Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Writing History and the Crisis in Punditry

Heather Cox Richardson

Participating in the discussion over the media’s role in the tragedy in Tucson, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi makes the point that media figures get their market share by offering their audience a certain kind of emotional charge, reassuring them that they are better than “the other.”

Where entertainers will go for inspiration now that that dog-whistle kind of performance is suspect, he doesn’t have a firm idea.

It seems to me that historians have, at this point, a great opening to jump into the public conversation. My friend and literary agent, Lisa Adams, is always reminding me that readers want to feel smarter after they invest time reading something. If, indeed, there is a market for making people feel superior, why can’t we invest our energies in making people feel smarter with good facts and argument, presented accessibly?

There is an unfortunate tendency among academics to suggest that anything written for a popular audience must be “dumbed down.” This is wrong. On the contrary, pieces written for non-academics must be smarter than anything we consume within the academy. Untrained historians will not accept a book that uses theory as shorthand in place of an explanation for how something actually happened (but they will happily accept theoretical constructs if they are proven). They will not endure poor writing, or incomplete explanations. Indeed, rather than dumbing down our arguments, it seems to me that writing for a non-academic audience often forces academic historians to give up the jargon and shortcuts that allow them to advance arguments their facts don’t prove.

At a time when there is a vacuum in the public arena waiting to be filled by writers who can offer a new kind of intellectual rush, historians have a unique opportunity to step up to the plate.

And it might just be good for us.


Tom Army said...

Great post, Heather. The general public is interested in ideas and dumbing down issues is an insult to them. The same applies to teaching history to middle and high school students. Most textbooks for 10 to 18 years old read like children's picture books. Issues are limited in scope and the tone is often condescending. We can do better than this.

dan allosso said...

I like Matt, especially when he goes after Goldman Sachs. But angry rhetoric and crazy behavior aren't new. On August 27th, 1871, members of the Democratic and Republican parties held rallys on the plaza in Mesilla, New Mexico. Both meetings took place without incident, but each party wanted to close their respective meetings with a procession around the Plaza. The two processions met on the west side of the Plaza. Shots were fired and several fights broke out. In the end, nine men were killed and fifty were wounded. Troops were summoned from Fort McRae to restore order. After three days, the judge called in to restore order decided it was too dangerous to do any investigation and returned home without any action. Nobody was ever prosecuted for any of the incidents that occurred that day.

For more information on this event, see the page I paraphrased, at This is a local history site, which seems to be authored and maintained by Mesilla residents. In addition to better histories by professionals for the general public, we need to encourage more of this kind of work by regular people.

Michael Woods said...

It's interesting to observe how historians' approaches to writing for a general audience have changed. Allan Nevins, after all, wrote _Ordeal of the Union_ with a lay audience in mind. To be sure, it is a powerfully-written narrative history which put all of Nevins' storytelling and journalistic talents to good use, but how many 21st-century historians would write an 8-volume history in an effort to reach the general public? True, the multi-volume history has gone out of style more generally, but it may be, too, that we don't give the 'public' enough credit.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

I also think people really do want to hear from historians. I don't know if we just don't have the right agents or contacts in the media or if we really are worried about our professional credentials. But if I had a dime for every time the people around me begged for some historical context and honestly wanted some "real" information.... Sadly, since I'm not an Americanist, I have a hard time satisfying them. Thanks so much Heather, for bringing this up!

hcr said...

Well, I'm a broken record on this subject, Lisa.

But as for the complicated 8 volume histories: one of the ways I used to start my big surveys when Lost was still on TV was to ask how many students watched it. Then I'd refer to some of the sub-plots, and get them talking about what they thought was really happening, and so on. Then I'd say: "And now, I expect you all to earn As in this class, because anyone who can follow all the twists and turns of something so random as Lost can certainly follow the logical themes of history!" It got a laugh, but I meant it. The problem is not that people aren't smart enough to follow our arguments, it seems to me. The problem is that we often don't give them enough reason to think it's worth their while.

See? I told you I'm a broken record on this!