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28 February, 2016

Trump is Not the New Hitler—He is the New Andrew Jackson.



"Pegausus," Those Do Not remember the Past Are Doomed to Repeat It (2016)

Image Source: Sam Hayson, "British Street Artist Compares Trump With Hitler," Mashable (22 Feb 2016).

A Note to Readers: I wrote the body of this post several days ago on a Facebook note. Several of those who read it there have urged me to repost it here. I have added the images at the top and bottom of this piece--whose parallels are revealing in and of themselves--and a short bibliography for those wanting to learn more about the Jacksonian tradition in the American politics. Readers are encouraged to post their own favorite books on the period, if they so desire. --T.G.


Let's talk Trump and historical analogies for a bit.

A lot of people--and I have seen several just today--are writings clever jokes on their facebook feed with punchlines like: "Mein Trumpf.” The idea is not new. For months now people have been writing that Trump is fascism personified, an Adolf Hitler for America.
This idea is silly. You all know I hate Trump. Not all of you have been following me all these months, but I have been pretty loud about how much I destest the man. The anti-Trump fever pitch once grew so hot on this page that two Trump supporters defriended me in response to the Facebook Phillipics I wrote against him (this was in December, when he declared war on religious liberty). I will not vote for a loathsome character like him. 
But the comparison with Hitler is analytically sloppy. Yes, I know that Hitler=EVIL is an equation we all agree on, and I also realize that if you can link Trump to Hitler then Trump is evil too. I get. We all get it. But it is still silly. If you are raising the comparison to rally the troops and mobilize your political tribe then, fine, that's acceptable, in politics you say and do what you need to say and do for success. But if you are actually trying to understand Trump, his appeal, and his likely impact on our republic, then this analogy distorts far more than it reveals.

In truth, we do not need to look to foreign climes to understand Trumpism. Donald Trump is not America's Hitler. Donald Trump is the 21st century's Andrew Jackson.
 
Like Trump, Andrew Jackson ran for office at a time when an entrenched political aristocracy had controlled the American political system for decades.

Like Trump, Jackson's supporters had lost their faith in this system and felt utterly isolated from its ruling class.

As with Trump, Jackson was a fantastically well off in comparison to the average American, but still a considered a complete outsider in elite circles because he was crass, rude, vulgar, and stupid--in other words, a joke, someone not to be taken seriously until it was too late.
 
Like Trump, Jackson's success was built upon getting the people who the existing system excluded or ignored engaged in politics in a way they had not been their entire lives. In both cases these people tended to be less educated, not too well off, and of Scots-Irish descent.

Like Trump, Jackson was a nativist, a nationalist, and fairly racist. Both are in essence majoritarians, meaning that their main policy aim was to materially improve the livelihoods and liberties of the majority demographic, even if that comes at the expense of other groups.
 
Like Trump, Jackson used these voters to hijack a party coalition traditionally associated with limited government; like Trump, Jackson paid lip service to this philosophy (and sometimes, as with the banks, acted on his words) but possessed a temperament that put him at odds with it. 
Like Trump, Jackson did not have a firm grasp of all the issues at hand on the campaign trail (compared to his opponents, who were quite wonkish), and had a pronounced tendency to personalize all political disputes.

Like Trump, this was one of his greatest selling points with the public: Jackson was someone who spoke as a common man did while being greater than any common man was. He “told it like it is.” Both understood the media technology and news cycles of their time, and took advantage of them in novel ways to “tell it like it is” to far more people than his opponents thoughts possible. You could say that Jackson, like Trump, pioneered a new style of campaigning. By doing so he quickly learned how to outmaneuver his political opponents into oblivion.
 
Like Trump, attacks that came against Jackson in response only seemed to make him stronger, and like Trump, most of these attacks were focused less on his ideas--which were always rather nebulously defined on the campaign trail, painted in broad strokes, so to speak--than against his character, especially his (or his family's) alleged lechery, gaudiness, stupidity, or savagery.

I could go on, but you get the point.

