Saturday, November 21, 2009

False Memory and Historians' Fallacies

In an interesting article on American feminism, "Lift and Separate," Ariel Levy raises the issue of bra-burning and false memory:

Bra burning—the most famous habit of women’s libbers—caused a fair amount of consternation back in the seventies, and the smoke has lingered. Wives and mothers were torching the most intimate accessory of control; what might they put a match to next? “Often today those who cherish family life feel, even in their own homes, under constant assault,” the cultural critic Michael Novak wrote in 1979. The goals of the women’s-liberation movement, he saw, were incompatible with the structure of the traditional family. That’s why bra burning became the most durable and unsettling image of modern feminism.

So it may be worth noting that it never actually happened. In 1968, at a protest against the Miss America pageant, in Atlantic City, feminists tossed items that they felt were symbolic of women’s oppression into a Freedom Trash Can: copies of Playboy, high-heeled shoes, corsets and girdles. Lindsy Van Gelder, a reporter for the Post, wrote a piece about the protest in which she compared the trash-can procession to the burning of draft cards at antiwar marches, and a myth was born. In her engaging tour d’horizon “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present” (Little, Brown; $27.99), Gail Collins quotes Van Gelder’s lament: “I shudder to think that will be my epitaph—‘she invented bra burning.’”

By opening her article this way, Levy is taking a time-honoured approach to history. Historians tend to approach a topic by targetting the conventional wisdom (a term popularized by John Kenneth Galbraith, by the way) and the attendant mythology. Then they systematically debunk the myth, which Levy calls false memory, and replace it with an historical analysis. Myth-busting is a useful way for tackling large topics because it helps historians to select an entry-point through which to introduce their arguments.

Anyone who deals with the past in any way has to confront a basic reality: even if we could study everything, we couldn’t manage all of the information. A history that explains everything explains nothing. Recognizing the basic reality of selection is the easy part; the hard part is trying to make sound judgements about what to include and what to leave out. We often forget that the process of selection involves exclusion as much as inclusion: what gets left unsaid – the silence of a culture – is often the most importation part of history.

From a legal perspective, historians do not work in the realm of the criminal law, where the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. On the contrary, doubt is the historian’s best friend: you can tell if you are talking with a poor historian if they never admit to having any doubts about what they’re doing. And if they start talking about the truth, chances are you're speaking with a philosopher, not an historian.

If you listen carefully to what historians say when they get together, you will hear them discuss whether they buy a particular argument. They are not referring to whether they believe that it reflects some ultimate truth, but rather whether it persuaded them. In legal terms, this means that historians speak more like lawyers in civil litigation, where the person bringing the action needs merely to prove the case on the balance of probabilities. The plaintiff must convince the court that the position they are advocating is more likely to be true than that of the defendant. The threshold in civil cases is based on the preponderance of the evidence.

In other words, historians work within the realm of probability, not certainty. They try to be as objective as possible, but no historian worth their salt would actually claim to be completely unbiased. They try to be as accurate as possible, but they acknowledge that the fragmentary nature of the surviving evidence means that they can never have a complete view of the past. They try to be as careful and cautious as possible, but they know that good history requires imagination and occasional guess-work. The trick is to be honest with yourself and your readers about what you're doing.

In setting out this rather ecumenical framework, I don't mean to suggest that the historian’s gaze is limitless. It isn't. As we've talked about in class, there are two terms that you'll hear historians use to describe bad history: one is presentism; the other is source-driven. Presentism, which is also known as the hindsight bias or the fallacy of nunc pro tunc, is used to describe history that imposes some present-day perspective, standard, or social norm on the past. It is a form of anachronism. Presentism is often used to criticize historians who fail to appreciate, as we've discussed in class, Lowenthal's dictum that the past is a foreign country. That doesn’t mean that you cannot visit it, but you need a passport of imagination: you cannot assume that the people you meet in the past will think or act like you do.

Source-driven, which is also called antiquarianism, is used to describe history without questions. It's almost the opposite of presentism, because it entails a marked disengagement with current issues and problems. It refers to studies of the past that simply describe what's in the archives without applying critical insights. It is, in other words, history drained of its analytical vitality.

