Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Utility of Using Google to Find Medieval History in the News

I'm an "Americanist" but I have to admit that I have the most fun digging into the history of Late Antiquity/Early Middle Ages. About a year ago, I set up three key-word alerts via Googles news spider: "Dark Ages", "medieval" and "medievalist". I figured they'd give me a heads-up for interesting stories that may crop up from time to time. The results have been interesting, and maybe even illustrative.

By far, the most predictable results have been related to the "medievalist" search term. Pretty much every story is about some professor who will be giving a talk somewhere or who has written a book. "Medieval" has also been predictable, but for different reasons. While many of the stories (this is anecdotal, I didn't keep stats) were about various topics in medieval history, I could always count on a story or two about the "Medieval Warm Period" showing up. In the debate about global warming, the MWP has a large role to play. Nonetheless, using "medieval" (or a permutation) does provide good results.

And then there's "Dark ages." Rarely do stories containing this term actually have anything to do with medieval history. Mostly, it's used as a rhetorical pejorative against something or other that the author believes is backwards or barbaric. As such, it's essentially useless as a search term for finding new stories on medieval matters.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Quick Guide to History of Conservatism

Fred Hutchinson offers up the history of 5 strains of conservatism. I excerpt those that have medieval roots:
1) Traditionalist conservatism (first appeared in the 8th century BC)...

Medieval: Venerated heroes and saints. Defended the honor of the family. Viewed the family as a community of souls, living and dead, stretching back to the primordial past. Lived in tightly woven communities of long continuance. The ancients were seen as giants in wisdom in contrast to their own modest understanding. Venerated the literary classics. Taught the seven liberal arts.

3) Christian conservatism (1st century AD)

Roman and Medieval: Marriage, family, church, community and government are ordained of God for our good and we are obliged to submit to these institutions. The government must fight evil. "Christendom," or Christ's kingdom, is gradually being formulated in society as God works through the church. The church has a mission for the spiritual formation of souls. It also has a mission to educate the people, to develop the leaders of society and to sponsor culture. Man is fallen and needs redemption, restraint, and holy fear. For "athletes of Christ," the potential for personal holiness is great.


4) Natural law conservatism (13th century)

Aquinas, Locke and Montesquieu. Also called "classical liberalism." Man has a nature according to the Creator's design. By nature he is entitled to certain freedoms and bound by certain duties. Human reason is the means by which we discover these rights and the duties. The universal moral law and the laws of nature are binding upon man. The main role of government is to protect human rights. There are certain activities such as the police and the military which government can offer but men cannot provide for themselves. The legitimate role of government is limited. Men form a social contract with government — men will submit to government and government will protect their rights.
The missing are 2) Neoconservatism and 5) Libertarianism. Interestingly, of the 5, my own conservatism is a mix of the three above.

Congress Locks up the Kennewick Man, AHA Missing In Action Again

National Review editorializes:
[U]nder the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) — a well-meaning law passed in 1990 — tribes can lay claim to cultural objects and human remains locked away in federally funded museums or unearthed on federal land. In order to do so, they must prove a reasonable connection between themselves and the objects they wish to obtain.

When Kennewick Man came to light, a coalition of tribes in the Pacific Northwest demanded the remains under the provisions of NAGPRA. They said they wished to bury the bones, making further study impossible. The Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over Kennewick Man, took steps to comply. But then a group of prominent scientists sued. In 2004, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the scientists, pointing out that the modern tribes had failed to demonstrate an adequate link between themselves and the skeleton of a person who died more than nine millennia ago.

So the tribes turned to Congress. Two years ago, Sen. John McCain proposed altering NAGPRA’s definition of “Native American” from “of, or relating to, a tribe, people, or culture that is indigenous to the United States.” The new language would add two words: “...is, or was, indigenous...” McCain’s efforts failed, in part because of public objections. But now the change has slipped through in a bill of “technical corrections” that the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee has just approved.
While this is technically archaeology, shouldn't the AHA be interested? Where's their editorial arguing for safeguarding the profession and ensuring that we have timely access to items of the historical record (like Executive Orders that lengthen the duration of sealed Presidential records)? Would there be outrage if a bunch of Northern Europeans started putting a halt to bog-people autopsies?

Friday, October 05, 2007


Peter Schramm points to a piece by Robert Kaplan about how our modern-day soldiers "want our respect, not pity" and highlights this bit:
As one battalion commander complained to me, in words repeated by other soldiers and marines: ’Has anyone noticed that we now have a volunteer Army? I’m a warrior. It’s my job to fight.’ Every journalist has a different network of military contacts. Mine come at me with the following theme: We want to be admired for our technical proficiency--for what we do, not for what we suffer. We are not victims. We are privileged.
Kaplan led into this by explaining that our modern media coverage of the war "too often descends into therapy for those who are not fighting, rather than matter-of-fact stories related by those who are." Later, he offers a heroic example and portrays how media coverage has changed:
The first Medal of Honor in the global war on terror was awarded posthumously to Army Sgt. First Class Paul Ray Smith of Tampa, Fla., who was killed under withering gunfire protecting his wounded comrades outside Baghdad airport in April 2003.