The comparison is instructive because it gives us some insight into what a Trump presidency might look like. If Trump wins--indeed, even if he loses--his candidacy will likely change the face and demographic composition of the Republican party for a generation. Like Jackson, he'll be dependent on well connected wheelers and dealers who can catch his mood or vision and transform it into political realities (ala Van Buren). He will act as a demagogue, but be reasonably effective at what he does, and may leave an institutional legacy that lasts decades. Jackson was called a monarch; Trump would be called a fascist, though neither antebellum America or its modern descendant have necessary the political machinery for either man to set up the kind of dictatorship their critics claim(ed) they wish(ed) to establish
In other words, the republic will survive. Some parts of it might even do better than they would do otherwise, because Trump will introduce the kind of shock to the system that will force existing good boys networks to collapse, and prompt each party to change the ideas on the table. Abraham Lincoln detested Jackson. But Lincoln would not have been possible if Jackson had first established the foil Lincoln's cohort would define themselves against. 
An important fact to remember though all this: we do not live in the 1830s. In some ways that is a good thing--a very good thing! No second Trail of Tears is possible in Trumps’ America. In other ways we are ill prepared for the second coming of Andrew Jackson. We sometimes call his day "the age of Jackson," but really it was just as much the age of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster. Even with imperial Andrew Jackson at the fore, the center of Washington politics was the Senate. The executive branch had little power in comparison to its present incarnation, and federal bureaucracy (to say nothing of international surveillance networks) was practically non-existent. At that time the townships, counties, and state governments were really more important to the daily life of the average man than anything decided in Washington was. This is no longer true. Our government is over bloated and dangerously unbalanced. The only two candidates who ever showed any awareness of this institutional decay (Jim Webb and Rand Paul) have long been forced out of this election. Trump will only make this situation worse.

America was also not a super-power whose nuclear deterrent and forward deployed forces undergird the global order. The challenges Jackson faced abroad are far removed from our own. It is hard to tell what Jackson would have made of NATO or the war in Syria. I think many people will be surprised to find what Trump thinks of these things--surprised to discover that Clinton has a much tougher line on China than he does, and that in contrast, he is much more hostile towards Israel than she ever has been. But my mind keeps coming back to East Asia, and our unequal alliances with South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Trump has stated that he wants to dismantle them, or change their nature entirely. Will he? What will the consequences of that be in near and short terms? It is hard to say. Andrew Jackson offers little guidance here.


Anon, "King Andrew the First" (1832)

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTE

For those unfamiliar with Jacksonian America and its politics, I recommend Harry Watson's Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America as the best introduction to the period. Lawrence Kohl's The Politics of Individualism: Parties and American Character in the Jacksonian Era is another book that has deeply influenced my view of the antebellum republic. For a more comprehensive overview, I recommend Walker Daniel Howe's What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, which is, for what is worth, one of the best histories of any period I have ever read. A common theme that runs through all three books is that the Democratic mobilization of the masses was only possible because the vast economic and social changes of the time had changed the nature of American society in less than a generation's time, and the Democratic contingent was left adrift in this sea of change. Their political methods were modern, but their politics were reactionary, for their voters felt like incredibly insecure in this new America, where the old social rules no longer applied and the boons of economic growth always seemed to be going to someone else. Here to an analogy with Trump may be made, though I did not make it originally because this interpretation of Jacksonian politics is a controversial one in historical circles. 

The Jacksonian impulse has been a part of American politics since before the founding of the American republic, and absent secession or genocide, will be with it long into its future. David Hackett Fisher's Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America is a book anyone who wants to understand American history or modern society must read, and covers the the origins of this culture well. Walter Russel Mead tracks this strand of thought over the course of America's two centuries of foreign relations in Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World. I am unaware of any book that tracks the Jacksonian impulse throughout the history of America's domestic politics, but from what I have been told about Colin Woodward's American NationsWoodward might have done the job right.  

I have written many posts comparing and contrasting the political system and civic society of 19th century America with the present. Some highlights include:


 "Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream"
 T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 1 July 2014.

"Despots Near and Despots Far" 
 T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 16 February 2014.

T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 7 October 1015.

T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 16 September 2015.

"The Rule of Law and the Ruling Class in American History"
 T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 14 March 2013.

"Shakespeare in American Politics"
 T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 30 September 2015

12 February, 2016

Why Do We Know So Little About China's WWII?

Japanese soldiers approach the walls of Nanjing
 
By Sweeper tamonten,China Incident Photograph Album, Vol 2, published in 1938 by Asahi Shimbun., Public Domain, accessed at Wikimedia Commons.
In a recent column Peter Harmsen asks "Why do we know so little about China in World War Two?" To quote:
We know hardly anything about the war in China.

