Bernard Lewis, 1916-2018

From the Jerusalem Post (via Tim Furnish):

Bernard Lewis, scholar and the “West’s leading interpreter of the Middle East,” died Sunday at the age of 101.

Lewis was a leading scholar on Oriental and Middle Eastern studies. His study of antisemitism, Semites and Anti-Semites, was a cry against Soviet and Arab attempts to delegitimize Israel. In other works, he argued Arab rage against Israel was disproportionate to other tragedies or injustices in the Muslim world.

Though a champion for Israel, Lewis was an often controversial figure, on this subject and others. He was accused of being a “genocide denier” for his views on the Armenian genocide. His support of the Iraq War has also brought criticism.

Born to Jewish parents in London, UK, Lewis was educated in the University of London, primarily at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), as well as studying at the University of Paris. Lewis’s Ph.D. was in the History of Islam.

In a teaching career spanning nearly 50 years, Lewis was first appointed as an assistant lecturer in Islamic History at SOAS in 1938. During the Second World War, from 1940-1941, he served in the British Army’s Royal Armored Corps and Intelligence Corps. He returned to SOAS in 1949.

After a long career in academia, Lewis retired from Princeton in 1986 after 12 years as a teacher, and taught at Cornell University until 1990.

“Whitesplaining”

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The Whitesplaining of History Is Over

When the academy was the exclusive playground of white men, it produced the theories of race, gender, and Western cultural superiority that underwrote imperialism abroad and inequality at home. In recent decades, women and people of color have been critical to producing new knowledge breaking down those long-dominant narratives. Sociological research confirms that greater diversity improves scholarship.

Yet the struggle to diversify the academy remains an uphill battle; institutional biases are deeply ingrained, and change evokes nostalgia for times past. Both of these obstacles were fully in evidence at a recent Applied History conference at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Although history is a discipline with a growing number of nonwhite faculty members, and a healthy percentage of female scholars — indeed, women constitute more than a third of the faculty in Stanford’s own history department, across the bike lane from the Hoover Institution — the Hoover conference was made up of 30 white men (and one woman, who chaired a panel).

Etc.

This sort of critique is becoming all the more common in my profession (the article above was approvingly linked by two friends on Facebook), and I hate it. I hate the jargon (“whitesplaining”) and glibness (“exclusive playground”) – but most of all I hate the Jacobinism of it, how anything produced by “white males” in the olden days is necessarily tainted, while anything “diverse” is necessarily better (the link goes to a book entitled The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy which, as anyone who has spent time in the world of work can attest, is no more true than its opposite*). Before we learned to care about the identity of the author in order to prompt us how we should respond to his ideas, it was possible for an idea to be considered largely on its merits, and I sure wish we could return to that dispensation. To suggest that all those bad old white males produced scholarship to justify Western imperialism, etc., is contradicted by the author’s own examples of Edward Thompson and E.P. Thompson, white males both who said things that she apparently agrees with (one can think of any number of others, like Charles Beard or Marc Bloch). But more importantly, how dare Priya Satia dismiss the work of (almost) everyone who came before her because they weren’t diverse enough for her tastes? Presumably they were men of integrity, who investigated the past to the best of their ability and who opened up new vistas in human understanding. Just because their race and gender are distasteful to her is no reason to preemptively dismiss their entire body of work.

But if present trends continue, this essentially adolescent pose will be with us for some time to come.

* As I wrote once: “You definitely need something in common – intelligence and a sense of modesty come to mind. Furthermore, it all depends on the purpose of your organization. Sometimes when everyone’s on the same page, sharing the same background assumptions, then you can achieve your goals much more efficiently. The notion that different people with different opinions really have something special to offer could have value, but what is the nature of those opinions? So often “diversity” just boils down to “skin color,” “configuration of genitals,” or “direction of erotic desire,” with any “opinions” that derive from these things being completely irrelevant to the vast majority of problems to be solved or tasks to be completed in the wonderful world of work; worse, there is a very real possibility that the people concerned can be indifferently competent but have massive chips on their shoulders about how allegedly oppressed they are, and will interpret every difficulty as proceeding from some amorphous but entrenched prejudice arrayed against them. This is not conducive to getting anything done.”

UPDATE: Turns out the Hoover Institution conference was organized by the great Niall Ferguson, who responds:

“Masculinity, not ideology, drives extremist groups,” was another recent headline that caught my eye, this time in The Washington Post.

