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 https://clarespark.com/2011/06/30/ernest-hemingway-and-gellhorn-in-china-1941-2/.)

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