“How to Write Fake Global History”

A review of Alan Mikhail, God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World (Liveright, 2020) in Cyber Review of Modern Historiography. Excerpt:

Mikhail’s book is part of an unfortunate trend by which “global history” has become an excuse for authors to make outlandish claims, based on the belief that they will not be subject to the usual scholarly scrutiny. A flagrant example from France is the prize-winning book by political scientist Romain Bertrand, L’histoire à parts égales (Le Seuil, 2011), a pell-mell compilation of undigested materials lifted from the work of specialist scholars and wrapped in a package of politically correct Left Bank tiers-mondisme. Bertrand has set a trend in France, in which histoire globale has often come to stand either for indifferently conceived encyclopedias like L’histoire mondiale de la France (Le Seuil, 2017), or for works that borrow heavily and with scant acknowledgment from English-language scholarship. More recently, in the Anglophone world, we have a trade book by another Yale historian, Valerie Hansen, entitled The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World – and Globalisation Began (Scribner, 2020). In this work Hansen produces the same generic descriptions of “exotic” eastern marketplaces as Mikhail, both of which seem to be taken from tourist brochures. (Selim’s Trabzon, according to Mikhail already had “flaming Indian red pepper,” long before these peppers arrived in India from America: GS, p. 67). But Hansen also claims that in the year 1000 CE, the circumnavigation of the globe was possible for the first time, because the Vikings (or Norsemen) had made contact with north-eastern America, and – in a dubious leap not supported by leading specialists – also allegedly with the Mayas. As the noted historian Noel Malcolm has written in a critical review of this book in The Telegraph (19 April 2020): “Hansen triumphantly declares that in 1000 these Norsemen had thus ‘closed the global loop,’ and that ‘for the first time an object could have travelled across the entire world.’ But one has to ask: even if archaeologists were to find a Viking-owned bronze Buddha in Newfoundland, would that really tell us anything about the start of a global process? This key part of the ‘process’ was not resumed until the voyages of Columbus; and even if the Vikings had stayed in place much longer, they would not have found any large-scale North-East American trading network to connect with. Globalisation surely means more than one pin-prick contact on the edge of a continent.” Authors like Mikhail and Hansen seem in turn to draw on earlier speculative and dubious global histories to build their houses of cards. In another skeptical review, the Columbus specialist Felipe Fernández-Armesto wrote in the Wall Street Journal (17 September 2011) of these earlier works – notably one by Carol Delaney on Columbus – that they demonstrated “incompetence in research, a lack of critical discrimination and a chutzpah reminiscent of Columbus’s own,” and further that the authors (Delaney included) “have embarked on their odysseys in leaky vessels, with sails full of hot air instead of a speeding wind.” Now the authors dealt with by Fernández-Armesto were not professional historians, with positions in the history departments of prestigious universities. Yet, Carol Delaney’s Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem (Free Press, 2011), a book that the critic describes as “indifferent to coherent narrative or rational chronology,” is heavily drawn upon by Mikhail (and cited thirteen times) in the lengthy first section of his book which tries improbably to link Columbus to the Ottomans. What the specialist critics had said was obviously of no interest to him.

Read the whole thing. I have a review of Hansen’s The Year 1000 to be published soon in Arthuriana

A New Theory of Western Civilization

In the October 2020 edition of The Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz reviews Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous:

Around 597 A.D., Pope Gregory I dispatched an expedition to England to convert the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent and his subjects. The leader of the mission, a monk named Augustine, had orders to shoehorn the new Christians into Church-sanctioned marriages. That meant quashing pagan practices such as polygamy, arranged marriages (Christian matrimony was notionally consensual, hence the formula “I do”), and above all, marriages between relatives, which the Church was redefining as incest. Augustine wasn’t sure who counted as a relative, so he wrote to Rome for clarification. A second cousin? A third cousin? Could a man marry his widowed stepmother?