To give just one example, about 80,000 Chinese and Japanese soldiers became casualties during the first battle for the city of Changsha in September and October 1939 (there were three more battles for the city later in the war.) This is more than twice the number of total casualties on both sides during Operation Market Garden, the disastrous British and American attempt in September 1944 to penetrate German defenses in a bold airborne assault.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of books have been written about that failed Allied offensive, focusing especially on its tragic epicenter at Arnhem. By contrast, not a single book exists in any western language about the first battle of Changsha – or the second, third and fourth, for that matter.
Comparisons such as these could go on for a very long time. Whereas biographies of US General George Patton are too numerous to count, no books exist in the West about flamboyant commanders such as Chinese Muslim General Bai Chongxi or Sun Liren, described as “China’s Rommel.” How many people in the West know that in China local puppet troops were doing a lot of Japan’s “dirty work”? Or that the first American firebombing in Asia was against the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 1944? [1]

These type of comparisons will be familiar to anyone who has been reading The Scholar's Stage over the last few years, as I have made this same point again and again (and again!). Harmsen does not find the common explanations for the gap at all convincing:
Various explanations can be put forward to account for this gaping hole in the historiography. First, it can be argued that the China theatre was not decisive in the same way that, for example, the Eastern Front was. Even in a regional context it was arguably a sideshow. The war against Japan was decided on the small islands of the Pacific, not in China’s interior. According to this argument, post-war historians have shied away from this subject simply because it wasn’t important enough.

The argument is not particularly convincing [for lots of reasons readers of the Stage likely know already]....

Another possible explanation for the low level of interest in China’s struggle is the absence of a consensus narrative about the war.....

This argument has been weakened by the recent thaw in relations between China and Taiwan, reflected in growing recognition among Chinese historians of the key role played by Chiang Kai-shek and the forces under his command. However, what really destroys the argument is the fact that, the Cold War notwithstanding, it would have been possible for American and Taiwan historians to collaborate on histories of World War Two in China from a Nationalist perspective right from the 1950s. It just didn’t happen to any major extent.

Finally, the lack of interest in China’s World War Two experience has been blamed on the difficulty of using China’s archives. This is potentially critically important, as reflected in what happened after Soviet collapse and the opening of the Russian archives. The possibility of suddenly telling the Russian side of the story triggered an explosion in the literature about the Eastern Front.

Does this argument have relevance for China? Yes and no. It’s true that Chinese archives may have been out of bounds during the Cold War, but today, serious Western historians have much easier access. In addition, both China and Taiwan have published and continue to publish carefully prepared historical source materials, providing valuable information for anyone able to read them. [2]
 Harmsen misses one explanation I sometimes hear bandied about: in the early years of the Cold War the history of the Sino-Japanese War was a toxic topic. More specifically, Americans could not write about it without declaring an answer to the question "who lost China?", and in the 1950s that was a dangerous question to answer. But this explanation has its own limitations; it does nothing to explain the lack of scholarship done in other parts of the Anglophone world, and it really only accounts for a decade or so of lost time. By the time Frances Fitzgerald published Fire on the Lake in 1972, sympathetic portrayals of America's communist enemies and biting critique of American blunders were workaday projects for American journalists and historians alike.

Harmsen thinks that the best explanation is a linguistic one:
This leads to the circumstance which I consider the main obstacle to western research into the war in China: the difficulty of the Chinese language. It is a problem that’s not always recognized, but it’s nonetheless very real. According to the Foreign Service Institute at the State Department, it takes 2,200 class hours of devoted study to achieve proficiency in Chinese. This is about twice the amount of time needed to learn Russian or Vietnamese, and four times as much as the time invested in learning French or Dutch.

This is just in order to learn the modern Chinese language. To truly grasp the Second Sino-Japanese War in all its complex intricacy, knowledge of the classical Chinese language is a definite advantage, too. For example, Chiang Kai-shek’s diary, possibly the most important primary source of them all, was written in a terse and elliptical style which comes across as archaic even to many Chinese.

Unfortunately, knowledge of the Chinese language is absolutely crucial in order to do more than just scratch the surface of the complex events in China in the years from 1937 to 1945. Speaking from personal experience, if I hadn’t been able to read Chinese, I could never have completed my own two books on the subject, Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City and Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze.