There are two other popular terms that you'll hear historians use when they criticize each other. The first is determinism, which gets associated with a priori, teleological, or tautological reasoning. Determinism often gets conflated with the term Whig history, which has become something of a canard in historical scholarship. The second is essentialism, which often gets called reductionism, and refers to scholarship that imposes a falsely static and unitary explanation of historical phenomenon, or fails to be sufficiently sensitive to agency, contingency, and diversity.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

History Across the Disciplines Conference

Call for Papers



The Dalhousie Graduate History Society invites graduate students from all branches of the humanities and social sciences to submit proposals for our 13th annual ‘History Across the Disciplines’ Conference, to take place at

Dalhousie University
Halifax, Nova Scotia

March 19th to 21st, 2010

The theme of this year's conference is Guts, Glamour, and Gossip. Especially relevant to this theme are issues concerning authority and government, rebellion and resistance, as well as rhetoric and popular culture as they continually define the notions of heroics, social banditry, martyrdom, and celebrity. There are no temporal or geographical limitations to this theme, and all proposals will be considered.

Interested applicants should submit a 250-word abstract to by January 15th, 2010. Append to the abstract your area of study, degree level and year, along with contact information. Presentations are between 10 to 15 minutes in length, so a 7 to 8 page paper will suffice. A copy of the finished paper must be received by February 5th, 2010 in order to be considered for the John Flint Prize for best paper/presentation; this prize includes a $250 honorarium.

In addition to panels, there will be a keynote address by Dr. Andrea McKenzie on the evening of March 19th, to be followed by a reception. On Saturday night, experience local Halifax culture in the informal setting of a maritime pub.

Please direct comments and queries to the conference organizers:

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thinking Logically

Thanks to Amal Ghazal for lending her expertise to our seminar. The debate over the new citizenship handbook has continued this week. Active History provides a fairly thorough overview that refers to our seminar. So feel free to weigh in with your opinion, either on this blog or one of the others.

Monday will be our last seminar for the Fall semester. As we discussed last class, your task for this week is to discuss how an article or book in your field commits a fallacy. You can select the fallacy first from the taxonomy in the Fallacy Files web site, and then review articles and books to look for evidence of it. Alternatively, you can select a book first and then read through it critically, looking for whether the author commits a fallacy.

You may want to start with some of the more common fallacies, such as red herrings, non causa pro causa (and its sub-fallacies), unrepresentative sample, one-sidedness, loaded question, bifurcation, appeal to consequences, and appeals to ignorance.

If the article or book you've chosen contains a literature review or an explicit historiographic discussion, then look for these common fallacies as well: the bandwagon fallacy, the ever popular ad hominem attack, the etymological fallacy, and the appeal to emotion.

I encourage you to post comments on what your research turns up. See you at the Stokes Seminar on Friday.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Thinking Politically

If we ever needed a reminder of the close relationship between history and politics, we just got it. Yesterday, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney unveiled a new version of the citizenship guidebook for prospective immigrants that presents a new version of Canadian history. The CBC reports that Kenney said that the previous guidebook, published under the Liberals in 1997, needed revision. "It didn't explain what the poppy represents, didn't talk about the equality of men and women, didn't address the nationalist movement in Quebec. It was, I think, in a way, unintentionally promoting a certain degree of historical ignorance. And I think we've corrected that."

The Globe and Mail report on the new guidebook observes that it contains a much heavier emphasis on military history. "No longer will new Canadians be told that Canada is strictly a nation of peacekeepers, for example. The new guide places a much greater emphasis on Canada's military history, from the Great War to the present day. It also tackles other issues of historical significance, from Confederation to Quebec's separatist movement, that were barely mentioned by its predecessor."

The panel of "experts" (The Globe does not define the term) included a who's who of the Ottawa establishment, including former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, historian Jack Granatstein, retired general John de Chastelain, and historian Margaret MacMillan. Granatstein is well known in Canadian history departments for his polemic, Who Killed Canadian History?, which was followed up with Who Killed the Canadian Military?.

