In Risk & Culture (1982), Mary Douglas & Aaron Wildavsky pointed to an intimate relationship between fear & values. People typically feared things that threatened to undermine their way of life. To date, I’ve been thinking about this in the context of the 1980s & toxic fear. But consider how it resonates in contemporary American culture & politics. In a posthumous follow-up titled But Is It True? (1995), Wildavsky pursued the argument further. “Hierarchists fear social deviance, individualists fear regulation, and egalitarians fear technology” (440). That requires a little reflection. But, all of a sudden, “what are you afraid of?” becomes a critically poignant question to ask. And we might also consider the ways in which fears & values evolve over time.
I remain charmed by my French Department colleague Elzbieta Grodek’s assertion that a second language constitutes a completely different way of seeing the world. More than any kind of proficiency, I would submit that idea is the most compelling argument for insisting on language exams in graduate History programs independent of whether or not the students need the language for research. But that’s not what this short snippet is really about. This is more autobiographical. I think it probably speaks volumes that I have never thought of myself as the son of immigrants. But I am. My parents moved to Canada not long before I was born. Neither was British, but both grew up in England and subsequently moved to the United States. White, educated, Anglo. But Canadian immigrants nevertheless. My father was hired at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. At the time, the university was little more than a bunch of portables on top of Burnaby Mountain. Given the other potential job options that year—Ohio and Buffalo—that turned out pretty alright for my family. (With apologies to both those places, of course, but c’mon.) As immigrants in a new country—a Canada in the heyday of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism & Biculturalism and the Official Languages Act of the 1960s—my parents felt that their “Canadian” children should learn French. Should be bilingual. We were put in French Immersion from kindergarten. Someone can correct me, but I think that Lord Byng Elementary (later Jules Quesnel) was only the second elementary French Immersion school in Vancouver. I want to avoid pedagogical debates of the second language retarding English skills, etc. I turned out pretty good. But I was reading in English before I started French schooling. But, also: educated household valued/encouraged reading, writing, etc. I learned French. By the time I was 10-12, I was fairly proficient. I kept with it through Grade 12. The French Immersion model encouraged what it says: “immersion.” From almost day 1, the entire classroom experience happened in French. Students were encouraged to talk (in French) as a means of developing their vocabulary & proficiency. I think that probably instilled a great deal of confidence in the students. Not just in French language skills, but as people who should have voices and should expect to be heard. On the whole, we were pretty good, middle class kids. Maybe a bit obstreperous, but after many years of encouraging us to talk, teachers maybe found us a bit loud & chatty & unruly—didn’t quite know how to get us to shut up. During my MA at SFU, I asked Rod Day, the grad chair, if I needed to take a French language exam, explaining that I had been through the French Immersion program. “Ah! Tu parles français?” he said. We had a ten minute chat in French, after which he said: “you passed.” (Incidentally, I loved Rod Day’s undergraduate seminar on the French Revolution!) I repeated the same gambit at WSU during my PhD. “Ah! Tu parles Français,” said Richard Gough. We had a ten minute chat in French, after which he said: “Right. See you Tuesday for the test.” It’s been 25+ years since I studied in French. It’s rusty. I have trouble wrapping my tongue around words. I have trouble finding the vocabulary I want. But it’s in there. My wife is bilingual (and teaches French in a local Montessori). My older daughter is bilingual after graduating from French Immersion in Hamilton. She is now studying in a bilingual program at U. Ottawa. My littlest is enjoying French Immersion, too. Which is to say, I have had opportunity to not lose connection with French. But I also haven’t been pressed to use it. My mini-fiefdom at McMaster is that I hold a monopoly over chairing French Department PhD defences. My colleagues appreciate that I will try to manage the proceedings in French. I can still read. I can still understand. And I’m forcing myself to do more of both. I’m starting a new project that will force me to re-engage with my French. But my second language DOES offer another lens through which to see the world. One completely different from my first language. I think that encourages an openness to others’ experiences, to empathy. Not much of a conclusion. But there it is.
It is not an accident of History that Thomas More’s Utopia was written at the early stages of European global conquest. Utopia needs to be “away.” Apart from. Nowhere, but also elsewhere. King Utopus separated Utopia from the mainland, creating an island. (Pause & consider the relationship between power & major works—from Karl Wittfogel: from the control of nature comes the control of people.) This separation is critical. Much as the entrenchment of technological systems makes it difficult to predict the future, the geographical separation of utopian societies makes it possible to conceive that they might exist. Also, and I’m still wrestling with this, King Utopus conquered the Abraxans to create his ideal society. “We don’t know much of the society that Utopia and his armies destroyed—that’s the nature of such forced forgetting—but we know its name,” writes China Miéville. “It’s mentioned en swaggering colonial passant, a hapax legomenon”: Abraxa.
