Title graphic of the Moonspeaker website. Small title graphic of the Moonspeaker website.

Where some ideas are stranger than others...


The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...


Frontispiece of Ferdinand Denis' 1857 book *Histoire de l'Ornementation des manuscrits*, courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com. Frontispiece of Ferdinand Denis' 1857 book *Histoire de l'Ornementation des manuscrits*, courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com.
Frontispiece of Ferdinand Denis' 1857 book Histoire de l'Ornementation des manuscrits, courtesy of oldbookillustrations.com.


When all else fails, run down the humanities, those areas of interest and study not so subtly coded as "sissy" and "useless" in our supposedly "science-technology-engineering-mathematics" only world. Few tactics build a speaker's credibility as fast under the present conditions, and material to do the work with abounds, no need to search. Read a leftist pamphlet about why restaurants should be banned, which explains how most servers have useless humanities degrees, especially in history or art history, and utterly hate their customers. Flip open the latest orthodox mainstream newspaper or magazine, therefore at minimum central right in political orientation, crowing about falling enrolment in the presumed vocationally useless humanities. No mention made of a demographic trough underlying much of the drop, let alone economic distress in families and incessant psychological bullying used to deflect as many potential students from the humanities as possible. Never mind constant cuts to supposed educational frills like humanities classes throughout all levels of education, slowly recreating societies in which "the humanities" count among the playthings reserved for the rich. Reduced to a focus on the absolutely necessary and utilitarian, society in general is supposed to turn up its nose at anything providing entertainment, interest, or beauty unless bought and paid for as a capitalist product. Pick a pundit in any time or place in north america to learn about the complete irrelevance of history because supposedly we live now in the best of all worlds ever and all social, political, and economic change not only impossible but a positive evil should it somehow be possible. In fact, history is now apparently so irrelevant it must remain under the control of a few people who make up the core staff of a narrow range of think tanks, lobby groups, and political organizations whose desperation to control general knowledge about and interpretation of history is quite remarkable. Remarkable, yet it should not surprise us that this is the outcome of the destructive combination of millenarianism, authoritarianism, and bald greed. It should not surprise us, because despite literally centuries of effort to prevent us knowing about it by plenty of people besides historians, even more historians and other contributors both scholarly and non-scholarly have ensured that we don't have to be. We already know how this movie plays out, if we let it, if we check our own histories. Those histories even tell us how to stop the movie and do something else.

Part of where our troubles begin right now is in language, specifically the dishonest abuse of language that depends specifically upon cutting people off from historical knowledge to start with. More than once I have had to insist that the people I am working with hunt for definitions using an actual dictionary, not a web-based search which often leads them to wikipedia or such interesting but entirely trustworthy projects as the "urban dictionary." Here again, it is important to start by laying out the definitions applied here, and for that it is necessary to draw back and start with some assistance from the OED. Although the OED is by no means completely unbiassed, because it is intended to reflect what words mean historically and in practical use rather than telling people what they should mean, it manages to capture important information with less bias than would otherwise be the case. To properly understand "historical thinking" and why so much effort is going into persuading us we shouldn't be doing it, we need to get back to some early ideas in education that were adapted from the ancient romans.

The first idea of these is that of the "liberal arts," which as the OED definition notes, applies "art" in a much broader way than many of us are used to anymore. The liberal arts include what presently are often divided into the arts and sciences, meaning "literature, philosophy, mathematics, and social and physical sciences." The original contrast is between these areas of study and the training and study entailed in working in "professional and technical subjects." The colloquial definition I am familiar with takes as "a professional" anyone paid for work that demands some type of focussed training such that the "professional" couldn't simply be replaced by a raw new hire the next morning. More narrowly, many of us have heard of "professional designations" necessary in certain fields in order to practice legally, meaning receiving full legal protections from dissatisfied clients and the right to call yourself a certain type of professional. The most well-known such professions are lawyer, medical doctor, engineer, land surveyor, and notary. From what I can gather "technical" is more about what must be learned by apprenticeship and may involve much less by way of book study. This suggests how engineering was originally understood, and the various recognized trades, such as plumbing, electric wiring, carpentry, and so on. What made the "liberal arts" "liberal" by ancient roman lights was that they were available to and "worthy of" a "free man." Both words meaning exactly what they say, a person who was not a slave and was an adult human male. In the ancient roman context, a free man was specifically one who did not deign to do manual labour, which in that time meant that even if a man wasn't officially a slave, most of what we now call trades were considered beneath a truly "free man."

