations about the politics that inform our histories, they will go undiscussed. And much as dissenters like to question the political homogeneity of academic historians, I think the evidence suggests fairly strongly that most of us do align along similar political lines.
Do I think my politics are ‘right’? Most of the time. Do I doubt them? Always. Will our conversations about the purposes of history be better if we shy away from the hard questions of what our political commitments encourage us to do? I do not believe so. Better to openly discuss political difference, I think.
I also worry that academia, and left-wing politics for that matter, have a fetish for critique which undercuts the value of what we do. (I am conscious the same thing could be said of the desire to ‘politicise’ MBS, but I’ll leave that to someone else). The critiques of MBS concern me, because (even though I am not a British historian) I went in 2015 and I thought it was bloody amazing: there were a huge number of stimulating discussions, and to be entirely honest, they did not feel like discussions where political positions were ‘policing’ what people could say. They were heartfelt, hot, and difficult.
So why the upset about the question one year later?
I am concerned that sometimes academics are too good at critique. Where is the love for what was (I felt) an amazing and impressive conference?.
Could it have been more inclusive (in terms of disciplines, time periods, without discussing participation)? Yes. But the organisers are clearly thinking about that for next year. Were there opinions I disagreed with? Many. But it seems to me a sign of the health of the conference that such diversity was on display. It’s evidence that the conference already was ecumenical.
Finally, I want to raise a specter: is the problem with #MBS ‘political correctness gone maaaaaad’? To complain that the explicitly political appeals in the working papers and at the conference itself are damaging to a broad view of what history can be sounds (to me) worryingly like a claim that certain opinions are not acceptable.
To which I would say: they aren’t.
I don’t want to see racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, or sexism at a conference, and the fact of the matter is that in the current political climate in the UK, all three have been worryingly permissible.
I’m not saying that if you felt your politics was excluded from MBS you must be a racist, or sexist etc. What I am interrogating is why some voices so clearly feel policed by the left-wing, when my own (admittedly extremely privileged) experience suggests an openness among most academics to a variety of political opinions.
So let me finish with some positivity in this time of ‘crisis’.
I felt #MBS2015 already included a diverse range of opinions, and I suspect (as I have said many times) that I don’t disagree with the historians who I have debated these questions with online, and in person. I also strongly suspect that much comes down to the definition of politics, which I clearly see in broad terms, as a child of the feminists and the New Left.
With this sense of politics, I am left wondering, how can history NOT be political, without a profound personal and collective sense of cognitive dissonance?