The Clare Spark Blog

June 16, 2012

The social history racket

 [Nothing in this blog should be taken as an attack on the writing of social history. What I object to is the abandonment of diplomatic and military history as “elitist,” a perverse populist move.]

I have not blogged the last several weeks because I have been immersed in the study of Ernest Hemingway and his relations with women. I have agreed to write a review of the widely seen HBO biopic Hemingway-Gellhorn (first broadcast May 28, 2012, starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman), and since the show elevates Martha Gellhorn above Hemingway, perhaps as some kind of feminist statement, I have been focusing on the startling arrival of the New Woman in Western culture, a development that was greeted with anguish and screams by numerous male artists, and no more insistently than in the Hemingway oeuvre. (See for example  the illustration by Edvard Munch, “Love and Pain,” widely interpreted as his “vampire” painting, unveiled in 1894.)

At the same time, I carefully studied Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War (1998). This massive history argues that it was not foreordained that Britain enter the Great War, and that it was the mishandling of the postwar economic crisis that laid the groundwork for WW2, not excessive reparations as Lord Keynes had averred in his famous Economic Consequences of the Peace. But more, Ferguson’s method is a powerful rebuke to the entire field of social history that gained legitimacy by allying itself with “the grass roots” and the suffering of “the people” victimized by the diplomatic and military elites. This nearly hegemonic move away from the “elitist” study of statesmen and their decisions, in effect, undermined any possible understanding of the causes of conflict and mass death, while pandering to a gruesome tendency of readers to get off on atrocity stories, presumably to mobilize them for either revolution or “progressive” reform. But most significantly, Ferguson reintroduced the notion of human agency, as against structural or teleological reasons alone in explaining great wars and revolutions. Things could have turned out differently, he says. Such a thought puts us on notice that we are not helpless witnesses to history.

John Collier: Lilith, 1892

When I was in graduate school, social history or cultural history were all the rage, and it was widely acknowledged that diplomatic history was tedious and passé: better to focus on the sufferings of the little people, the better to advance communist revolution, or at least progressive reform. True, we  had to rely upon court records and other non-literary sources, for common people did not always leave diaries or similar source materials, inarticulate as they were often held to be,  but that made them all the more amenable to our sympathies. What diplomatic or military history is, however, is labor intensive and demanding, for without the study of economics and finance, it is impossible to write about wars (or revolutions) at all. Not surprisingly, Niall Ferguson rapidly climbed to the top of his profession, having acquired these skills as part of his academic training,  and then applied them in books directed not only to colleagues, but to a general public.  The latter is a radical move in itself. (None of what I have written about NF implies that he is indifferent to human suffering: far from it.)

Niall Ferguson

But Ferguson is the exception. Our major historians (the ones with jobs) are too often an elevated version of the sob sister, attuned to the dreadful ways that wars affect ordinary people. Surely this was Martha Gellhorn’s strong point in her fiction and journalism. And she did it with competence and audacity, often risking her life to get to the fighting fronts where the mayhem could be seen up close and personal, and her indignation and compassion displayed.

The reason for this particular blog is to criticize the lamentable turn solely toward “compassion”  in both journalism and in academe. Are we not losing the capacity to pinpoint the causes of conflict? For instance, journalists affiliated with the Democratic Party and/or the Left are ignoring the Constitutional implications of Obama’s executive order to grant work permits to a class of young illegal aliens, a move by POTUS that is widely read by his critics to be a play for “the Hispanic vote.” Meanwhile, television news leads us to rejoice with the Latina UCLA graduate, educated at state expense, who feels a burden of anxiety magically removed. We can sing along together.

Are we more lawless than usual in 2012? Perhaps politics in America has always been corrupt, more’s the pity. Such a fine ideal, equality before the law: one set of rules for rich and poor alike. We should tell the children about it. (For more on Gellhorn’s populism see


  1. […] songwriters, filmmakers, and playwrights  celebrating the Common Man/the Salt of the Earth.  See, but also recent blogs on such figures as Edna Ferber, Oscar Hammerstein, and Martha Gellhorn. […]

    Pingback by Communist ideas go mainstream « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 19, 2012 @ 9:42 pm | Reply

  2. […] a related blog see, but also The political tactic of displaying rescued victims diverts attention away from the growth of […]

    Pingback by The Neutered State « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — July 1, 2012 @ 9:07 pm | Reply

  3. I am auditing Professor Blight’s course on the Civil War, who commented on the approach of social historians (See Maris A. Vinovskis, “Have Social Historians Lost the Civil War?”) My understanding is that this approach actually concentrates on the statistical analysis of death notices and other local records, which seems to require as much effort on the part of the historian as analyzing diplomatic correspondence and the history of legislation. Sometimes the actual experiences of things like slavery and the horrors of the first modern war can only really be found in the diaries and correspondence of the participants. I would rather hear their accounts than the impressions of a modern academic. Jonah Goldberg was on C-Span this weekend and he mentioned how Bush 43 ran as a “compassionate conservative” , thus distancing himself from those nasty right-wing extremists and capturing the center in the course of a successful presidential campaign. I imagine that no politician ever lost an election by admitting that his own humanity and compassion could triumph over his ideological convictions. A cheap trick, but I forgive them. It’s just the kind of human, compassionate person I am. Thanks for another great thought-provoking post.