As my OED adds in its etymological section, "liberal" later "related to general intellectual development rather than vocational training." Here is an infamous binary often conflated with claims that people who take vocational training over "improving their minds" are in fact incapable of intellectual growth or training. Yet when I trace the definition of "vocational training," I read that this simply means that the training involved is directed specifically to a "particular occupation and its skills." By that definition, any training of any kind could be applied to an occupation and its relevant skills, and indeed we see that in practice as whatever "hot job of the moment" varies over time. Yet there is also a clashing claim coming from way back, that whatever a "fre man" studies to improve his mind, it should be useless to day to day survival. Hence the repeated attempts to keep philosophy and classics alike as degrees useless for getting a job, but excellent for demonstrating membership in the "upper class" because they are a form of conspicuous consumption. I suspect it frustrated the living hell out of the people committed to this construction of philosophy and classics when both kept turning out to be not only of persistent interest and accessibility to the non-rich despite everything, they also had genuinely useful elements. Philosophers wrestle constantly with real social questions and how to balance conflicting needs, wants, and desires. Many people trained in classics wind up not as classicists but as historians, and history keeps coming in handy, and not just military and political history either. It is telling that the same people who are certain that everyone should be forced into vocational training according to their narrow definition are the same ones who insist that "the poor" have no business taking part in politics and social decision making overall.

Since "liberal arts" spans practically all human knowledge, after awhile different people wanted to talk about specific areas without dragging in all the others. Logically enough, they tried to divide them into subcategories, although they can't be as completely cut apart from one another as idealized categories suggest. One early category is that of "the humanities," which according to the more fulsome OED online originally meant what we would call "the classics" or "greek and roman studies" now. Meanwhile, in the more common present meaning, which comes from the early nineteenth century, "the humanities" are "learning or literature concerned with human culture, especially literature, history, art, music, and philosophy." Around the same period, William Whewell coined the term "scientist" and so indirectly "science" as a term for "the systematic study of the natural world through observation and experiment." The humanities are set apart in the main by the raw difficulty of performing experiments, as these are often either impossible (i.e. we can't rerun past historical events the way we can rerun physics experiments) or deeply unethical (i.e. deliberately raising a child in isolation to see whether certain philosophical ideas are true). It's a false dichotomy, though comparison and contrast is a broadly helpful starting point when learning about these subjects.

With this information before us, we can better see what is behind the fierce conflict over "vocational" versus "intellectual" training, which is another false dichotomy. What we are actually seeing is a proxy argument over power, who has it over who, and therefore about class relationships and their maintenance or alteration. The people who currently see themselves as elites are overtly certain that they got there by being superior human beings who laboured and excelled and so are now super-rich and in control of most major decision making bodies of all types, as well as monopolizing force. Covertly, they know good and damned well that in the main they are people who come from already wealthy families who could finance their way into positions of power. By this I do not mean bribery, although that could be a tactic. Not at all. I mean those rich families can cough up the money to support long internships for their younger members that carry no salaries, keep those young people out of educational debt, bankroll their more or less dubious start ups, and boost them into a lucrative starting job via their connections with other rich people. Bribery is hardly necessary in such a system, and the families with riches and influence scratch one another's backs, as we would anticipate. That's what social animals do among their friend groups, it is not a new thing at all. The question we humans face is the social pathologies that come with our present economic system, and sorting out whether persistent claims from the wealthy "one to five percent" that the poor must simply be inferior in their intelligence or else their capacity to work, so they are poor should be given any weight. Funny enough, both science and the humanities keep indicating that these claims should get no weight at all and therefore be seen as the self-serving nonsense they are.

The study of history, and historical thinking in general are important to making sense of what is happening right now and supporting the critical thinking necessary to face up to our present day problems. No matter how badly the self-defined elite want to believe myths about "the elect" whom they believe themselves to be will escape the worst by being raptured from the Earth or will inevitably be worshiped as deities and eternal rulers for being "the elect" who will serve as messiahs who magically solve all problems, history has repeatedly shown up these myths. Critical thinking helps us sort out when the myths are being waved at us, when we are being lied to, and how we need to work together if we are going to get ourselves out of destructive patterns and take appropriate care of the outcomes of mistakes already made. But that means breaking the power of "elites" and their shaky belief in their own inherent power and importance. Of course they'd rather nobody was equipped to do that or ask any questions. What they'd prefer is a universal service and validation machine.


There is at least one more definition still left outstanding to take care of, and that is of "history" itself. The fact that people argue furiously about it across all manner of social fractures and its invocation by different groups under various conditions shows us some very important things about it. "History" whatever it is, has some remarkable superpowers, which luckily help to delineate what it is. It is worth considering these, and then cycling back to what the OED has to say about the meaning of the word. The superpowers include but are not limited to:

  • validate present behaviour based on past behaviour;
  • connect people in the present to ancestors in the past, even ancestors not literally related to them;
  • preserves awkward narratives about famous people in the past;
  • preserves the fame of past influential persons.