What to do about this situation? The answer is simple: nothing. Just wait. Mandarin proficiency is rapidly catching on throughout the West, as young people prepare for a future in which China will be increasingly important economically, politically and militarily. This will also feed into the historians’ profession, where Mandarin will no longer be such a rare skill as it is today. Based on this, I feel confident that in a decade or two, the bookshops and websites will be brimming with books about China’s epic struggle with Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. (Emphasis added). [3]
Harmsen's hypothesis is correct, but it is most compelling when placed in the larger context of Chinese historiography. The best way to approach this context is through comparison. The Foreign Service Institute ranks Arabic at the same level of difficulty as Chinese. How does the historiography of the Middle Eastern military history compare with that of Chinese military history? You do not need to spend much time in a library to realize that academic works on the most famous wars of Middle Eastern history have at least as much written about them by academic historians, and far more written by popular historians, than any conflict China has been a part of. Language difficulty alone is not enough to explain the dearth of Chinese military history.

The comparison with Middle Eastern history is revealing in other ways. The Crusades and the Arab conquests are some of the most popular topics in Middle Eastern history. These wars were also waged more than a thousand years ago. There is no Chinese war of comparable antiquity that can claim such popularity with Western readers or writers today. Books on modern Chinese military history are meager when compared to books on modern Western military history. Compare books on China's modern military history with books on its pre-modern military history, however, and a different picture emerges. From this perspective, China's experience in the Second World War has an incredible amount written about it. There are more books in English concerning China's eight year long ordeal in the Second World War than there are concerning every war fought by the Chinese during all four centuries of the Han Dynasty combined.

The problem is not that the world knows so little about China's wartime experience in the Second World War. The problem is that the world knows so little about China's wartime experiences period. 

I explored the different reasons why this is the case fairly recently in the post "East Asian Military History - A Few Historiographical Notes," so I will not rehash my entire argument here. I will, however, quote the part most relevant to Harmsen's point about how difficult it is to learn Chinese:    
 Contemporary historians of East Asia have the same basic set of priorities as the rest of their profession. They focus on structures, cultures, identities, and the hidden voices of history... [but] the idea that East Asianists need to counter the biases of existing, politics-heavy narratives is mistaken, for in too many cases there are no existing narratives to counter in the first place. We are left with huge gaps in the literature. In the case of military history, there are entire wars where millions of people fought and died, and whose stories are instantly recognized by people across China, Japan, and Korea today, that still have no books written about them in English.

Part of the problem is size. The number of East Asianists in academia is small. The number working on pre-modern East Asian history is pitifully small. You can count the number of American scholars who specialize in Silla Korea on one hand. You could count those who specialize in Sengoku Japan on two. You could fit all the specialists on the Northern Song Dynasty on a moderately sized tour bus. This is true now; back when narrative political and military histories was more academically fashionable (c. 1920-1960) the number of East Asianists were even smaller. Because only a few scholars specialized in East Asia then, the peculiar research interests of one scholar and his pupils forty years ago have come to dominate entire fields today (one example of this is substantial amount of work done on medieval Japan's institutional history, something I credit entirely to the influence of John Whitney Hall, who taught Japanese history at Yale for the better part of the last century). There simply weren't enough historians writing then to fill in the gaps.

In addition, many of those who wrote then were relatively unconcerned with high politics, diplomacy, or military affairs. They came to the study of traditional Asia with a set of non-traditional backgrounds. Then—as now—a great deal of East Asian history is written by philosophers, philologists, and archaeologists. These are men and women who began to study East Asia because of a fascination with Pure Land Buddhism, Neoconfucian metaphysics, Shang Dynasty bronzes, or reconstructing classical Chinese pronunciation. In most areas linguistics, philosophy, literature, and religious studies are separate fields, but in the case of the East Asianists (and here a fruitful analogy with the Classicists can be made) they blur somewhat. The very term "East Asianist" (along with its subsets: "Sinologist,""Koreanist," etc.) express the expectation that those studying one aspect of pre-modern Asia should be conversant in all of its other domains. In this milieu intellectual history has always been king. This is partially because many of these disciplines began as an attempt to make the "Eastern mind" accessible to Westerners, and it is partially because it is incredibly difficult to understand even fairly mundane historical sources without a working knowledge of classical Chinese and the history of ideas in East Asia. [5]  The interdisciplinary nature of this sort of intellectual history sheltered it somewhat from the political storms and of the '60s and '70s. It is still the strongest strain of historical scholarship on the region. 