    Comment by Erik Anderson — June 22, 2012 @ 12:53 am | Reply

    • Most practicing historians work hard and have, until recently, traveled to archives and lived in uncomfortable surroundings. The point of my blog was not to dismiss social history, but to question its ideological effects, which focuses the reader on victims rather than those individuals and/or social forces that cause wars and mass death. As for “compassionate conservatism”, it is well to recall that T.R. was the first Progressive president and that the movement was bipartisan.

      Comment by clarespark — June 22, 2012 @ 1:09 am | Reply

  4. There are different strands here pulling in different directions, but the main thrust seems to be an insistence on a more academically credible history against one whose appeal is more to compassion, and which fails to meet the highest standards of academic rigour.

    If so, what would you say against the point that Nietzsche has to make in his essay “The Use and Abuse of History for Life”? From the first paragraph: “…we need history. But we need it in a manner different from the way in which the spoilt idler in the garden of knowledge uses it, no matter how elegantly he may look down on our coarse and graceless needs and distresses. That is, we need it for life and for action, not for a comfortable turning away from life…”

    Two examples come to mind. Robert Hughes presented a lovely series of programmes nearly three decades ago about the history of art. The history was compelling for me because Hughes articulated a perception (that I also shared) of the death of art. That perception/judgement is highly controversial at a time when the market is flooded with art, and the rigorous historian might well wish to avoid that and stick to the less controversial contacts between artists and their influences. As a citizen (not an academic) deafened by the silence of art, I view a history that papers over that “fact” as itself dead – a thing of purely academic interest, which – arguably – history should not be. I need people like Robert Hughes to raise to a concept that once inchoate feeling that things are out of joint, and to tell a convincing story about how this came to be.

    Second example: Soon someone will write the history of Greece’s exit from the eurozone. As a democrat (with sympathies, but also with beliefs and ideals that are themselves the residues of thousands of years of history) it is important to note that there was not a referendum in Greece concerning the terms of the original bailout agreement. Presumably, because this is something that didn’t happen, and because the non-event did not influence subsequent events, it is something that a rigorous academic could ignore or briefly mention in passing. By contrast, an alternative history could be guided by a burning perception of a whole series of missed opportunities/non-events (the referendum being one of them). There is no reason why such a history would necessarily have to be sloppy just because it accepts that it is written from a perspective that is internal to the thing being described.

    Comment by Torn Halves — June 19, 2012 @ 9:49 am | Reply

    • I remember the Hughes series too (I think it was called “Shock of the New”), Modern art criticism seems to be an example of Clare’s point. I cancelled my subscription to the old Artforum magazine because it seemed like modern art was treated just as a jumping off point for useless discussions of academic fads and impressions which had become more important than the art itself. Artists seemed to come into prominence solely for their use as fodder for ostentatious displays of vocabulary and hipness, which was really what was being offered to the reader. How did this disintegration of art in the service of criticism occur? Shouldn’t the examination of the hard facts of the formal interrelationships of the art industry, academia and the media critics take precedence over vague, discussions of societal malaise or the corruption of twentieth century capitalism? But I agree, wrenching, traumatic events cannot be accurately recounted without an exposition of its inner significance to the populace, whether it be slavery, the collapse of an art form, or the economic collapse of a nation. Clare is also right about the growing popularity of victim’s status in all parts of our life. I myself have been victimized by this victim stuff, and I think I deserve lots of pity and attention, if not financial compensation, for my hurt feelings. I know you will all sympathize, whatever the quality of my own decisions have been.

      Comment by Erik Anderson — June 22, 2012 @ 2:44 am | Reply

  5. […] a related blog see More irrationalism in our political […]

    Pingback by Before Saul Alinsky: Rules for Democratic Politicians « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 18, 2012 @ 8:00 pm | Reply

  6. Clare,
    I have been reading your blog for several years, off and on. I need to take the time to read it all. Thanks for the insight into areas of study that I am autodidactic on.


    Comment by Jay Streb — June 17, 2012 @ 9:15 pm | Reply

    • No matter how many academic degrees we get, we are all autodidacts in most areas that matter. The great thing is to be open to changing one’s mind in the light of new knowledge, even if it is embarrassing. In my own experience, I find that I am constantly reconfiguring problems and events that I had not questioned before. Thanks for your interest and support.

      Comment by clarespark — June 17, 2012 @ 9:20 pm | Reply

  7. […] segments and see part one for details. Added 6-15-12: for my views of Gellhorn's achievements see […]

    Pingback by Ernest Hemingway and Gellhorn in China, 1941 (2) « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 16, 2012 @ 10:48 pm | Reply

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