Got it.

I have had to listen to a variation on this theme rather too much in recent weeks. Last month I organized a small conference of historians who I knew shared my interest in trying to apply historical knowledge to contemporary policy problems. Five of the people I invited to give papers were women, but none was able to attend. I should have tried harder to find other female speakers, no doubt. But my failure to do so elicited a disproportionately vitriolic response.

Under a headline that included the words “Too white and too male,” The New York Times published photographs of all the speakers, as if to shame them for having participated. Around a dozen academics — male as well as female — took to social media to call the conference a “StanfordSausageFest.”

So outraged were Stanford historians Allyson Hobbs and Priya Satia that they demanded “greater university oversight” of the Hoover Institution, where I work, as it was “an ivory tower in the most literal sense.”

The most literal sense?

Now let’s be clear. I was raised to believe in the equal rights of all people, regardless of sex, race, creed, or any other difference. That the human past was characterized by discrimination of many kinds is not news to me. But does it really constitute progress if the proponents of diversity resort to the behavior that was previously the preserve of sexists and racists?

Publishing the names and mugshots of conference speakers is the kind of thing anti-Semites once did to condemn the “over-representation” of Jewish people in academia. Terms such as “SausageFest” belong not in civil academic discourse but on urinal walls.

What we see here is the sexism of the anti-sexists; the racism of the anti-racists. In this “Through the Looking Glass” world, diversity means ideological homogeneity. “The whitesplaining of history is over,” declared another heated article by Satia last week. Hideous Newspeak terms such as “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining” are symptoms of the degeneration of the humanities in the modern university. Never mind the facts and reason, so the argument runs, all we need to know — if we don’t like what we hear — are the sex and race of the author.

The process of indoctrination starts early. My six-year-old son stunned his parents the other day when we asked what he had been studying at school. He replied that they had been finding out about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. “What did you learn?” I asked. “That most white people are bad,” he replied.

This is America in 2018.

Alfred W. Crosby, 1931-2018

From H-LatAm:

Alfred W. Crosby died peacefully at Nantucket Cottage Hospital among friends and family on March 14, 2018, after residing for two and a half years at Our Island Home. He was 87 and had lived with Parkinson’s Disease for two decades.

Born in Boston in 1931, he graduated from Harvard College in 1952 and served in the U.S. Army 1952-1955. He then earned an M.A.T. from the Harvard School of Education and a Ph.D. in history from Boston University in 1961. His first book, America, Russia, Hemp, and Napoleon, is about relations between Russia and the U.S.A. from the American Revolution through the War of 1812. He taught at Albion College, the Ohio State University, Washington State University, and the University of Texas at Austin, retiring in 1999 as Professor Emeritus of Geography, History, and American Studies. He was the recipient of many awards including three Fulbright Fellowships and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Academy of Finland and was a fellow of the John  Carter Brown Library.

His interest in demography and the role of infectious disease in human history led him to write The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492America’s Forgotten Pandemic (originally Epidemic and Peace 1918); and Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. His fascination with intellectual and technological history produced The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History; and Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy. His books have been published in Chinese, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Slovene, Swedish, and Turkish translations.  His work as a historian, he said, turned him from facing the past to facing the future. He lived by the maxim: What can I do today to make tomorrow better?

Hayden White, 1928-2018

From the New York Times (excerpts):

Hayden V. White, an influential scholar whose ideas on history and how it is shaped have fueled discussions in academic circles for half a century, died on Monday at his home in Santa Cruz, Calif. He was 89.

Dr. White began garnering attention in 1966 with his essay “The Burden of History,” which suggested that history was being relegated to a sort of second-class citizenship by advances in other disciplines.

“Both science and art have transcended the older, stable conceptions of the world which required that they render a literal copy of a presumably static reality,” he wrote. He urged historical scholarship to do the same.

“The historian serves no one well by constructing a specious continuity between the present world and that which preceded it,” he wrote. “On the contrary, we require a history that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, disruption and chaos is our lot.”

He expanded on his ideas in 1973 with his best-known work, “Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe,” which proposed a classification system for assessing the ideologies, storytelling techniques and other attributes that went into the creation of history.

Dr. White’s other scholarly works included, most recently, “The Practical Past” (2014). A collection, “The Fiction of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature and Theory 1957-2007,” was published in 2010.