Right away we can see that "history" consists of narratives about the past. That is probably the broadest definition we can give, without reverting to its origins in the ancient greek word "historia," which just means a narrative or learning gained by examination or inquiry. So history is about the past, specifically past events that for whatever reason more than a few people felt it important to preserve and hand down. There is a powerful element of chance involved, as methods of transmission may break down, and we humans are notoriously unable to completely agree on what is important enough to remember and how. Accordingly, many people would immediately want to constrain this definition in myriad ways, but for our starting purposes here, it is more than adequate. The OED definition states:

1. the study of past events, particularly human affairs;
2. the whole series of past events connected with someone or something;
3. a continuous, typically chronological, record of important public events or of a particular trend or institution.

There are some helpful nuances here, not least the reminder that when we humans study and record history, really, we are studying ourselves. This brings in all the challenges of striving to report truthfully and as without bias as possible, which is notoriously hard even for the most scrupulously honourable. This is where post-structuralist critiques can get their purchase, because we can't help being human and reporting what we see through our own lenses. Hence historians past and present have endeavoured to identify and report on their lenses too, and of course, some have actively tried to pretend they haven't got any. Another nuance I would like to call attention to here is the lack of two things: a conflation of history with writing, and any claim that there can only be one history. Neither of these is as hypermodern or new as we are encouraged to believe. Even if we start from Herodotus, we learn from him that he interviewed people, and reported stories handed down by oral tradition as well as via documents and monuments. Nor did he trust oral reports blindly, he noted when he was unsure if the account was accurate, or when he he was reasonably sure because he had seen corroborating evidence, including the places referenced in the accounts. That he took such steps reveals contested histories are anything but new either.

Furthermore, history's "superpowers" are contingent. They only exist when enough people believe in the credibility and relevance of the historical narratives and analyses they are reading or hearing.

The study of history is a good example of why "humanities" and "science" are not so simple to separate as might be expected. Herodotus collected more than one account of a range of past events. To sort them out and decide for himself which of them was more plausible, and occasionally in order to propose his own alternative account, he sought corroborating evidence, and weighed probabilities. Scientists do this all the time when sorting out the vexed question of when two events are causally related versus merely correlated. Whether we think Herodotus was a good historian or not, his own account and ongoing archaeological work and other sources of contemporary and near-contemporary evidence to his time demonstrate that he was applying the skills we expect historians (or any scholar) to apply today. In person observation and data collection, not accepting the data at face value but analysing and testing it, then taking steps to record and preserve his results for sharing with others. Furthermore, he is contributing to a conversation, as suggested by his concern that if he doesn't record and analyse these things he believes are important, they may be forgotten. So we could add explicitly that history, as an object of study and a way to record and hand down information about the past, is a social endeavour entailing relationships between people.

I suggest that "historical thinking" is an application of the same skills as Herodotus did, including using narratives about past events to help make sense of the present, what we should do in the present, and make educated guesses about likely future outcomes of what we do now. On one hand the basic techniques are simple, but getting from studying history to applying history is anything but simple. The lack of cut and dried answers is what helps generate considerable discontent about history as a field of study, historical narratives, and historians. When an influential person or group, or group of people who think they should be influential lose patience with history, the problem for them often turns out to be that their preferred historical narrative is not adequately supported by evidence. Stuck with the unwanted challenge of somehow hiding or debunking evidence that does not lend itself to either action, history becomes a serious source of frustration. The kind of frustration that led Plato to entertain the idea of a so-called "noble lie" to shore up the idealized city-state run by philosopher-kings in the Republic. In other words, history is far from trivial because it is inextricably tied up with questions of social power, who has it, how they use it, and how and why we rationalize those arrangements. Among many great difficulties with this is that even determined efforts to shore up present day arrangements may end up undermining and challenging accepted views of a given history. For this reason, we can find repeated instances of people endeavouring to keep certain events and people out of history all together as means to prevent them from destabilizing belief in the rightness of their society's arrangements. What makes history such a wonderful tool is that it can demonstrate that humans and our societies can change. For a non-trivial number of people, that is also precisely what is wrong with history.

We can't take the politics out of history, and neither should we. If we try to fool ourselves that we are reading or writing apolitical history, we are in serious trouble indeed. Those are exactly the conditions under which dishonest attempts to neutralize or hide challenging events or practices in the past win a foothold. In her exploration of the development of "affect theory," Ruth Leys uncovers a fascinating sequence of scholars and activist-scholars talking past one another, insular citation practices allowing the revitalization of disproved scientific hypotheses, and an uncanny shift in attitude of scholars in the humanities, including a subset of historians. Leys reflects on this in the last chapter, a revised version of her paper published in the journal Critical Inquiry published in 2011. Vexed by the resistance of such historical events as the first french revolution to any simplistic or simplifying explanation for it happening and how it developed, historians flee to claims that humans are not rational. Instead, humans merely confabulate after the fact and are driven by subliminal, emotional impulses people can neither control nor properly understand. Leaving aside the indirect claim of such authors that they are among the unusual elect who do understand such things and therefore perhaps how to manipulate them, what this represents is a total surrender. To take past events and past human action as not merely difficult to understand but impossible to understand at all is a position of such self-defeat that it boggles the mind.