He could not. Pope Gregory wrote back to rule out stepmothers and other close kin not related by blood—another example was brothers’ widows. He was lax about second and third cousins; only the children of aunts and uncles were off-limits. By the 11th century, however, you couldn’t get engaged until you’d counted back seven generations, lest you marry a sixth cousin. The taboo against consanguineous family had expanded to include “spiritual kin,” who were, mostly, godparents. (It went without saying that you had to marry a Christian.) Pope Gregory and Augustine’s letters document a moment in a prolonged process—begun in the fourth century—in which the Church clamped down, and intermittently loosened up, on who could marry whom. Not until 1983 did Pope John Paul II allow second cousins to wed.

You might assume that this curious story of how the Church narrowed the criteria for marriageability would be relegated to a footnote—a very interesting footnote, to be sure—but Joseph Henrich puts the tale at the center of his ambitious theory-of-everything book, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Consider this the latest addition to the Big History category, popularized by best sellers such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The outstanding feature of the genre is that it wrangles all of human existence into a volume or two, starting with the first hominids to rise up on their hind legs and concluding with us, cyborg-ish occupants of a networked globe. Big History asks Big Questions and offers quasi-monocausal answers. Why and how did humans conquer the world? Harari asks. Cooperation. What explains differences and inequalities among civilizations? Diamond asks. Environment, which is to say, geography, climate, flora and fauna. Henrich also wants to explain variation among societies, in particular to account for the Western, prosperous kind.

WEIRD is an acronym for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.” Read the whole thing, or the book itself.

Book Reviews

In the discipline of history, the single-authored monograph is the basic unit of scholarship, and an academic’s prestige is usually arbitrated by the number of such books that he can produce, and by the influence that these books have had. No one has time to read every book that gets published, though, so reviewing is an important service to the profession. That is, a given issue of the average historical journal will contain about five articles (often preliminary studies that will later appear as chapters in books), and some seventy book reviews. A review is typically about 1000 words long; it summarizes the book in question and gives a judgment of its quality. The idea is that a scholar will get the journal, look through the reviews to see what’s new, read the ones that are relevant to her interests, and if anything looks really compelling, check the books out from the library, order them through interlibrary loan, or even buy them from the publisher (although academic books do tend to be rather pricey).

In her turn, she will be expected to produce book reviews herself. Summarizing a book is time consuming, but not too difficult. It’s an exercise in the art of précis – of making the book’s message as simple as possible, but no simpler. The tricky part is judging the book’s quality. For that, you need to know what else has been published on the same topic, and really good review will cite those works in proof – it will “situate the work in the historiography,” as the jargon has it. The temptation is always there to give the book the benefit of the doubt, on the assumption that the author has more expertise than you do, and nothing would have gotten published if it wasn’t pretty good in the first place. However, a scholar owes it to his readers to seek out and mention any errors of fact or overall weakness. Moreover, some books just aren’t very good, for various reasons. I know someone who will refuse to review such books; she’ll just send them back to the journal editor, since writing an honest review might alienate the author, and “you never know who might be on a fellowship selection committee.” This move is better than just lying about a book’s quality, I suppose, but to me it’s cowardly, and I don’t like it. We get tenure for a reason: the idea is that we are licensed to speak truth to power without having to fear for our livelihoods. Such guaranteed job security is not just about opposing Trump, the alt-right, evangelical Christians, Wall Street, or the State of Israel from our perch in the Ivory Tower, but also about calling out the members of our own profession on their mistakes, as uncomfortable as that might make things for us at our next big conference. (At the same time, I don’t believe in being gratuitously mean, like one grad school professor who gave me a C- on a book review that I had written for his seminar, with the comment “you are too nice!” – I had criticized the book, just not forcefully enough for his liking.)

So when you’re reviewing a book you try to be fair, and if it has any problems to find a middle ground between turd-polishing and being a big jerk. And you definitely try to review the book that was written, not the book that you wanted to read (another thing that too many academics like to do). 

