schlesinger: a historian for the people

Someone once said to me that there’s nothing more remote than the recent past, and it stuck with me, because I believe it: when we write history floundering knee-deep in the moment and process of history-making, we are trying to discern the oak tree by blinking myopically at the acorn. Perspective makes the historian, and everyone else is a politician, or a newswriter. I like to think of it as the reason why plate tectonics eluded us for so long: we were simply looking at things in an utterly misguided proportion. It took some 8,000 years of world mapping before we could come to terms with continental drift. The same, I believe, applies to the past.

Two quick caveats. Firstly, I don’t believe perspective is necessarily a direct function of time. One can have perspective while still very close to the event being examined; this is called detachment, and it is a cultivated skill (or else a personality defect, as in my case). I also don’t like the implications of the analogy, which suggest that after the lapsing of the requisite 8,000 years we arrive at the Truth of Continental Drift, and thereafter dialogue expires. History is not a dialogue which should expire, whatever Francis Fukuyama might have us think.

But I am somewhat wary about politically engaged historians, including the late but no less formidable Arthur Schlesinger Jr., whom contemporaries accused of writing history to bolster his unabashedly liberal agenda, despite his retort that “you shift gears when you write history”, and that “being a historian does not require one to renounce being a citizen”. Sam Tanenhaus has written a laudatory piece at NYT, arguing that historians today ought to, like Mr Schlesinger, engage more with the present, ought to write histories that shape the way we look at events today. I suppose for me the question implicit throughout the article is: should historians be political activists?

As both a historian and citizen of Malaysia, I can categorically attest to the dangers of history-writing with an agenda, as I and a like-minded historian have written extensively about at [my article, his article]. Partisan history-writing in Malaysia has led to a profound distrust of alterity; it ousts authentic dialogue and instates unexamined pro-governmental pedagogy. It transpires that historians writing on current events can be just as deeply mired in their present loyalties as historians of the past are mired in the archives, and that this is perhaps not always a good thing, as it largely has been with Mr Schlesinger. Perhaps Mr Tanenhaus might look more globally at the persisting merits of detached, archivally-mired history.

But even if history-writing doesn’t go as far as outright distortion, there is still a tension inherent in the roles of historian and activist, one which historian E. P. Thompson expressed well:

“The historian may tend to be a bit too generous because a historian has to learn to attend and listen to very disparate groups of people and try and understand their value-system and their consciousness. Obviously in a very committed situation [i.e. as an activist] you can’t always afford that sort of generosity. But if you afford it too little then you are impelled into making the kind of sectarian position in which you are repeatedly making errors of judgment in your relations with other people.”

So on one hand lies the historian: empathetic, receptive to the diversity of human experience. And on the other, the polemicist, the activist: the ability to take sides, and to intervene concretely. Mr Thompson, and I would agree, calls the former “listening”, and the latter “speaking”. I believe one cannot listen and speak at the same time; one cannot be detached and attached at the same time; or, when one is making history, one cannot, I think, write it.

But one can skillfully negotiate between the two impulses; instantiate a dialogue between them that allows measure and detachment: or at least, the sort of detachment that enables one to lambast both the right and the left in equal measure (cf. Mr Thompson). I suppose Mr Schlesinger called it “shifting gears”. That takes erudition, great scope, reflection, self-awareness — “reach”, as Mr Tanenhaus correctly puts it. And I think it is hard to have confident reach and knowledge in this anxious age. Unlike Schlesinger’s age of anxiety, we today are anxious both from trauma and disillusion as well as from the dilemma of the infinite archive and information overload. I think today we have to expend comparatively more effort listening before we can speak deeply, or else all become rhetoricians. This is probably why today we have more listeners than speakers: there is just so much more “reach” to have (e.g. my point about a more global perspective on history).

to conclude. Mr Thompson and Mr Schlesinger were particularly exceptional individuals (with, might I add, particularly exceptional fathers), and I think it takes such individuals to ensure that, when conflating the two, political activism does not end up perverting history for its own ends, as has happened in Malaysia, where everyone speaks, few listen, and cacophony transpires. I also don’t think activism can or should be the goal of all history-writing. We should not encourage all historians to be activists unless both the inclination and the (rare) ability are present — as it very clearly was with the late Mr Schlesinger, may he rest in peace.

written in response to Cliopatria’s symposium

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