According to LexisNexis, by June 2005, two months after his posthumous award, his stirring story had drawn only 90 media mentions, compared with 4,677 for the supposed Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay, and 5,159 for the court-martialed Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England. While the exposure of wrongdoing by American troops is of the highest importance, it can become a tyranny of its own when taken to an extreme.

Media frenzies are ignited when American troops are either the perpetrators of acts resulting in victimhood, or are victims themselves. Meanwhile, individual soldiers daily performing complicated and heroic deeds barely fit within the strictures of news stories as they are presently defined. This is why the sporadic network and cable news features on heroic soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan comes across as so hokey. After all, the last time such reports were considered "news" was during World War II and the Korean War.

In particular, there is Fox News's occasional series on war heroes, whose apparent strangeness is a manifestation of the distance the media has traveled away from the nation-state in the intervening decades. Fox's war coverage is less right-wing than it is simply old-fashioned, antediluvian almost. Fox's commercial success may be less a factor of its ideological base than of something more primal: a yearning among a large segment of the public for a real national media once again--as opposed to an international one. Nationalism means patriotism, and patriotism requires heroes, not victims.

In a post elsewhere, in which I discussed Ken Burn's "The War", I discussed how changes in the media had changed how we perceived war.
Yet the most striking thing [Katherine Phillips] said was that she didn't know how bad Guadalcanal was until after Sidney [her brother] came home. No one on the homefront did. The 5,000+ casualties weren't reported. The brutal fighting wasn't shown on Movietone.

In contrast, Katherine Phillips also talked about how the American public had been prepped for war against Nazi Germany for a few years prior to Pearl Harbor. The American public was shown some of the Nazi and Japanese atrocities on Movietone and they became convinced it was a moral imperative to act. When the time came, they were ready to go.

They also didn't equate Nazi or Japanese propaganda with U.S. war reporting. Looking back, there can be no doubt that the U.S. glossed over things. But even then, even if the American people had known more, I doubt that they would have considered the press releases of the enemy as just "another point of view." It points to how much faster and accurate our wartime information has become since then and that difference helps to explain, at least partially, why WWII is considered "The Good War" and why subsequent conflicts aren't.

But Kaplan's point about lost nationalism gets much closer to the difference between then and now. As we've internationalize and become more relativistic--sorry, we are--it is more difficult to choose sides, even if on one side is your own country. As Kaplan concludes:
[W]hile the U.S. still has a national military, it no longer has a national media to quite the same extent. The media is increasingly representative of an international society, whose loyalty to a particular territory is more and more diluted. That international society has ideas to defend--ideas of universal justice--but little actual ground. And without ground to defend, it has little need of heroes. Thus, future news cycles will also be dominated by victims.

The media is but one example of the slow crumbling of the nation-state at the upper layers of the social crust--a process that because it is so gradual, is also deniable by those in the midst of it. It will take another event on the order of 9/11 or greater to change the direction we are headed. Contrary to popular belief, the events of 9/11--which are perceived as an isolated incident--did not fundamentally change our nation. They merely interrupted an ongoing trend toward the decay of nationalism and the devaluation of heroism.

The Fallacy of the unchanging Dark Ages

The Dark Ages was a 1,000 year period of "no change" according to this guy:

For most of human history, change has been the exception. Our ancestors for nearly a million years used one basic tool, a hand axe chipped out of stone. They made these axes the same way, every time. Theirs was a culture in neutral.

The Dark Ages were likewise unblemished by change. For a thousand years, there was almost no invention, no new ideas and no exploration. Literacy was actively discouraged. Anything that might pass for progress was outlawed.
Yikes. How did we possibly, um, change then...if there was no change. Methinks the man should listen to Terry Jones before making those kinds of statements:

Q You write that our view of medieval life is unduly grim because historians maligned the period. It's easy to see why a nobleman might want to burnish his image by commissioning a writer to vilify a predecessor, but who would benefit from a campaign to disparage an era?

A A very interesting question. Well, in the first place, it would have been the thinkers of the Renaissance, who wanted to establish a break with the past. They also wanted to establish their own sense of importance by belittling what had gone before. This then gets taken up by the promoters of Renaissance culture who are keen to establish its supremacy over the medieval world -- particularly since the Renaissance is a backward-looking movement which harks back to the classical world rather than establishing something new.

In the 20th and 21st century, Renaissance values have been adapted to fit the modern capitalist world. The whole myth that there was no sense of human individuality before the Renaissance is part of this attempt to make the present day seem the culmination of human progress, which I don't think it is.