The downstream effects of all this are pretty easy to see. By far the most common textbook for introductory survey courses of East Asian history is Sources of the East Asian Tradition, a collection of mostly philosophical and literary documents from the last few thousand years of East Asian history. The Association for Asian Studies annual conference rarely has panels on the political or military history of Sengoku Japan, but there will always be room for one more panel on the Tale of Genji to be squeezed in. [4]
Academics who specialize in Asia are hardly alone in their decision to shy away from writing about war and conflict. The vast majority of academics with PhDs in American studies don't write histories of World War II either. By and large, the hundreds of WWII books Harmsen references were written by people outside of academia (and many of those with an academic background who write on the Second World War, like Victor Davis Hanson, are specialists in entirely separate eras). They can do this because understanding the primary sources used to write histories of American and British campaigns does not require years of specialized academic training--exactly the short of training most Westerners must get just to speak passable Mandarin Chinese. 

Boiling this argument down to a few bullet points leaves us with the following:
We know so little about WWII because
1) Academic historians shy away from writing about high politics or warfare
2) The difficulty of the Chinese language keeps the majority of popular historians far away from the topic. 
Harmsen is proof of the point. He studied history at National Taiwan University in Taipei, but he made his name as a journalist, not a historian. That is probably for the better. Had he continued on to get a PhD in history the urge to write compelling narrative histories--something he is quite good at--may very well have been beaten out of him. 



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[1] Peter Harmsen, "Why Do We Know So Little About China in World War Two?", History News Network (December 13, 2015).

[2] ibid.

[3[ ibid.

[4[ T. Greer, "East Asian Military History - A Few Historiographical Notes," The Scholar's Stage (18 December, 2015).

06 February, 2016

How to Be a History Blogger

By unknown photographer, 1934 -- original calligraphy of Tokugawa Ieyasu, 1604
via Wikimedia Commons


There are a few times and places in human history whose events are so dramatic, characters so colorful, and dilemmas so tragic that I weep to think that William Shakespeare never heard of them. I get all misty eyed because I know what wonders the Bard wrought with the eras he did know of. Many of his greatest works come from the histories of Rome’s ruin; Plutarch was Shakespeare’s guide here, and Shakespeare was clearly inspired by Plutarch's description of the tragic fates of the titans who lived at the Republic’s twilight. Who wouldn’t be? Cato, Cicero, Brutus, Antony, Caesar—it is a cast of characters who seem larger than life, names from a different age, a time when giants roamed the world of men. We now know, of course, that most stories that survive from ancient days are often just that: literary embellishments produced by a culture that loved literary craft more than historical fidelity. But it is hard to care too much about this—the characters portrayed are so convincing and the stakes of their contests so great, that we get swept up in the drama and tragedy of it all until someone wakes us from the dream and pulls us back to the drab concerns of 21st century life.

If that at all describes how you think about Roman history, know that you are not alone: poets, playwrights, and painters have said much the same things for centuries. Had Livy, Plutarch, Sallust, and Caesar not left their words to later generations Western civilization would never have produced many of its most beautiful and most meaningful works of art.

History books are littered with characters that can match up to Caesar, but few and far between are the eras when the entire cast shines as brilliantly as the stars of the late Republic did. The bitter tragedy of the An-Lushan rebellion is one such occasion; in the lives of Yang Guifei, Yang Guozhong, Tang Xuanzang, Gao Lishi, Geshu Han, An Lushan, and the other greats of the late Tang court can a story be found that is as fantastic as anything Rome produced (and far superior to the Game of Thrones drivel so many obsess over now). Alas! This is a story that has not been told in English. [1] To be honest, there have been few alive since Shakespeare's day who are worthy to tell the tale.

The other outstanding drama of human history, filled with men whose stories seem impossibly larger than life, occurred almost a millennium later, near the tail end of an era we now call Medieval Japan. The protagonists here are better known in the West, if only slightly so: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, their families, and their rivals. Their stories also seem tailor made for Shakespearean drama—though unlike the luminaries of Rome and the Tang, the events surrounding these men and women are much more solidly sourced.