A contextual twittering on Edith Efron’s role in the rise of the American right. I have been reading her 1985 book, The Apocalyptics, which challenged what she saw as fear-mongering in the media over chemical pollution. The book is fascinating. Flawed, but it offers a riveting look at the anti-environmental mindset in the heart of the Reagan 1980s. Here’s a brief Twitter suite examining her background.
In her bestselling 1971 book, The News Twisters, Edith Efron condemned what she saw as a liberal crusade against Richard Nixon during the 1968 presidential campaign. During the final weeks of the campaign, she argued, television media hewed an “elitist-liberal-left line in all controversies.” It constituted a part of the “Democratic-liberal-left axis” bias in the media. According to David Brock’s book on the right-wing noise machine & Adam Schiffer’s on media bias, Nixon orchestrated its becoming a bestseller: organizing purchases at select bookstores, & buying crates of the book with campaign funds. That’s neither here nor there, really (just interesting in itself, especially as a method of generating spin). More interesting is the language of Efron’s rhetoric on the state of media & politics in the US in the early 1970s. Efron challenged the “fake neutrality” of the media in her book. No “fake news,” which would have been a glorious find. But the tone and intent is there. CBS and other media outlets challenged the book. Their studies found much of her research, claims, & rationale to be unfounded. She wrote about this witch hunt in another book: How CBS Tried to Kill a Book (1972). Part of her larger (and successful) project was to increase the conservative presence on television—and to push it ever-further to the right, away from the traditional, centrist conservatives who “represented” the right. In this, she was trying to ensure that the media better reflected & reinforced the shift in the American right that nominated Goldwater in 1964 & the growing movement that remains prevalent today.
Writing is like brick-laying. Every sentence should follow directly from the sentence that preceded it. And lay the groundwork for the premise that follows it. Build carefully. You’re not going to get those bricks right the first time. That’s the genius of cement taking time to dry. You can pull up the bricks & lay them again, re-arranging them to build a sounder structure.
Gary Snyder’s poem, “Riprap,” has long been my model/inspiration.
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Not to mix the metaphor too much, but riprap is the building of stone trail in the wilderness by hand: the interlocking stones carefully, wilfully, mindfully set in place.
Incidentally, Gary Snyder’s poetry & his essays (Practice of the Wild & A Place in Space) were my entry point into environmental history more than twenty years ago.
History is not about dates & places. It is about interpreting contexts, connections, meanings. It is the necessary first step toward any kind of functional understanding. Lest you think I’m overstating this: we look for corollaries, echoes, parallels, examples that can help us to contextualize new moments, challenges, puzzles. “What is this like? Have we been here before?” is a default response in our species. History doesn’t repeat itself, but we overlay past experience to make sense of what is new. Historians climb into the past to craft stories, metaphors, allegories that help to better situate meaning in the present.
Historians are the direct descendants of Homer.
Which is to say that History is a way of seeing. Thinking historically is a critical (& critically under-appreciated) real-world problem-solving skill that requires honing. Every engineer, every doctor, every manager, every purported “leader” should be required to study History. The history of their field, sure, but also world history, colonial history, national history, regional history, social history, cultural history. Any/all of it. And they should accept that the best people to teach them this are historians. There is an expertise to studying the past that goes well beyond reading stuff.
At its best, History is the most interdisciplinary field in the contemporary academy. Inasmuch as it courts & trains depth, it demands an intellectual agility & versatility that few other disciplines can match.
To History is not to recall & regurgitate a series of dates, names, & places in chronological order. That’s stamp collecting. To History is to engage in a profoundly subversive activity. To History is to inquire of the past. To rediscover past events, to situate them in context, to give them new meaning.
History engages the politics of identity. The stories we tell, the ideas we cling to, come from the past. The myths we build around national, social, cultural identities become entrenched as tools for assigning value, attributing power, maintaining order. Historians transform the past by reinterpreting it. Historians can breathe new meaning into past events, past consequences. They question ingrained narratives. They challenge unquestioned identity politics. And that is a borderline revolutionary act in itself.
What we do in the present. How we understand our place. How we respond to our past triumphs & transgressions. Maybe it changes the future. But it certainly transforms the past. Walter Benjamin once observed that women & men revolt not because of any promise of a happier future for their grandchildren, but because of memories of oppressed ancestors. That is the power of History told & understood well.
Inasmuch as we live in a forward-looking world, one bent on racing toward some abstract future, historians have never been more important, making sure we don’t lose sight of who we are, where we come from, & how we can change.