This late, actually self-immolating position even as it entails a subtle claim to greater knowledge and power than anyone else would probably be a serious shock to the scholars and activists who worked on what we can term "Public History 1.0." From Edward Gibbon to the amateur historians of much of the early to mid nineteenth century in the anglosphere, they took as given that people, or at least europeans, were capable of reason. While emotion could and did play a role in politics and general social structure and change, it played that role together with reason. Neither was the sole driver of the cart, so to speak, although there was a shared consensus that in general reason should be the primary driver, especially when dealing with matters that arouse negative emotions. Overall, this is a widely appealing and commonsense type of stance. I would be very surprised if many of us could not think of examples of when we made a poor or at least not as good as we might have decision because we were upset, angry, or frightened at the time. By the same token, I would be surprised if many of us could not think of examples of when we made a less than optimal decision because we simply didn't have enough information to know and choose to do differently. Such a perspective encourages interest in historical narratives on all levels.

As Gibbon's monumental and still in print History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, acceptable history in this early period was document-based. Given the right topic and enough money for an education beyond the rudiments of reading and signing their name, anyone could delve into documents and write a narrative. In Gibbon's case, a big part of what keeps his narrative in view is his argument for the role of the catholic church in the fall of the roman empire. In the late eighteenth century, that made his work a bestseller and a boon for those who profited by printing and selling furious pamphlets, counter-books and so on to his work. Scholars still argue over his interpretations today, as they remain controversial in many areas, and of course since his time far more information has become available both in documents and in archaeological material. The establishment of archaeology as a means to fill in where documents fail in historical reconstruction and interpretation comes at least seventy years later, in mid to late nineteenth century. That came about in part from the spectacular finds by Heinrich Schliemann that demonstrated the homeric epics recorded both true and what we would now call fictional material, setting off an archaeological gold rush.

Meanwhile, the roots of anglo-historical writing in the "leisured classes" helped encourage upward-aspiring people to form historical societies in their towns. These societies sprouted up all over britain and southern ontario for instance, often collecting documents and objects into a small archive cum museum and producing a small journal of transactions from their meetings. These transactions could be as simple as speeches outlining a historical topic of interest, or as complex as presentation of an analysis of a body of documents. They could also be depended upon to produce the brief local histories that sought to list various "first white/european person to do x" all over northern north america or proudly declaim a community's former status as a roman fort or bath in britain. The results of this style of archiving and historical writing often have a fusty, dusty quality today, not least because of significant social change heralded in part by the growing availability of the printing press and growing social unrest. The not so leisured classes were growing ever more fed up with being written out of history or presented in it in ways that denied their intelligence, agency, and contributions. Of course this also coincided with the overthrow of absolutist monarchies, the growth of capitalism, and early challenges to capitalism. Quite apart from new participants in historical writing and analysis, people now had new questions, and new opportunities to access archives in public libraries and museums.

Since history and tradition were and are regularly trotted out to explain why things are the way they are and why they should not change, anyone wanting and arguing for change had to come to grips with history. Hence Karl Marx's determination to "turn Hegel on his head" thereby developing what now is generally known as historical materialism: using observed historical outcomes to test whether particular economic systems work as claimed by their proponents. He was so determined that he did his utmost to refuse any claim to have identified simple cause and effect relationships. His efforts to critique the theories of political economy of his day led him to be far more humble in the face of social and historical complexity than he is commonly given credit for. Of course, Marx was far from the only one engaged in such work, he is simply one of the most famous. In fact, we don't hear nearly enough about the remarkable volumes researched and published by women historians, many of them unable to officially acquire formal degrees due to legal and other restrictions. 1893 saw the publication of Woman, Church, and State: A Historical Account of the Status of Woman Through the Christian Ages With Reminisces of the Matriarchate, the magnum opus of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a Radical Feminist, abolitionist, and newspaper publisher who is unjustly elided from the story of how women in the united states won the right to vote. She was a major contributor to the first two volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, another late nineteenth century Feminist wrote both history and economics books in her wide ranging career. These are just two examples, but again it is no coincidence that Feminists took up the work of writing history in this period, as they had to reckon with the past and claims about the past in order to challenge accepted ideas about women and girls. In any case, the end result was that by the turn of the century, history publishing was vibrant although deeply affected by a professionalizing trend as university-credentialed men sought to control historical narrative and interpretation. They sought to do it, but it was far from easy to do. History was a regular subject in elementary and secondary school under its own name. But things changed significantly after world war one.