All of this came to my mind today as I perused a new blog by historian Morgan Pitelka called 1616. 1616 was the year Tokugawa Ieyasu died, making this the quadricentennial of his death. Fittingly for the occasion, Pitelka has a new book out on the man and his era. The blog seems to be an attempt to garner publicity for the book, but Pitelka's posts are interesting in their own right. I hope Pitelka continues to write new material for it even after the promotional period for this book ends and he begins working on whatever book or series of articles is next in his queue.  

Pitelka's blog is a model example of one type of history blog, a category I'll label the "Public Research Notes" blog. It ties in neatly with a topic I have been pondering of late: how historians and lovers of history can engage with the public online. The topic has been on my mind ever since the Chronicle of Higher Education published a write up on the way political science has changed how journalists talk and write about Washington politics. [2] This is a rather new development; just ten years ago journalists had little time for political science or political scientists. Many political scientists still feel they are marginalized in the policy space, but this perception has more to with a mysterious urge to compare everything political scientists are doing with everything economists have done than with an objective assessment of their discipline's growing prestige. Frustrated political scientists will feel much better if they change the discipline they measure themselves by. If journalists' and policy makers' understanding of political science has increased over the last decade, their knowledge and appreciation for history has lied stagnant.

This is not the post to review why the discipline of history is less prestigious now than it probably has ever been at any time over the last century. Of interest to me is what historians can do to reverse that course--and here the political scientists have shown the way. An integral part of their success were group blogs like Monkey Cage, Duck of Minerva, and Crooked Timber, as well as smaller one-man shops like Dart Throwing Chimp or Chris Blattman's place. These blogs were hardly the front page of the internet. However, these were platforms that allowed intelligent people outside of the polisci sphere to read what was happening inside it, and this has had all the down stream effects the Chronicle describes.

So how does one write about history online?

The first model I call News Through the Long View. A great deal of the history-related posts I write up here fall under this category. The idea is that the writer analyzes contemporary trends in politics, culture, or society in reference to the experiences of our past. Some events only make sense when put in their proper context; often headlines of the moment are but ripples on the wave of a much larger historical trend. Most people--and sadly, most journalists--simply are not aware of the history that makes the events covered in newspapers meaningful. Two columnists from opposite sides of the political spectrum provide well known examples of how this can be scaled to popular audiences. One is the historian Walter Russel Meade, whose columns for the conservative American Interest are grounded in his knowledge of American history. The other is Ta-Nehesi Coates, whose best columns for the Atlantic are the ones where Coates ties the headlines of the day into history from decades and centuries past.

There are upsides and downsides to this sort of history writing. The upside is that it is both popular and necessary. One downside is that it has a modern bias (though as my debate with Edward Luttwak on the Xiongnu wars shows, ancient history can at times be surprisingly relevant to 21st centuries affairs). A more important one is that many historians don't want to infect their analysis of the past with the politics and concerns of the present. "Presentism" is a dirty word in historical circles, and often for good reason. If history writing just means using historical facts to win the cultural and political debates of the present, the value of the discipline is cheapened considerably.

The second model is similar to the first, but less relentlessly focused on the controversies of the moment. In a nod to the Chinese, we might call it the History as a Mirror model of writing. This is the kind of thing you will see published in the Los Angeles Review of Books or at Three Quarks Daily. These essays are reflective; usually they attempt to draw enduring lessons from the past--aspects of the human experience that are useful not just in the crisis of the moment, but for all time. These writers take the idea that history should teach us things about the human condition quite seriously. Their essay are often profound, and really are at the center of what makes history part of the humanities in the first place.

The trouble with this sort of writing is that it is hard to be profound on demand. Being consistently interesting is far easier than being consistently profound. No historian can write a new, moving explanation for why they study what they do every single week. Those who see history as a mirror for humanity's foibles are best off writing for a platform with many authors, as is the case with LARB, New Yorker, and 3 Quarks, so that they can produce at a pace more suitable to real reflection. Unfortunately, this pace is not fast enough for solo blogging, which requires a rather steady drum beat of new material to keep a sizable readership engaged. 