According to the Globe, "Mr. Kenney emphasizes that Discover Canada is not a rose-coloured view of the country's history. There are sections on Canada's dark periods, including the Chinese head tax and Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese and Eastern European immigrants in the world wars, as well as aboriginal residential schools. It also highlights Canadian sporting heroes, from Terry Fox to Wayne Gretzky, Mark Tewksbury to Chantal Petitclerc, and includes a sidebar explaining Canadian football."

The new guidebook is already generating criticism, and the CBC reports that Bloc Québécois citizenship and immigration critic Thierry St.-Cyr says the guide "minimizes the concept of the Quebec nation." "What we see in this document is a way of saying, well, Quebec is just a province amongst others and it's no more [a] founding nation." And the historian Christopher Moore has already expressed some reservations about the process and spotted errors.

On the other hand, the editorial board of the Globe and Mail has already given the new guidebook its blessing (and its cartoonist has already weighed in). The last paragraph of yesterday's editorial is particularly noteworthy: "Unlike the old guide, which felt like homework and landed with the thud of a bureaucratic public-service announcement, the new guide shows how the country is special, and does so with vigour. In telling Canada's stories, and the conflict, characters and challenges therein, it will enhance new Canadians' attachment to their country."

Keep in mind that this annoucement was timed to coincide with Remembrance Day and a visit from our next royal head of state, and think about the last sentence in the Globe's editorial. Keep in mind that we're in the midst of a highly divisive war in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most salient point of the editorial is not that history should be about drama, heroes, and gripping stories, but rather that history should facilitate attachment to the nation. Unlike homework, history should be enjoyable, but this enjoyment has a political purpose. The purpose is to create an officially approved version of Canada's past -- stamped with the approval of a panel of experts appointed by the state -- that will enhance Canadian nationalism.

The Canadian government's changes to state history may be new, but the link between nationalism and history is as old as the nation state. The rise of modern professional history was intertwined with the rise of the modern nation state. Nationalism is, at its core, based on specific ideas of history. These ideas are, in turn, rooted in selective processes of not only remembering and forgetting, but also of belonging and exclusion. How we answer the question "What is Canada?" depends on our view of Canadian history. History is, in other words, the oxygen in the lifeblood of nationalism.

In making these assertions, I'm saying nothing new. As David Lowenthal and others have pointed out, we need to make a clear distinction between heritage and history. In the Heritage Crusade, Lowenthal argues, "In domesticating the past we enlist it for present causes. Legends of origin and endurance, of victory or calamity, project the present back, the past forward; they align us with forbears whose virtues we share and whose vices we shun. We are apt to call such communion history, but it is actually heritage. The distinction is vital. History explores and explains pasts grown ever more opaque over time; heritage clarifies pasts so as to infuse them with present purposes." History entails distance, doubt, and debate; heritage demands communion, certainty, and consensus.

The problem is that the creation of heritage is rarely politically neutral. In fact, it has been rooted deeply in the rise of modern nationalisms. As the French writer Ernest Renan put it a century ago, "Getting history wrong is an essential part of being a nation." Renan's work got a second life with the work of Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, (who popularized the quotation), and others interested in nationalism. In On History, Hobsbawm argued passionately, "For history is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologues, as poppies are the raw material for herion addiction. The past is an essential element, perhaps the essential element, in these ideologies. If there is no suitable past, it can always be inveneted." Hobsbawm is not only one of the most influential historians of the twentieth century but also, perhaps ironically, one of the relatively few Marxist historians of his generation who never disavowed communism.

I can sense what you may be thinking. You're saying to yourself...well, who cares if the federal government changes what is says about Canadian history? If the Prime Minister wants to tinker with the citizenship guidebook, so what? Isn't everything made up, in some way? Whenever I challenge students about the problem of historical veracity, they tend to take a markedly broad-minded approach. Especially if the topic is Canadian history, students tend to be quite relaxed when the question of nationalism and history comes up. (I suspect that I would get a very different reaction in a Québec university).