Among the casualties of the first world war in the anglosphere was access to making and sharing historical narratives outside of the government or the academy. Conservative elites sought to blame the histories taught in school and generally available in public for the problems the war revealed, and so they pushed hard for centralization and control. Ironically, more leftist elites shared this view, albeit with different associated political leanings. The end result by the end of world war two and through the early cold war and obsessive red baiting was that "history" became the preserve of academics in universities and government positions. Meanwhile, "history" vanished from schools in favour of the less politically dangerous "social studies" that tended to focus more on political history, stopping well away from any hint of socialism or evident connection to day to day life or the backgrounds of students expected to study it. Soon parents were protesting that their children weren't learning any history, and students grew into adults convinced that history was boring and useless. History as a profession entered a period of crisis and loss of credibility due to at minimum a perception of it being a political tool, therefore excessively biassed and under tight control of out of touch elites. Something had to be done, and a big part of that something was the resurrection of public history by activist historians coming of age as scholars during the 1960s and 1970s.

Maintaining an appropriate balance between activism and scholarship can be difficult, not least because activism has been used as one of many dishonest pretexts to call down publications that meet academic standards and hold up to reasonable scrutiny. Openly presenting history as a field of study that should include public service and real political intervention in society was now controversial, precisely because people of heterodox opinions were expounding and acting on it. Furthermore, many of these newcomers insisted that "the public" could and should participate in building archives, writing, and interpreting history. Even as older established scholars angrily demanded that these newcomers get off their lawns, other factors were running past them. Of course, a big one is the coming of age of many young adults born during the infamous post world war two baby boom. In canada, a big factor not often recognized elsewhere is the role of the hundredth anniversary of the confederation of four british colonies, combined with a widespread desire among canadians of british heritage to differentiate themselves from both british and americans. For the centennial, public funding for museums, exhibitions including expo '67, film making, publishing, and federal entities like the national film board hit levels they have never seen again since. Yet parallel movements were happening elsewhere in the anglosphere as different countries sought to reimage themselves in response to both political and economic change. This was also the period when for a time robber baron capitalists were forced to curb their predations for the sake of the greater good.

Through this period up to roughly the mid 1980s, new approaches to history garnered extensive interest and many new practitioners. This is when social, cultural, and women's history all began seriously rattling the houses of the firmly established political, military, and great man histories. Indigenous nations especially in northern north america began seeing more success in the courts, and a new label for their histories was constructed, "ethnohistory." Young scholars began actively collecting "oral histories" from those generally left out of historical records because they were not in a position to write them: the working classes. Among the familiar figures whose writing and recording began to take off in this period are Dale Spender, Studs Terkel, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Howard Zinn. It is well worth watching out for the historians who started from different disciplinary homes, including Spender who began in linguistics, political scientists such as Sheila Jeffreys, and those who saw critical gaps in synthesis of documentation in their fields. With so much new material being considered as documents for recording and reconstructing past events, including reconstructing aspects of events thought completely lost to people in the present, some scholars stepped back to reconsider just what they meant by "history" in the first place.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the famous coiner of the pithy phrase, Well-behaved women seldom make history," defined it as:

History is an account of the past based on surviving sources, but it is also a way of making sense of the present.... History is not just what happened in the past. It is what later generations chose to remember.

...If history is to enlarge our understanding of human experience, it must include stories that dismay as well as inspire. It must also include the lives of those whose presumed good behavior prevents us from taking them seriously. If well-behaved women seldom make history, it is not only because gender norms have constrained the range of female activity, but because history has been very good at capturing the lives of those whose contributions have been local and domestic.

Thatcher Ulrich also noted in explaining how she rebelled against the oppression she encountered as a woman in her field and the injustices she observed in the world, "In my scholarly work, my form of misbehavior has been to care about things that other people find predictable and boring." In this, she pointed out two tell-tale labels regularly used to turn people away from looking more carefully at important details. After all, if they are actually predictable and boring, if they do not change, then surely historians in particular should have no interest in them. Of course, when it comes to such labels, we are obligated to consider the source. This is no longer a history with a pretence to olympian distance or total objectivity, and while more authoritarian-minded critics young and old protested this as evidence of degradation and loss of credibility, this was and is not borne out by the results. Presented in ways intended to allow non-specialists to engage with it, open to critique and challenge so that it could be tested for accuracy and people could see how difficult it is to fully explain historical events and how important it is to try, history as a field of study had buy in and broad-based credibility. Audre Lorde made an all-important point when she stated, "The 'generation gap' is an important social tool for any repressive society." Unfortunately, too few people have engaged with it to this very day.