The third type of history blogging we might call Publishing Without Peer Review. This model comes in two forms: the first are those who write extended historical narratives for an online audience; the second are those who publish substantive new research or literature directly online. Atavist is really the king of this first space (if you have not read Jon Mooalem's "American Hippopotamus" yet you need to stop reading this now, and spend the next 30 minutes on what is likely the best bit of American history you will read all year)[3], but you see this kind of thing appear everywhere from Strategy Bridge to China File. [4] The second space has far fewer writers, the most prominent probably being the economic-history blogger Pseudoerasmus. He posts irregularly, but when he does you often find yourself reading article length posts just as good as anything published in peer-review journals. Indeed, Pseudoerasmus is, to my knowledge, the very first anonymous blogger to ever have been cited in The American Historical Review. [5]


I actually suspect this will be the future of professional history writing. But the future is not here yet, and those hoping to run the publish-or-perish gauntlet will inevitably send their best work to closed-access peer reviewed journals. Most professional historians simply do not have time for writing large popular narratives or conducting extensive research on the side. This style will remain the province of amateurs--even when they produce work equal to any professional's--for some time yet.

Last of all we come to the type of blog that prompted this entire conversation, Public Research Notes. Consider the last few posts Pitelka has published on 1616.

Here we have a post that documents evidence to demonstrate that the isolationism of the Tokugawa Shogunate did not start with Tokugawa Ieyasu himself; there is a piece noting the relationship between Ieyasu’s personal history and Japan’s later political geography; and here is one that describes Ieyasu's rivalry with another Sengoku warlord, Takeda Shingen. [6] None of the claims made in these posts are revolutionary contentions destined to upend the way historians understand Medieval Japan; nor are any of these posts making some marvelous argument about enduring lessons of politics, culture, or geography to be found by studying Ieyasu or his era. These little essays will shift no paradigms. They are less profound than they are useful. Anyone interested in the era, as I am, will probably find themselves using them in the future. If I ever need to write about when Japan took its isolationist turn Pitelka’s post is the first place I will go to—and I will feel no compunction citing it in an academic context either. [7]

1616 is in effect a collection of research notes made public. Its entries are the kind of jottings historians should be writing for themselves all of the time just to keep their work organized. The only difference between Pitelka's jottings and the kind other historians write is that Pitelka's are public and thus can benefit the rest of the world.

This is a model many historians could learn from and if any historian is nervous about starting their own blog it is is the model I recommend. Many historians are hesitant to blog, I think, because they feel like they have nothing interesting to say. Breakthroughs and great ideas are reserved for journal articles and book manuscripts. They have no time for long form writing on the side, and they don't see many connections between their chosen topic and whatever issue has set the blogoshere abuzz today. 

Making research notes public is a perfect way to get around the quandary. As long as one is  researching something interesting--and if you don't find the topic of your own research interesting, it might be time for you to change topics--the research notes blogger will have something to blog about. Their posts will not be life changing, nor will they upturn their chosen field. Their appeal will be limited to those interested in the period or the topic being researched. But those people will be glad and grateful to read the connections historians are making and the sources they are discovering in real time, just as I am glad to have discovered 1616.



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[1] The rebellion is the subject of innumerable poems, plays, essays from the last four dynasties of Chinese history, and today, has become the subject of television soap operas, graphic novels, and blockbuster movies as well. No history of the war itself has been written in English; E. G. Pulleyblank's The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu-Shan (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), and  "The An Lu-Shan Rebellion and the Origins of Chronic Militarism in Late T'ang China", in Perry & Smith, Essays on T'ang Society (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976) are still, more than a half century later, the definitive (if sparse) English language accounts.

[2] Alexander Kafka, "How the Monkey Cage Went Ape," Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 January 2015.

[3] Jon Mooallem, "American Hippopotamus," Atavist 32, December 2013 iss.

[4] For example, see B.A. Friedman, "The Battle of Gallipoli,"  Strategy Bridge, 24 April, 2015; James Palmer, "A People's Friendship," China File, 18 January, 2016.

[5] Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler, "AHR Exchange: The History Manifesto Critique," American Historical Review 120, no. 2 (April 2015), 540, n. 31

[6] Morgan Pitelka, "The Geography of Ieaysu's Career," 1616, 11 January 2016; "A Profoundly International Age," 1616,  16 January 2015; "The Man Who Was Meant to Unify Japan," 1616, 25 January 2015  

[7] This would be quite easy to do. After citing the primary sources he points to in my own discussion, I would probably write something like: "Credit must be given to Morgan Pitelka for leading me to these sources in "A Profoundly International Age," 1616 (blogpost), originally posted January 16, 2015, http://spectacularaccumulation.com/1616/2016/1/16/a-profoundly-international-age.