“Perhaps White’s most controversial idea, and one for which he was so often shunned by his fellow historians, is that ‘all stories are fictions,’ ” Robert Doran, a professor at the University of Rochester who edited that volume, said by email. “White held that while historical facts are scientifically verifiable, stories are not. Stories are made, not found in the historical data; historical meaning is imposed on historical facts by means of the choice of plot-type, and this choice is inevitably ethical and political at bottom.

“This is what White called ‘emplotment,’ a term he coined,” Dr. Doran continued. “Even the most basic beginning-middle-end structure of a story represents an imposition: The historian chooses where to begin, where to end, and what points are important in the middle. There is no scientific test for ‘historical significance.’”

Historians Wanted

From the OUP Blog (via Paul Halsall):

Why the past is disputed and academic historians (don’t) matter

Recent years have witnessed a proliferation of disputes over how the past should be used, with alt-right demonstrations over the planned removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville/VA, the Hindu nationalist rewritingof Indian history, or the refashioning of the rural past in post-coup Thailand among those most widely reported. In all these instances, academic historians have either been sidelined, or have become the victims of politically motivated onslaughts. Still, the disputes per se are not a late modern phenomenon. Similar debates occur in any society that records its past. They form part of historical culture. But why is this so, and is there really nothing distinctive about the contemporary experience?…

The rejection of views, not because they are mistaken or flawed, but because those who voice them possess expert knowledge, is a distinctly late modern phenomenon. All the more reason why professional historians should not stand by! For if we fail to speak up, we abrogate our responsibility towards the very societies we study. If we allow their experiences, lives, and thoughts to become mere playthings to mendacious moderns, to be plundered and pillaged at will, we dehumanise both the past and the present.

Of course I agree with this, although I’d agree a lot more if professional historians didn’t have their own agendas…

Back in the USSR

An interesting article in the National Post:

An uncensored look behind the Iron Curtain: Long-lost images of Stalinist Russia snapped by a U.S. diplomat.

Long after their father had died, the family of former U.S. Army Major Martin Manhoff invited Seattle-based historian Douglas Smith to take a look at some photos. Manhoff had been posted to the U.S. embassy in the Soviet Union  from 1952 to 1954, and he had shot some colour photos while there.

In boxes that had lain almost untouched for 50 years, Smith was soon gazing at a treasure trove of rare candid images from one of the most closed societies in human history.

Smith is now looking for a permanent home to house the collection. With his permission, the National Post presents a small selection of the Manhoff archive below.

Click on the link to see these remarkable images. They don’t resemble the propaganda posters, but they’re not exactly the grim 1984 aesthetic either. I’m especially happy to read the name Douglas Smith, who came to Reinhardt for a talk on Catherine the Great back in 2008 for our Year of Eastern Europe and Russia. Check out his latest book on Rasputin.

Georgia Medievalists

Another successful meeting of the Georgia Medievalists’ Group took place today at the Atlanta International School. Our lineup included:

Adam Oberlin, Atlanta International School: “Mapping Middle High German”

Ryan Lynch, Columbus State: “Compilation, Transmission, and the Contours  of Textual Reuse in Classical Arabic Historiography”

Jonathan Good, Reinhardt University: “The Arms of St. Michael”

Micheal Crafton, University of West Georgia: “The Bayeux Tapestry: William’s Aeneid”

John Clements, ARMA: “Renaissance martial disciplines and close-combat teachings”

This last presentation was the longest and most enthusiastic. John Clements runs the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts, which is dedicated to recreating late medieval and Renaissance fighting techniques, by closely following the instructions as laid down in any number of early modern fighting manuals. Check out his article “Swordfighting: Not What You Think It Is” for more information.

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John Clements in action.

Prime Ministers

For what it’s worth, the Historical Writers’ Association has conducted a poll of its membership, to vote on the worst Prime Minister of the last hundred years. From the Guardian:

Margaret Thatcher has narrowly beaten David Cameron to be named the worst prime minister of the past 100 years by historical writers.

The Historical Writers’ Association surveyed its membership on their views of the 19 prime ministers who have led the UK since 1916, in advance both of this year’sHarrogate History festival later this week, and Theresa May’s 100th day in office on 22 October. Thatcher, who died in 2013, came in first with 24% of the vote, followed by Cameron (22%) and Neville Chamberlain (17%).