The 1990s heralded a very different period, one in which a pessimistic and self-destructive mood seemed to take over the humanities as the neoliberal turn begun in the 1970s in the anglosphere continued its destruction of the delicate framework holding back robber baron capitalism. Suddenly the humanities were widely pilloried as useless in comparison to "science" with its supposedly clear cut answers and direct application as vocational training. A growing and deadly combination of sponsored anti-intellectualism combined with an effort to prevent working class people from engaging in or entering academic fields of any kind began poisoning the general atmosphere. Irregardless of the actual connections or not of public or private institutions of learning to their communities and broader societies, all were derided as "ivory towers" and out of touch compared to vocational and professional schools turning out tradespeople, lawyers, and doctors. The humanities got little help from some of their practitioners, who opted to abandon the field and effectively accept asinine descriptions of their fields of study. No one seemed able or willing to note that what in science was praised as testing hypotheses and revising based on updated understanding and evidence was denounced as "revisionism" in the humanities, especially history. Rather than come to grips with a resurgence of frustration with a lack of cut and dried answers in the real world, diverse cultural theorists and philosophers came up with the theories and concepts now referred to as "post-structuralism" and occasionally as "post-modernism." They also, as Ruth Leys showed, took up affect theory.

It would be easy, but wrong, to simply denounce the people often held up as the prime movers of the "post-" theoretical schools, such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva. This group is incredibly diverse, often, though not always french by nationality, and regularly labelled as holding politics they don't, especially in the case of the women. As french scholars from Christine Delphy to Toril Moi have noted, the group is very much an anglosphere construct. The big thing they seem to have in common is that their work is amenable to use by scholars who wish to avoid dealing directly with issues of social power, oppression, and hierarchy. From a positive footing of insisting that perfect or absolute objectivity and truth are humanly impossible but laudable and productive goals to keep striving for while using "post-structuralist" tools to that end, they shifted instead to an insistence that there was no point in striving. Instead, everything is relative, and therefore anything, anything at all, can be acceptable and good so long as someone somewhere can be found who insists they consented to being on the receiving end of anything others deem unpleasant or unjust. This opened the door to a further development and twisting of longterm efforts to properly include the entire human race in the humanities. What in the 1980s and early 1990s was immediately recognized as token hiring and inclusion was soon revised into what currently is most often referred to as "identity politics." This plus ceremonies of abasement soon replaced a considerable amount of far more effective deconstructing of oppressive structures and serious scholarly work.

Nevertheless, this did not stop remarkable and challenging historical analysis. For instance, Michael Hudson, a remarkable classical economist and historian of economics continued his research program uncovering the devolution of economics into a junk pseudo-science and the actual roots of credit, debt, and usury. Feminist historians in particular have fiercely resisted these changes, including Max Dashu, who founded The Suppressed History Archives in 1970. Among the issues she has dealt with in the past two to five years has been a number long used as a stick to beat Feminist historians with, the infamous estimated number of women tortured and murdered in kangaroo trials during the witch hunts in europe. It is worth quoting Max Dashu's response to being asked about this number during an interview with journalist Jocelyn Macdonald of afterellen.com. It is a great example of constructive engagement with an aspect of historical narrative originally sourced in the scholarly community that has since lost credibility there, while still hanging on in broader public history both as a contested estimate and a supposed example of why certain people supposedly shouldn't be taken seriously as historians.

Let's talk numbers. This is something that always comes up. The number is mythical. [Andrea] Dworkin did not invent this number and nor did Matilda Joslyn Gage which may have been where Dworkin sourced that number. I don't know if you know her, she was an intersectional feminist back in the late 1800s. She did a book called Women, Church and State which talks about the which hunts. She got the number from a German scholar writing maybe 100 years before her time. Methodologically his was not a great idea. He took numbers from the height of the German witch hunts and extrapolated those to all the countries of Europe. It's a cipher. It's a symbolic number. We can't say 9 million burned at the stake. The question of how many women were affected? Were accused? Were shunned? Were denounced? That number could easily surpass nine million.

The number of women who taught their daughters keep your head down because this is what can happen to you. There was a huge impact on the way women raised their daughters to keep this from happening to them. I have seen accusations that this number was picked by feminists to surpass the number killed in the Holocaust and that's false because the number estimated well predates that.

But we're never going to know the real number because as I mentioned there are no trial records. Some places that actually did keep records, those were destroyed. Such as in France, Paris was thinking better of the witch hunts and the regional parliament was trying to hide them from the crown. They burned their own archives because it had become politically dangerous for that evidence to exist. There's an historian of the Swiss witch hunts – we're talking about the 1500s here – he finds not trial records, but payments for wood, tar and tow for setting the fires, and payments of the executioners including beer and meat that was included in the trial costs. So he's proving on an economic level, in a Marxian way – we don't have any judicial records, but we have financial records – that they were burning witches at this time.

There are so many reasons why the real number, we're never gonna know.

Partly too there's a mythology around this. When I was young the stereotype was the witch hunts happened in the Middle Ages and there's this stereotype of the superstitious Middle Ages and how advanced everything became later on. Actually, they finally figured out the Renaissance is when the witch hunts started to really get bad.