My hope is that this practice will go mainstream, knocking down the other worry historians have about sharing their notes publicly:  that others will steal the research they make public. Personally I think this is the wrong way to look at it—by publishing a blog you post you should be stamping your name on an idea, Writing a short blog should be the first thing any historian does when they stumble across an insight they would like credit for. 


01 February, 2016

Rise of the Rookies: Trudeau's Grand Experiment

Everyone will be talking about American politics today. However, Iowa is just the first step in the race for the Presidency, and its darlings are often eclipsed by candidates with stronger showings down the road. I don't have much to say about it. Instead I would like to comment on a different electoral victory. As it is already happened I can skip most of the guesswork you will read in the Iowan hot-takes. I speak of the Justin Trudeau's sweep to power several months ago. Looking back on it now I realize many people commenting then missed one of the most significant things about Mr. Trudeau's new program for Canadian politics. 

When Justin Trudeau announced his new cabinet back in November, his declaration set progressive media outlets across the English speaking world ablaze. Most of the attention focused on Trudeau's decision to make his cabinet gender balanced, but ample praise has been found for the cabinet's ethnic diversity as well. This tweet gives you a flavor of the coverage, condensed into a meme-friendly form:





People seem to like my analysis of the new Canadian Cabinet Ministers. Feel free to share. #canadianeh
Posted by Alana Phillips on Wednesday, November 4, 2015

All of this is history for the record books. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of governing I suspect that the most remarkable things about Trudeau's cabinet will not be the gender, race, or religion of its members, but their newness. When Trudeau chose his cabinet in November he selected a cabinet of greenhorns.

Eighteen of Trudeau's thirty cabinet members are first-time MPs. Only six (Ralph Goodale, Stéphane Dion, Scott Brison, Carolyn Bennett, John McCallum, and Lawrence MacAulay) have previous minister experience. While Stéphane Dion has been assigned to serve as Minister of Foreign Affairs, the other weighty assignments have gone to parliamentary neophytes: Bill Morneu as Minister of Finance, Harjit Sajjan as Minister of Defense, and Jody Wilson-Raybould as Minister of Justice.

When analyzing Ottawa politics one needs to be careful not to get too caught up in Cabinet choices. Many Cabinet positions are relatively inconsequential. The true levers of power are not found in general meetings of the Cabinet, but in the work of the main Cabinet Committees. It is entirely possible to pick a Cabinet that looks pretty in the public eye while reserving more serious committee assignments for a less sexy set of party power brokers. I was surprised to find that in Trudeau's case this has not been true. The composition of Trudeau's committees does match that of his Cabinet. This includes the political experience of those selected. The most important of Trudeau's committees is the Committee on Agenda and Results (Trudeau's version of the Priorities and Planning Committee, sometimes called the "inner cabinet"). Of its eleven members, six are first time MPs. The Committee of Intelligence and Emergency Management is the only other committee chaired by Trudeau himself. Two of its eight members are fresh MPs, and one of them, Jody Wilson-Raybould, is the Vice-Chair. Wilson-Raybould seems to be the workhouse of the new administration, Trudeau's woman in the trenches: she sits on six committees, and is Vice-Chair of two of them. This includes the Committee and Canada in the World and Public Security. Six of its ten members are first time MPs.

You can play this game with all of the committees. The end result is clear: Trudeau has put political neophytes in key positions across the government, including foreign relations and military affairs. To put it frankly, this is a bold experiment that takes Anglophone politics into uncharted waters. Canada's political establishment has been turned upside down, and the recent history of other Anglosphere nations offers no precedents here. I suspect, however, they will be keenly interested in how well the Ottawa rookies perform. In recent months both the United States and the United Kingdom have seen vicious arguments about the relevance of prior political experience for actual political performance at the national level. In Canada that question is no longer a theoretical one.  Canada has handed the reins over to the rookies. It is too early to tell if this decision was a wise one. 2016 is the year to test if the political greenhorns can run a country as well as the old guard.