The Never-ending History Wars

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Allan Greer

How can we understand the past and what lessons does it hold for the present?

This is an issue that has always been contested with different approaches coming to the fore.  From Plutarch in ancient times to Machiavelli in the Renaissance, the predominant idea was that stories of great men from earlier times would guide and inspire elite boys.  The Enlightenment took a broader view of the history of civilizations as a vehicle for understanding humanity without recourse to divine providence.  The 1800s saw the consolidation of nation-states and history was organized more around the nation, often personified in the lives and deeds of kings and presidents.  Over the past century, history diversified tremendously, as researchers broadened and deepened their inquiries into the past, examining political leadership, wars and constitutions, but also economic and social change, the evolution of popular culture, climate change, colonialism, slavery, the situation of women, science, and a thousand other dimensions of the human story.

New angles of vision and new findings about the past can be exciting – even emancipating – for many, but they may seem threatening to those who prize a stable and reassuring sense of history.

Almost every attempt to enhance and broaden understandings of history has provoked a conservative reaction, because such scholarship necessarily calls into question conventional verities.

Professional historians risk accusations of disloyalty for disturbing an established narrative about the past that is regarded by nationalists as fundamental to national identity.  Under Nicolas Sarkozy, French schools were required to pay less attention to slavery and to stress the positive impact of empire.  In the United States, where historians have brought to light more evidence of the profound effects of slavery and racism, several states intervened to ensure that the history curriculum provides a positive image of the nation’s achievements.  Make America (or France or Britain) great again by reimposing an uncomplicated story of liberty and progress.

Canada’s version of the history wars kicked off in 1998 with the publication of Jack Granatstein’s, Who Killed Canadian History?, an attack on “social history” by a champion of the supposedly neglected field of “political history.”

The notion that history divides neatly into two opposed approaches was simplistic and tendentious.  And the idea that history ought to concern itself with the thoughts and deeds of official power-holders was an impoverishing prescription; keeping us within the mental bubble of those at the top only ensures that we can never really understand the nature of their power and the conditions that gave rise to it.

Yet, Granatstein’s vision found a receptive audience in Canada’s major news outlets with the result that we are treated to repeated reiterations of the charge that Canadian history is being destroyed by an academy that slights politics in favour of trivial and politically correct subjects.  The repetitive quality of the indictment and the absence of curiosity about the other side reminds one of the way Fox News treats “liberals”: we know they’re wrong and evil because we’ve said they are so many times.

The latest salvo comes from J.D.M. Stewart who asks (Globe and Mail, March 23, 2019), “Where did all the prime minister biographies go?”  Going a step further than previous advocates of a narrowly conceived political history, he proclaims that what matters is biographies of prime ministers.  It’s not enough that library shelves are already filled with prime ministerial biographies and that new works are constantly appearing on aspects of Mackenzie King, Mulroney and the rest: Mr. Stewart wants full biographies and the more the better.

(Adele Perry, who Stewart seems to situate on the “social history” side of the great divide, actually published a book recently on the first governor of British Columbia, Sir James Douglas; you’d think that would qualify as good top-down history, but then Douglas, a native of Guyana of mixed Scottish and Afro-Caribbean extraction, was not exactly one of the “great white men” Stephen Azzi – quoted approvingly by Stewart – is interested in.)

I have to wonder why he, together with the like-minded scholars he interviewed, don’t just go ahead and write those books about the right honourable gentlemen if they truly believe that is the key to understanding Canada.  But then, the real thrust of this polemic and the others that preceded it is less about advocating one approach to history than it is about objecting to other approaches.

Let’s just consider the topics that would be abandoned if academic historians were to heed the call to drop everything and start churning out lives of the prime ministers.

Drawing from recent publishers’ catalogues, I’ll just list a representative selection of subjects covered:

  • the enslavement of Black and Indigenous people in the eighteenth century
  • the search for the Franklin expedition
  • the Rebellion of 1837 as a cross-border event with major repercussions in the United States
  • the Catholic Church and politics in Quebec
  • the Klondike gold rush
  • women and the vote
  • Canadian exclusion of Jewish refugees in the 1930s
  • Canadian troops in World War I
  • The Making of Confederation
  • the women of early French Canada
  • the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918
  • Indigenous treaties
  • the shift from coal to hydrocarbons.

If you think that all history must be either “political” or “social,” you would have a hard time situating these studies.  None is entirely dedicated to politicians, but all have to do in one way or another with power and the state.  Each of them tells us something important about the history of Canada.

Allan Greer is a professor of history and Canada Research Chair in Colonial North America at McGill University. He would like to thank Mariana Valverde, Adele Perry and Matthew Hayday for their suggestions.  This article was prepared for and initially submitted to the Globe and Mail.

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3 thoughts on “The Never-ending History Wars

  1. Matthew Hayday

    So, I weighed in with a response to Stewart’s piece on Twitter when it first ran (https://twitter.com/mhayday/status/1107977029087977472), but a few salient points are worth repeating, I think – particularly about the flat-out errors in the original Globe article. Political history is alive and well, thanks very much, both in new and invigorated forms that draw from other branches of history, and even in some of its “old school”-ish forms. SSHRC still funds Canadian political history – even political biographies of prime ministers, like the one I’m currently working on. And having served on SSHRC Insight and Connection juries in recent years, the allegation that SSHRC is biased against political history is just flat-out wrong. There’s a vibrant Political History Group within the CHA, which has now existed for over a decade, has held three stand-alone conferences (the most recent one, held in Vancouver, had funding from a SSHRC Connections Grant), and organized many panels at the annual CHA conference. While there are occasional exceptions, overall there is no desire among people who actually work on political history topics to re-ignite the Canadian history wars (and as Allan notes, the lines between different types of history are much more blurred these days). This recent salvo in the Globe should not be a call to arms to re-kindle the old wars, but a reminder that we’ve come a long way, as a community of Canadian historians, in learning to appreciate the value of the different types of history that we all do.

  2. Jim Clifford

    Well said Allan and Matthew. It is also important to remember that will some of us don’t focus on political history (even if I write about elections now and again), we teach political history in the mix with all the rest: social, urban, military, sexuality, environmental etc.

  3. E.A. Heaman

    Nice argument but I think it needs to be pushed further on the relationship between political biographies and political history. The obvious lesson is that it’s becoming harder to defend classic political history outside of the biographical genre. If you analyze the classic subject of political history—the white men who ran things most of the time, more or less strategically and unaccountably—you are studying something that borders on oligarchy, if not actual white male supremacy. And if you actually admire the political system and political class in the age of Borden or Laurier, etc., you come dangerously close to admiring the white-male ideologies and identity politics that upheld them. On the other hand, if you eschew writing about the class of men to focus on individual men, it becomes possible to scrutinize and even uphold their identity individually, without full-on investment in white identity politics as a system of rule. Let me be absolutely clear: I’m not accusing J.D.M. Stewart or biographers of being covert white supremacists. Rather, I’m saying it’s precisely what a decent person would do to avoid winding up in the white supremacist camp. This is what the moderate right looks like and it is as much moderate as right. It’s not, in the long run, sturdy ground to stand upon because to focus on individual personality while others think hard about institutional power, is to sound a bit like the scholarly version of Kipling’s just-so stories. Even the biographers will ultimately have to join in the debate about whether it is ultimately thanks to such men or rather “in spite of all their kind” that, (in the words of Hugh MacDiarmid) “some elements of worth With difficulty persist here and there on earth.”

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