This quote is so long because it is a great illustration of how to appropriately respond to a challenged historical interpretation. Not giving up and declaring it is a mere product of politics or "affect," nor attacking the person who repeated it or originally made it. Instead, Dashu briefly traces the contested idea's origin, explains why the specific number of women murdered during the witch hunts is unknowable, while debunking other spurious claims about it and demonstrating how not knowing that number is not a real barrier to genuine understanding. This sort of analysis is not quite as obvious in academia as it should be, but that is not because it is not there. Rather, it remains pushed out of the limelight because the apparent absurd extremes of post-structuralism are better clickbait.

Even as media outlets obsessively focus on the immediate present, seeking constantly for the next quick sell headline, people more generally yearn for a sense of history and regrounding in difficult and volatile times. Their new venues for creating "people's histories" are on the world wide web, including a vast number of blogs, podcasts, videos, wikis, and general websites. Even academic projects now make opportunities available for the general public to contribute, and not just to do the sort of grinding but necessary donkey work of identifying letters on papyri or transcribing scanned documents. Some of the most extraordinary hybrid projects are being built in countries often presumed to have little or no internet access or technological savvy more generally. See for example South African History Online and the South African Democracy Education Trust websites, both chockfull of scanned documents, essays, articles, and photographs both professionally produced and crowdsourced. There is also a resurgence of public discussion about when and how it is appropriate to revise historical interpretations, especially with the growing demand for changes based on changing identity labels. A series of currently infamous cases involve women and men who lived in ways that defied the sex-based stereotypes of their own time and ours, including in cases where their own words recorded before their passing directly contradicts proposed new interpretations of who they are and their own actions. These cases draw out the questions of what we owe to our forebears whose lives and actions we are endeavouring to understand and recount today in very different conditions.


By now, the contradictions to the currently standard narratives about the humanities in general and history in particular should be standing out. Besides the obvious need to apply reasoning and evidence testing, their accessibility and the real role for all honestly interested people in them, the ongoing development of public history is clear evidence that there is plenty of work to be found connected to them. That work includes types of activity falsely associated primarily with "the sciences" and engineering, including computer programming and document encoding, a necessity for all those web-based projects and transcription efforts. The big question left outstanding though, as determined skeptics would insist, is that the big problem they have with the humanities is their presumed lack of nexus between training in those areas and paid work. Reference to payment is noticeably lacking in the OED definitions of vocation, vocational training and the like as well. So the problem in the end comes down to a claim that if study of a subject and development of the skills its study entails do not guarantee a person can find a job for which they will be paid, then it is simply useless or at best something for dilettantes to waste time on. If this claim is accepted, then no one whose area of study and work is in the humanities can ever win, unless they can somehow find that much desired nexus with paid jobs. The "alt-ac" movement is all about this, as doctorate and master's holders strive to document and publicize the many jobs outside of universities and colleges they have successfully parlayed their qualifications into. Laudable and I agree necessary as this movement is for all of us while we cope as best we can with late stage capitalism, regardless of our academic or trade affiliations, it may signal on some proponent's part the acceptance of an invidious claim.

The measure of the value of an activity or study is not whether someone is willing to pay us to do it or apply what products we may derive from doing it. As many other people have noted, that is merely a measure of what capitalists as a whole have deemed it possible to profit from. Whether we want that to be the primary means by which we decide what is worth doing and being in the world is a decision societies in the anglosphere have not actually made by social consensus. It is past time to apply historical thinking to that question again, and do something about finding and applying that broader social consensus. Time is running out.

