Wednesday, May 17, 2006



The latest edition of the History Carnival is up at Airminded. Buckle your seatbelts!

Sepoy has a must-read manifesto for historians at Chapati Mystery. It is an extended riff on an essay by the recently deceased Jaroslav Pelikan, "The Historian as Polyglot" (JSTOR subscription required; the essay appears in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 137 [1993]).

Pelikan argues that "the historian's ability to move back and forth between past and present is analogous to the ability to handle more than one language, and ... the historian needs to be able to speak both 'past-ese' and 'present-ese.'" He then describes the historian as an interpreter, who tries to make the past "intelligible" to a present-day audience, primarily by enabling them to momentarily suspend their disbelief that our ancestors actually believed the things that they did. My own favorite quote from the Pelikan essay:

My own favorite quote from the Pelikan essay:
Almost no one, perhaps, is so completely bilingual or polyglot as to have shed every trace of accent in every language. ... So also ... there will still be a trace, or considerably more than a trace, of present-ese in the way any historian speaks past-ese. Pretending that it is not there is the self-delusion of objectivist historians in the past and in the present; but pretending that it vitiates the entire historical enterprise is the self-delusion of a solipsistic existentialism ... which is so turned in upon itself that it is incapable of suspending disbelief ...
Finally, Scrivener makes a good point about the apparent indifference of many Americans to President Bush's use of the NSA to keep tabs on their phone calls:
Any of the Republicans who're so busy defending the administration on this one and explaining why it's so important for the government to have such completely unchecked power willing to go on record that they believe future Democratic presidents should continue to have the power to spy on every single American citizen, including candidates from the GOP and journalists and CEOs and regular, everyday, law-abiding gun owners?
Snark aside, that's a serious question. It's one thing for the administration's defenders to say, "We don't have anything to hide." But what happens when the executive branch decides to change what it's looking for? Suppose a President decides that domestic gun violence is a threat to national security and starts to indiscriminately gather private phone records to trace networks of gun sales. Then, no doubt, some of the people who currently "have nothing to hide" suddenly would. And that's why this is a matter that should rise above partisan politics. This is why civil liberties have to be a matter of principle and procedural justice -- because administrations come and go, and they each bring their own agendas with them. If that agenda includes a desire to stamp out terrorists or guns or [fill in the blank], that's fine: but let the agenda be debated and executed in public view. If an administration has nothing to hide, it won't be so spooked by the scrutiny of its constituents.

Collective Improvisation:

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