Historians at Work

Two recent and somewhat disquieting articles:

• T. Becket Adams, “The word ‘historian’ has taken a beating

Has any word suffered as greatly in the Trump era as “historian”?…

Beschloss lambasted President Trump in October, for example, after the commander in chief returned to the White House following a weekend at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center battling COVID-19. Upon his return, the president saluted Marine One from the South Portico stairs.

“In America,” said Beschloss, “our presidents have generally avoided strongman balcony scenes — that’s for other countries with authoritarian systems.”

First, to call this an overreaction to the Marine One salute would be an understatement. Second, the bit about U.S. presidents avoiding “balcony scenes” is not even close to being true. A 10-second investigation of the Associated Press’s photo archives disproves his assertion entirely….

This is to say nothing of historian and Politico magazine editor Joshua Zeitz, who said in June after federal officers cleared protesters from in front of the White House in preparation for an in-person appearance by the president: “Historian here. A head of state using a standing army to occupy an American city, compel citizens off the street, stifle free expression and assembly—using paramilitary forces to smoke clergy out of their churches at the head of state’s whim—is pretty much the founders’ nightmare.” A historian who is apparently unfamiliar with even the basics of the Whiskey Rebellion is not much of a historian at all. 

Adams has his political biases, as you can see, but I think he describes a real phenomenon that deserves disapprobation whatever one’s perspective. I too dislike historians commenting on the news in attention-grabbing, superficial, or just plain false ways, all under the cover of their professional status. Judgment and prudence must always govern one’s actions, even one’s appearances in the media (and even on Twitter!). 

• Graeme Wood, “The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse: A historian believes he has discovered iron laws that predict the rise and fall of societies. He has bad news.

The year 2020 has been kind to [Peter] Turchin [of UConn at Storrs], for many of the same reasons it has been hell for the rest of us. Cities on fire, elected leaders endorsing violence, homicides surging—­­to a normal American, these are apocalyptic signs. To Turchin, they indicate that his models, which incorporate thousands of years of data about human history, are working. (“Not all of human history,” he corrected me once. “Just the last 10,000 years.”) He has been warning for a decade that a few key social and political trends portend an “age of discord,” civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced. In 2010, he predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldn’t let up until those social and political trends reversed. Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early ’70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions. His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But they’ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of “megahistories,” such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat had once found Turchin’s historical model­ing unpersuasive, but 2020 made him a believer: “At this point,” Douthat recently admitted on a podcast, “I feel like you have to pay a little more attention to him.”

A disturbing proposition, to be sure, although there are no “iron laws” of history. Still, elite overproduction is a very real problem. Read the whole thing. 

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