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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Medieval analogies in policy discourse and the role of historians...

The most recent issue of the AHA’s Perspectives on History (September 2008) has a lead article by the organization’s president, Gabrielle M. Spiegel, titled, ”Getting Medieval”: History and the Torture Memos. It is about neomedievalism - a “cache of analogies about the medieval nature of contemporary non-state actors, including terrorists, which subsequently influenced the reasoning behind the legal judgements expressed by the authors of the torture memos”, John Woo and Jay S. Bybee. She discusses the increasing use of medieval analogies in public discourse as well as in policy making.

I first encountered the analogies in the political science textbooks I was teaching from. They compared the trends in globalization, with the weakening of state power and the increasing power of international corporations, to re-feudalization of international relations. Articles in the press also made analogies, comparing, to cite an example from a German editorial, the United States of America to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation – a feudal network of diffuse power relationships under the overall guidance of an “emperor” (the federal government). The major actors were not the seven Electors who chose the emperor in medieval Germany, but the largest corporations who exercised real control over American foreign influence and policy.

Spiegel points out that analogies with medieval times were the only historical analogies to appear in the torture memos. Bybee wrote in his memo that Taliban commanders were “more akin to feudal lords than military officers” and emphasized the non-state nature of both their regime and the Al Qaeda organization. Failed state status was equated with a fall-back on medieval times – and used to justify supposedly medieval methods of dealing with American enemies.

She goes on to cite the analysis of Bruce Holsinger that these analogies have become commonplace in describing the post Cold War world in think tanks and in U.S. government institutions. The problem is not that those who influence or make policy are thinking historically, it is that they are not: “the ‘medieval’ in neomedievalism matters not a whit.” The conclusion that we as historians are thus powerless to correct the analogy is perhaps unduly pessimistic. Spiege quotes Holsinger: “For what motivates the analogical use of “medieval” has little to do with historical understanding, couched though it may be in terms of medieval epithets.” Spiegel summarizes: It is a “rhetorical strategy of demonization by which the present government sought to induce adherence to its extralegal politics and operations.” She notes that medievalists themselves have become involved on the other side of the debate by using analogies with medieval torture to show that torture doesn’t work.

Spiegel would like to discourage all the analogizing as distractions from substantive criticism and engagement. Historical analogies misleadingly imply genealogy and legacy (as if, I suppose, the Taliban regime or the practice of waterboarding are somehow legacies of medieval Europe), decontextualize the real history, and are less effective than comparisons and contrasts.

I like to use analogies from politics and the press as learning moments in the classroom. I have students evaluate buzz-words such as “Islamo Fascism” or "American Empire" and take a closer look at how these terms are used in the press.

Outside the classroom, as historian-activists, we need to consider possible ways of using our expertise about the past in current debates while being true to our trade by avoiding decontextualization and oversimplification. If our field is relevant to understanding the human condition - and the great public interest in historical films and genealogy and the effectiveness of historical analogies in propaganda and discourse indicate that it is - we can assert ourselves more boldly. We don't have Whether we can be the ones with our hands on the history in a media environment hostile to context and nuance is hard to say. I would like to be more optimistic than Professor Spiegel seems to be. That is difficult, however, when I imagine a bearded scholar trying to deconstruct "Islamo Fascism" or "medieval" in a five-minute shouting match with Bill O'Reilly.

But somehow getting the nuance, the context, into public consciousness might well serve an activist purpose. The real historical background to events is always complicated and ambiguous. Contextualization thus tends to subvert ideological abuse. History is messy and not conducive to supporting simplistic policies.

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