  1. Alas, wikipedia is problematic for many reasons and keeps getting more so. For the moment it remains useful as a place to get some starting citations from its footnotes, although it simply isn't possible to just take article content at face value. Unfortunately there the strengths of crowdsourcing are being thoroughly undone but the weaknesses of the ways its editing system has been captured and gamed.
  2. Stevenson, Angus and Christine A. Lindberg (Editors). New Oxford American Dictionary, Third Edition. Oxford University Press: 2010, Oxford.
  3. To begin with, "art" just meant any expression of human skill. Its root refers to parts put together in an orderly way, and is the very same root as in the familiar word "article."
  4. Ibid, "liberal arts."
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid, "liberal."
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid, "vocational training."
  9. Ibid, "humanities."
  10. Oxford English Dictionary Online, "humanity," see especially sense 2.
  11. Snyder, Laura J. The Philosophical Breakfast Club. Broadway Paperbacks: 2011, New York. Pages 3, 148.
  12. New Oxford English Dictionary, "science."
  13. The amount of material published demonstrating that "the poor are poor because they are poor" is a circular argument that is not merely vacuous and wrong but actively destructive is quite extensive. For a start from more popular treatments, see for example:
    • Wilkinson, Richard and Kate Pickett. The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. Revised Edition. Bloomsbury Press: 2009, New York.
    • Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Metropolitan Press: 2007, New York.
  14. Herodotus, the (in)famous Ionian historian of Halicarnassus referred to his work as a "historia," an inquiry. What made it a history in our sense is that he explained he wanted to preserve the deeds of the hellenes and the barbarians (once not nearly so pejorative a term) so that they would not be forgotten. The definition of historia paraphrases from A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1901. Readers can view this edition at the internet archive among many other places. To see Herodotus' explanation of his great project and why he carried it out, probably the easiest place to read it in english is online at a recent translation by Shlomo Felberbaum.
  15. New Oxford English Dictionary, "history."
  16. See Republic Book 3, 414b-d. Interested readers may also want to consult the stanford encyclopedia of philosophy's article on Plato's Myths for a full treatment of Plato's views and uses of them in his writing.
  17. A great introduction to this is a naked capitalism syndicated portion of the War Nerd Gary Brecher's subscriber newsletter, an essay titled Amateurs Talk Cancel, Pros Talk Silence. It is in part a book review of Mike Evans' book Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. Another well known case of attempting to hide past events by destroying records of them comes from both the beginning and the end of the western roman empire. At its beginning, the first roman emperor pursued a remarkable policy of destruction and records control that specialists in roman history continue struggling with to this day. The best treatment of this I have found is not as broadly available as would be ideal, being an essay by Robert Miles in the 2000 book Experiencing Rome: Culture, Identity, and Power in the Roman Empire, published by Routledge. The essay's title is "Communicating Culture, Identity, and Power" and it is on pages 29-62. At the end of the western roman empire began the period once widely labelled "the dark ages" by european historians, in which the catholic church undertook the wholesale destruction of "pagan" written and visual culture. Catherine Nixey's recent book on this period is widely available, The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, published in 2017 with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  18. Leys, Ruth. The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
  19. Leys' earlier paper is available online. Her prose is wonderfully clear, she has no truck with the all but impassable jargon that can sometimes do such damage to otherwise genuinely interesting academic writing. The full reference including link is: Leys, Ruth. 2011 "The Turn to Affect: A Critique," Critical Inquiry 37(Spring): 434-472. For the point in this paragraph, see especially pages 436-438.
  20. I think the meaning of this term should be clear, but just in case, "anglosphere" is intended to refer to the places where english is widely spoken, written, and generally deployed in a society. It is not intended as a euphemism for the british or american empires, although yes, those do overlap significantly with where english has these usage characteristics.
  21. Also available in multiple online editions, such as at project gutenberg. Most online editions are based on an 1845 four or five volume paper edition annotated by a priest named H.H. Milman. It can be a bit of a challenge to acquire an unabridged paper edition. To my knowledge the main one available at an approachable price is produced by penguinrandomhouse.
  22. Woman, Church and State is available on this website in pdf format. Alternatively, readers may check out the html version available at project gutenberg.
  23. Gage served as both co-author and editor and did extensive work on the first two volumes, and some work on the third. These may all be viewed online at project gutenberg, or in scanned pdf copies on the internet archive.
  24. Many of Gilman's works can be read at the Charlotte Perkins Gilman site founded and maintained by Jennifer Semple Siegel.
  25. Thatcher Ulrich, Laurel. Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Page xxii.
  26. Ibid, page xxx.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Lorde, Audre. "Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference." 217-226 in All the Rage: Reasserting Radical Lesbian Feminism, edited by Lynne Harne and Elaine Miller. Teachers College Press: New York, 1996.
  29. For the former, a great starting point is Hudson's J is For Junk Economics: A Guide to Reality in an Age of Deception, published with ISLET in 2017. For the latter, see ...and forgive them their debts – Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year, also published with ISLET, 2018. For an excellent overview of Hudson's groundbreaking revision of current understandings of ancient economic history in the near and middle east, see Everything You Thought You Knew About Western Civilization is Wrong, 16 november 2018 review of "...And Forgive Them Their Debts" by John Siman.
  30. afterellen.com: The Season of the Witch – Max Dashu On Why We Sexualize, Trivialize, and Fear the Witch. 20 october 2019 interview of Max Dashu by Jocelyn Macdonald.
  31. For identification of letters on papyri, see the Ancient Lives Project. Document transcription projects are legion, and besides Ancient Lives those working on more recent and complete documents include those carried out on parts of the smithsonian archives, and those catalogued by the Folger Shakespeare Library in its folgerpedia, which are only the tip of the iceberg.
  32. A flagship example is the ongoing demand by a minority of activists to retrospectively trans Stormé DeLarverie, the lesbian whose first punch and shout of "Why don't you do something?" started the Stonewall riots. See Ann Montague's article at Socialist Action, Stormé DeLarverie: The Lesbian Spark in the Stonewall Uprising, 31 july 2018. Also see Julian Vigo's Quillette article, Why Do We Feel the Need to Transgender the Dead? 31 august 2018.
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Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:53:05