Monday, July 23, 2007

Professional historian blogging

DFH ("Dirty Fucking Hippie") edition:

There is a reason that Sean Hannity and David Horowitz and Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh and assorted other opportunistic loudmouthed professional blowhards hate and deride university professors, peddling the (false) imputations that (a) most university professors are "liberals" and (b) most university professors seem to "influence" their students' political perspectives in the classroom. Neither imputation is objectively or statistically true, but the hysteria with which Seaneen and Davy and Mikey and Oxy-Porky target us is revealing of a deeper truth: that they fear us.

The right-wing talk-radio hosts and White House stenographers in the "news-o-tainment" business fear us because they recognize that, as the great Wobbly songwriter and historian Utah Phillips said "The long memory is the most radical idea in this country."[1] What Bruce meant was that remembering things is the key to either retaining them (if valuable, positive, constructive, etc) or avoiding the same mistakes again. The Bush White House had an agenda in the Middle East, and they found a puppet king who was stupid, compulsive, and sociopathic enough to believe the sub-Hollywood "Crusades" movie they sold him.

But they knew that there were people out there in the population who actually understood the history, sociology, demographics, economics, and complex political balances of Iraq, and more widely of the whole Middle East, and who would not buy into the simple-minded millenialist tripe they were peddling. Many of those people are university professors. So those people had to be marginalized, intimidated, silenced, or derided.

Which is where the bullshit media trope of "liberal professors" comes in.

I'm a historian, and a good one. A historian has two charges:

(1) To deal accurately and comprehensively with the actual, verifiable, factual historical record. Such an historical record necessarily changes as ongoing scholarship uncovers new facts. "Cherry-picking" the evidence is not something an ethical historian is entitled to do--though it is the precise job description of a politician, a media pundit, or, it would seem, of any and every Bush Administration political appointee (Colin Powell, Conodoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Peter Pace, Michael Brown, Michael Chertoff, Tommy Thompson, and on and on and on and on and on).

(2) To construct, articulate, and defend viable interpretations of the patterns, meaning, and significance of the factual historical record. Such interpretations should and will change as ongoing scholarship uncovers new facts and as credible scholarly discourse presents alternate interpretations.

And an ethical historian has one obligation:

To tell the truth (both factual and interpretative) to the best of her/his ability, recognizing the contrast between fact and opinion, between informed opinion and mindless (or manipulative) propaganda. And to do so under all circumstances, no matter the cost or the penalties.

Just after the US had sent US and UN peacekeeping forces into Somalia in 1992 (and let's remember that, although the disaster of the Battle of Mogadishu was laid at the Clinton Administration's door, the groundwork for that disaster was laid by the administration of Bush 41 and the imbecilic (and possible senile) Brent Scowcroft), an admired folklore professor with whom I studied, who had spent 40 years doing research on the narrative and poetic performance traditions of Somalia, was to be interviewed by CNN regarding the likely "success or failure" of the mission. That simple binary vision of an immensely complicated situation was reflected in both the media's and the White House's grasp of what they were getting themselves into. I remember speaking with John the day before the CNN news crew arrived, and hearing him say he had spent a whole day sketching out a description and analysis of how the Somalis themselves would likely view this intervention, of the things the peacekeepers should do and seek to do avoid doing, and how they might try to make themselves best understood to the indigenous populations. John knew he'd have to winnow things way done to brief durations and very simple, virtually telegraphic prose, and he'd done a good job.

The crew arrived, they taped for 4 hours, and told John that they would "probably have to edit down to two minutes." Of course he would have no input into that editing, and in fact would not even know what the final result looked like until it aired.

In the event, they aired about 12 seconds, of John saying "there might be some problems" and then they cut away to another Administration talking head spewing simplistic optimism. John was heartsick, not because they had butchered his presentation, but because he knew the disaster that such a mindlessly simplistic, anti-historical presentation, or grasp, of the situation could lead to.

And it did. It led to the Battle of Mogadishu, and the pointless, unnecessary, deaths of hundreds of Somalis, dozens of US troopers, and the inarguable failure of the peacekeeping mission. And then Junior's campaign had the unmitigated amoral gall to use that failure as an example of the "nation-building" Bush 43's Administration wouldn't engage in. And we know how that promise worked out.

I don't need to influence my students' political convictions: that's neither my job nor my intention. I'll let the study of history--real historiography, professional historiography, historiography that proceeds from the mandates above--shape their convictions.

And you want to know what Seaneen and Davy and Mikey and Oxy-Porky really fear? That, in modeling an ethical and professional approach to the study of history, I will inspire my students to, as the Buddha taught, think for themselves. And, in so doing, demonstrate the the liars and intimidaters and cynical greedy distorting hate-filled opportunists who populate their airwaves are damned before the bar of history.

Welcome to the Long Memory, you miserable bastards. Today's payoff is going to pale before the decades of condemnation ahead of you.

[Updated 7/24/07 to add:]

Atrios agrees:

"Having spent the last few years reading all of the elaborate and wonderful grand theories and strategies by the "liberal hawks" used to justify their own thinking and still suggest the dirty hippies were wrong even though they were right, I think I've finally come up with the Dirty Fucking Hippie Unified Theory of Foreign Policy.

Don't be so fucking stupid.

[1] "Yes, the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we're going, but where we want to go." U. "Utah" Bruce Phillips. Yes, David: that's a footnote; it's something that real academics do to show the factual basis in the scholarly literature of an imputation or factual statement they're making. Suck on that scholarship, bitch.

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