I myself have managed to publish a number of book reviews over the course of my career – by my count 25, some of which have been referenced on this blog. My most interesting experience with book reviewing began in the autumn of 2009, when I received, from the editor of Reviews in History, a draft of a review of my own recently-published book on St. George by Sam Riches, who herself had written a book about the saint. She liked some aspects of my book, but had some reservations about it, and concluded that “it is not the definitive work on St. George in the English tradition – that has yet to be written.” I received the review because one of the features of Reviews in History is that it gives the book’s author a chance to respond. Now, at the time, I believed that one should never respond to a review. This was the message of Paul Fussell’s “Being Reviewed: The A.B.M. and its Theory,” republished in The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations. The “A.B.M.,” to Fussell, is the “Author’s Big Mistake,” that is, a “letter from an aggrieved author complaining about a review,” which “generally delivers the most naked view of the author’s wounded vanity” and reads “as if some puling adolescent, cut from the high school basketball team, has published a letter about how good he really is, and written it not very well.” So I let it slide, and the review was published in January 2010, with the notice that “the author of this book has not responded to this review.” 

But I came to revise my opinion over the next couple of years. Fussell’s examples of A.B.M.s were taken mostly from the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, and mostly involved works of fiction, or popular non-fiction. Academic books, I came to perceive, are somewhat of a different matter: they make arguments, which can be defended, and as long as one sticks to the facts without getting testy, then it’s all part of the conversation. I read a number of responses to reviews that were in this vein, and I figured that there would be no harm in my doing it too. So in the summer of 2012, I took some time out of my life to pen a response to her review, which I’m pleased to say that the editor of Reviews in History posted, even at that late date. (For the record, I was never upset that Dr. Riches didn’t give my book fulsome praise. It is better to be talked about than not talked about!) Read both and decide for yourself who makes the better case. 

As a result of my contact with the editor, he asked if I would care to review a book that he had just received. I said that I would be happy to, and he sent it to me. I read it twice, as is my habit – it’s one thing to dash off a review for a graduate seminar the night before the assignment is due, it’s quite another to write for publication – you want to make sure that you have really understood what the author is trying to say, because you want to be fair and you don’t want to appear sloppy in print. This operation took a little longer than I hoped, and I got the review to him two weeks after the deadline he had given me. In response, I received an email with the subject line “Terribly sorry” and a message saying that “I forgot that I had two copies of that book, and I gave the other copy to someone else for review.”

“So I take it that review was better than mine?” I responded jokingly.

“It wasn’t, actually,” he replied. “But I’ve already sent it out for the author’s response!”

I had a good laugh about this. If nothing else it shows the importance of meeting deadlines! As it happens I easily placed my review somewhere else. Generally editors won’t accept unsolicited reviews – they have no idea about the agenda of the would-be reviewer – but after explaining the situation they were happy to publish it, and they didn’t even ask me to shorten it. The editor of Reviews in History asked if there was anything he could do for me. I said that there was a book I was interested in reviewing, and he arranged to have it sent to me. This one I ended up reading three times, because I found it difficult and I wanted to do it justice, even I didn’t like it very much (attributable largely to a disciplinary divide – I am a historian, the author was a literary critic). The review was published in the fall of 2013; the author, as I had originally, chose not respond. 

That summer, I had further contact with the editor of Reviews in History on account of another review of my book that I discovered in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology. By that point my book had been reviewed about a dozen times in various venues – again, some people liked it, others didn’t, and that’s fine. This review, however, sounded strangely familiar. As I read it, I realized that a large chunk of it was simply plagiarized from Sam Riches’s review in Reviews in History! Like a good citizen, I immediately informed Dr. Riches and the editors of Reviews in History and the JEGP about this gross violation of scholarly protocol, and the JEGP withdrew the review in its next number. The author, one Giovanni Narabito of the University of Messina, did not seem to have much of an institutional presence there, and a bit of googling eventually revealed a plausible explanation. The Wikipedia entry for Italian crime boss Giuseppe Narabito explains that his clan “established a cell in Messina on Sicily,” where they “exercise considerable power up to the present. The clan turned the University of Messina into their private fiefdom, ordering that degrees, academic posts, and influence be awarded to favored associates.”

It could be that “Narabito” is the Italian equivalent of Smith or Jones but it sure looks like someone was promoted for non-academic reasons here. But why not just stick to protection rackets and drug smuggling, I wonder? Those activities are a lot more lucrative!