Are We Experts Yet? Historians on the Street
I am really pleased to be able to introduce a post from the pseudonymous JP Schneider, who in the middle of tapping out his dissertation gives answer to the question: what role can historians hope to play as “experts” on contemporary historical events, such as the recent revolutions in the Middle East? -Luce
by JP Schneider
There is an alarming but nonetheless unsurprising degree of historical myopia amongst journalists, commentators, pundits, 24-hour news networks and “experts” on the convulsions that are sweeping the crumbling dictatorships in North Africa and the “Middle East”. Many are prone to suggesting that this is an Arab version of 1989, a lazy parallel that paints the Arabs as a singular, monolithic entity, and that the systems that oppressed these people in various states somehow possess a uniformly similar economic-political system that benighted those countries – and soon-to-be countries – under the Soviet boot. So what can historians who study the region bring to bear on public understandings of what is happening at the moment, an especially pertinent question given the criticisms leveled at Middle Eastern studies departments in the US for failing to predict such seminal events as the 1979 Iranian Revolution?
The answer, of course, is relatively little. This shouldn’t be mistaken for the cry of a post-modernist; while it has its uses, post-modernism is ultimately an invitation to get lost in linguistic and methodological contortions and disappear down the rabbit hole of futility. Rather, the point I am making is a relevant corrective to those who are trotted out, whether in the academy or in the media, as having a more informed viewpoint than the rest of us helots.
And this speaks to a broader issue about the way in which historians do their research. Let’s say we are an historian of Egypt, or indeed, for that matter, Germany. What does that research entail? We spend most of our time sitting in archives because we don’t have the time (or the money) to get out and get talking to a wide variety of people. We may be lucky and have the benefit of a wide variety of contacts in our country of choice that we can draw on to get an “authentic” view. But how representative are they? If we’re researching nineteenth century trade unionism in Egypt or Germany, how many trade unionists do we know or speak to while we’re there on that oh-too-brief research trip? Yet as soon as we’re back in our citadels of learning we are drawn on as the repository of knowledge – historical and contemporary – on unfolding situations in our areas of expertise. Think about the situation with the higher echelons within the academy. Sure they have many more years of in-country experience, and a vast network of contacts, but how much faith should we place in the pronouncements of those with named chairs? When was the last time Juan Cole (much as I respect him) visited Egypt?
Should historians even be trying to gauge the present-day situation in their chosen country? Of course they should. The consequences of events and trends that occur in the past are all around us today. The Turkish kebab shop that sold you that deliciously unhealthy piece of meat: one small portion of the history of the Gastarbeiter. The many taxi drivers in Cairo, highly educated yet unable to find a job commensurate with their qualifications: the stagnation of the (late) Mubarak regime.
So what, I hear you cry as you stab the laptop screen in disgust and dismay. Simply this. As historians we should spend less time in archives and more time making the most of the countries we are temporary visitors in. The book or journal article can be delayed a little while. Interactions – whether snatched moments or lingering conversations – with our fellow men and women cannot. Ultimately, the scholarly work we produce will be richer for it. We might even be lucky enough to be there when history is being made in front of us.