Q Then how did the unrealistic stereotypes of the noble knight and the ignorant, downtrodden peasant originate and why have they persisted?

A Well, undoubtedly you did have proud and unfeeling aristocrats who treated the peasants like dirt. Also, the Middle Ages is a wide span of time, and there were times and places where the peasantry would undoubtedly have been downtrodden and ignorant. So there is a basis for all that. But the little bit of history I'm interested in -- late 14th century England -- saw a rise in education and the pursuit of knowledge amongst ordinary people -- partly it was a result of the Black Death and the fact there were so few people around that everyone was questioning everything. But it was a time of intellectual activity amongst all classes. Much more so than today.

Q Washington Irving, who gave us "Rip van Winkle," apparently also contributed some fabrications that still distort our view of medieval life?

A Yes. He seems to have been responsible to a large degree for promoting the myth that people in the Middle Ages thought the Earth was flat and that this formed part of Church doctrine. It never did, and people didn't think the world was flat. Chaucer himself talks about "this world that men say is round." There's a fascinating book called "Inventing the Flat Earth" by Jeffrey Burton Russell, which sets the whole story out.

Q What does this tell us about the trustworthiness of historians, in general? Do you have any advice on how to spot a sound or flawed account of the past? Is there such a thing as history or only histories?

A Well, I think you're right that there is no such monolith as "history" in the singular. I think every age writes its own histories and I think it's important that they do. It's how we help to define ourselves and to know who and where we are. I don't think there is any rule of thumb to spot distorted history any more than there is to spot distorted news that we read today in the press or watch on TV.

The main thing is to be aware that the makers of "spin" are at work today just as much as they were in the Middle Ages or at any time in human history. It's all a bit like a detective story. We have to look for the motives behind what leaders do rather than take at face value the reasons that they give us. It's just the same with history.

Yup. And that's why I named this blog "Spinning Clio."

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Why a Family Guy Won't Get a History PhD Any time soon

When I went back to school to get a degree in History for the fun of it, I thought (naively) that getting an MA was a logical first step. But as I progressed--and despite urgings from various prof's to go for the PhD, practical considerations came into play. First, assuming I could get into a "local" (ie; southern New England) History PhD program, it would be too expensive and take too long (h/t Ralph) for a guy trying to raise a family.
For those who attempt it, the doctoral dissertation can loom on the horizon like Everest, gleaming invitingly as a challenge but often turning into a masochistic exercise once the ascent is begun. The average student takes 8.2 years to get a Ph.D.... Fifty percent of students drop out along the way, with dissertations the major stumbling block. At commencement, the typical doctoral holder is 33, an age when peers are well along in their professions, and 12 percent of graduates are saddled with more than $50,000 in debt.
Well, since I started my MA at 34, I was already behind the curve! Oh well. I may not have been elite enough (via PhDinHistory) anyway:
First, doctoral students in history have come and continue to come disproportionately from relatively privileged family backgrounds. Second, the proportion and number of students in doctoral programs from first-generation college families is declining. This trend—if the weak data are sufficient to speak of a real trend—is relevant to both diversity and opportunity questions. And the data point to a third, more speculative point. The uncertainty of employment in history may be discouraging students from first-generation college families from pursuing history careers. One can understand their preference for more secure career paths, but the profession loses vitality and students of potential lose an opportunity to pursue what may be to them a substantively if not practically appealing life work.
Neither of my parents got their B.A., but all of their children have. For myself, I always loved history. Heck, in high school, I wanted to be a History teacher and a HS Soccer coach. But my parents steered me into engineering because, as they pragmatically pointed out, there is always a need for engineers. They were right. Sure, I still like History, but a PhD wasn't even on my radar coming out of High School.

Besides, being an engineer led to financial stability such that I could finally scratch that itch and get the MA. But the PhD just isn't practical for me right now, even though I'd absolutely love to do it.

PhDinHistory adds (check out his charts that illustrate the below):
I think we should be concerned by the way that history has suddenly become more elitist than almost every other major discipline in the humanities and social sciences. Like the authors in The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century, I worry that history faculty will have less and less in common with their students. I am concerned also that smart history majors from lower- and lower-middle-class households will be increasingly steered away from entering graduate programs in history. Lastly, I share the fear of the authors that this problem stems, at least in part, from the mismatch between PhD production and the demand for history faculty in the job market.
I think he's right on. Many of those "smart history majors from lower- and lower-middle-class households" already survived the temptations of following other, potentially more lucrative educational paths. They need to be encouraged to keep climbing the ivory towers. More diversity and more perspectives will strengthen profession. And maybe someday, people who have lived a portion of their adult life outside of the ivy walls will be better able to open the gates and climb the tower stairs.