But then I ask the students to consider the question in a different context. I say, okay, what about if we take the same problem but switch geographies. What about if we switched our focus to the Middle East? And then the oxygen goes out of the room. When the political stakes get raised, the tolerance for historical invention contracts radically. Particularly when the Holocaust gets mentioned, students get highly concerned that the truth about the past must be told. Not just some truth, but the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Which brings me to Monday's discussion. The required reading for this week is Gershom Gorenberg, "The War to Begin All Wars," which explores the historiography of the Middle East, particularly the evolving scholarship of Benny Morris. We will be joined by Amal Ghazal, who has written extensively on the Middle East and keeps a blog. Dr. Ghazal passed along links to two articles that may be of interest for those of you who would like to do further reading: "Survival of the Fittest," and "When Historians Matter."

As you read Gorenberg, please reflect on the relationship between history and politics. If, as E.H. Carr said, historians can see the past only through the eyes of the present, how can we avoid not only what Timothy Garton Ash calls the "hindsight bias — the tendency, that is, to regard actual historical outcomes as more probable than alternatives that seemed real at the time," but also the tendency to impose our own autobiography onto the past? Should the imperative to be true to the past matter the same everwhere, regardless of the geo-politics, or should historical standards change to suit the context? When does a personal perspective blur into a professional bias?

As I mentioned on Monday, I won't be able to attend this afternoon's Stokes Seminar. Please keep in mind that the deadline for SSHRC applications is Friday, 20 November. My office hours for Monday are changed to 9:30-11:30. I look forward to seeing you Monday afternoon.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Thinking Ethically

Thanks to everyone for a lively seminar yesterday. It was good to see everyone participate in the discussion. Before I address next week's topic, I want to pass along some links that I've received. Here is the link to the web site that Elspeth mentioned: Common Errors in English Usage. Here is the link to the book that Angela mentioned, A Passion for Narrative, plus an interesting blog that she passed along: the Grammar Vandal. And here is the link to the article that Mark mentioned in class, How to Read a Book, plus the link to a blog on writing that he recommends. For those of you who missed James' comment, here's the link to 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.

Also, to follow up on our discussion of doctoral studies and professional development, here is a link to a book that Keith Mercer (who finished his PhD in 2008) recommended to me: The Chicago Guide to your Academic Career. I would also strongly recommend that you visit the CHA's web site, Becoming a Historian.

Next week, we will move to the question of ethics and historical scholarship. I had originally intended to use part of the provocative book by Jon Wiener, Historians in Trouble, but I couldn't find a sufficient extract freely available online and I did not want to assign another required textbook. I encourage you to visit Wiener's web site, which contains links to many of his articles in The Nation. In addition to the cases that Wiener tracks, you may want to check out the University of Colorado's "Report on Conclusion of Preliminary Review in the Matter of Professor Ward Churchill," which is next week's supplemental, i.e., not required, reading. If you google Ward Churchill, you will find plenty of background information on this case.

The required reading for next week consists of the AHA's "Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct," plus three pieces related to the Doris Kearns Goodwin case:
1) David Gates, "No Ordinary Crime."
2) Doris Kearns Goodwin, "How I caused that story."
3) Timoth Noah, "Historians Rewrite History."

I picked this case because it's a fairly discrete story that we can cover well in our seminar. You are not expected to read through the whole AHA web site carefully; rather, review it and note the main points -- so don't spend too much time on this. The main thing is to familiarize yourself with the Goodwin case and be prepared to talk about where the line should be drawn between carelessness and plagiarism.

Gates' piece in Newsweek asks "Why Should We Care?," which is, I suppose, the sort of question one expects from Newsweek. But it does raise an important point: the question of stakes. To what degree is our attitude towards honesty and accuracy determined by the politics of the historical topic? (This question will set up our discussion for the following week: politics and history).

The backdrop to our discussion is the popular perception that plagiarism is rampant and public morality is in a steep decline -- something the internet gets routinely blamed for. But, if nothing else, the internet has facilitated a revolution in fact-checking and a higher degree of scholarly transparency. It may be easier to plagiarize than ever before, but it's also easier to catch plagiarism, too. In the Age of Google, it is much harder to get away with making stuff up when a fact-check is just a click away.