Authors singled out Thatcher’s attitude to society as a chief problem with her premiership. “She destroyed too many good things in society, and created too many bad ones, then left a social and moral vacuum in which the selfishly rich and unimaginatively fortunate could too easily destroy still more of what they don’t need and can’t see that everyone else does need,” said the writer Emma Darwin.

“Thatcher made the idea of society, in the sense of a community that cares for all its members and accepts the premise that people need support and should not be stigmatised for it, an anathema,” wrote historical novelist Catherine Hokin in her response. “It is easy to demonise politicians and resort to ad hominem rather than policy attacks, but Thatcher encouraged the worst behaviour across all aspects of society and we are still reaping her poisoned harvest.”

But Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, begged to differ: “I disagreed with Mrs Thatcher, I fought her all the way. But I thought she was a great and necessary destroyer. Some of those old structures she pulled down had to be pulled down, but what she wasn’t was a builder.

“Oddly enough, this will offend some, I put her down as one of the most successful PMs of all time, not because I agreed with her, but because she laid out her stall and she achieved it, and Britain in many ways was stronger afterwards – although in many ways it was also weaker, particularly our sense of communities,” said Ashdown, who will speak at the festival later this week about his latest book, Game of Spies.

More at the link.

Farley Mowat

My hometown of Port Hope, Ontario has had a number of notable residents, among them Joseph Scriven (author of the hymn “What a Friend we have in Jesus”), artist David Blackwood, impresario and explorer William Leonard Hunt (the Great Farini), and author Farley Mowat, who died in 2014. I remember seeing Mowat around town, and everyone knew the story about him mooning the guests at a banquet, by means of illustrating that no underclothes were worn under a kilt. Now Chris Robert, a high school teacher of mine, sends me images of a monument constructed to honor Mowat and moved this past weekend to its current site on the east bank of the Ganaraska River. You can see Port Hope’s town hall in the background.

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Photo: Chris Robert

Why an upside-down boat, you ask? Well, this is a reference to Mowat’s book The Farfarers (1998), which impressed the Port Hope Friends of Farley Mowat. From the plinth:

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Photo: Chris Robert

I had never heard of this before, and I confess that the passive-voice construction “are believed” in the first paragraph made me suspicious (Wikipedians will automatically insert a superscripted [by whom?] whenever they find stuff like this). Moreover, there is a long tradition of imagining the arrival of pre-Columbian explorers to the Americas for various reasons – is this just the latest example? Who were these people, and what exactly did Thomas Lee discover on the Ungava Peninsula?

I do not have a copy of The Farfarers to hand, although you can look inside the book at Amazon. According to the summary at Wikipedia, Mowat claims that even before the Vikings, settlers from the island of Orkney, chasing walrus ivory, reached Iceland, then Greenland, and then arctic Canada. Mowat calls these settlers Albans, after “Alba,” a Gaelic name for Scotland, and believes they were the descendants of the prehistoric inhabitants of the British Isles, pushed to the fringes by Celts and then Romans. Thomas Lee was an archaeologist at Laval University; his excavations on the Ungava Peninsula uncovered stone building foundations that Lee thought were temporary shelters built by Vikings around the year 1000, the same time as their settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Lee also found a stone landmark that he dubbed the Hammer of Thor on the assumption that it too was Viking, although it could simply have been an Inuit inukshuk. So it seems that Mowat was reinterpreting Lee’s data – Lee did not originate the theory of the Albans.

Thus, it probably comes as no surprise that the editors of Canadian Geographic designated The Farfarers as “highly speculative” and noted that “no professional archeologists are known to share Mowat’s theories.” Stuart Brown of Memorial University noted the “small problem” of a complete lack of “reasonably compelling evidence,” with the book being “entertaining as fiction, [but] far from convincing as fact.” As much as I hate to run down a hometown hero, these assessments are probably accurate. Mowat did indeed have a reputation of never letting the facts ruin a good story. I recall a 1996 cover story in (the now sadly defunct) Saturday Night magazine, with Farley Mowat as Pinocchio.

farleymowatsatniteReporter John Goddard investigated the research and composition of Mowat’s bestselling book Never Cry Wolf, and discovered quite a few things that he simply made up.

As a historian, I confess that I cannot approve of this schtick….