Unfinished History

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Pots and pans demonstration outside the Icelandic Parliament, 2009

By Tina Loo

When Eric Hobsbawm died earlier this month, his passing was the occasion for a lot of thoughtful reflection about the practice of history and its connection to a larger politics. Hobsbawm, his comrade E.P. Thompson, and Natalie Davis were partly responsible for me doing what I now do. As a science undergrad, my program was fairly structured, but through serendipity and the student grapevine, I was introduced to Captain Swing and Primitive Rebels; to the working class, “time-work discipline,” and Martin Guerre – and the rest is history, so to speak.

The changes they visited on me are only the tiniest example of their enormous influence. Hobsbawm, Thompson, and Davis along with a number of other scholars were responsible for changing how history as a discipline was practiced. Instead of the stories of dead, white, powerful men, “social historians” dealt in “history from the bottom up”: they taught us about the lives, loves, and labours of ordinary women and men. More fundamentally, we learned they had a history and it was one that they made. With social history came the idea that the powerless weren’t passive: they were historical agents who, despite their oppression, had “voice” and the “agency” to “resist.”

In the half-century or more that’s passed since social history’s arrival, it has become mainstream. We know a lot more about how power works as a result; about structure and agency; about how people make history not under conditions of their own making. As a result, the students I teach aren’t surprised in the same way I was when they read Hobsbawm’s arguments about the “invention of tradition” or Thompson’s and Davis’s about the charivari. If anything, they’re kind of bored by them. Such is the measure of social history’s influence: talking about the agency and oppression of ordinary people is, well, passé.

Maybe history ends when boredom prevails. But what concerns me about this manifestation of boredom is that it threatens to foreclose the analysis of power that social historians started. Thanks to Hobsbawm, Thompson, Davis and the social historians who followed, the students I encounter come to university ready to see all history as the history of class, race, and gender struggle. They relate to the experiences of people in the past who suffered as a result of decisions they had no role in shaping. And they’ve come to appreciate the broad meaning of disenfranchisement and how a lack of choices speaks to a lack of power.

But the same careful consideration of and sensitivity to context ends when it comes to evaluating the people who made decisions in the past. When students paint their portrait, they tend to use a roller instead of a fine-tipped brush.

This is at least partly the fault of those of us who write history. As Viv Nelles observed at the recent Directions West conference in June, we know far more about the left politics in Canada than the right. Speaking in Calgary, the absence was all the more striking to him, and the need to rectify it all the more pressing. More broadly, in abandoning the study of the dead, white, and powerful we seem – with some exceptions – to have abandoned the study of everyone who worked in an institution. They’re the new “people without history.”

This is unfortunate – and dangerous. If we still think it’s important to understand how power is exercised, then we need to be attentive to how the dynamics of structure and agency constrained and enabled social workers and Indian Agents as well as their “clients.” We need to appreciate how their decisions were compromises that reflected the limits of their power as individuals – limits that were different from those who were under their charge, but limits nonetheless. Acknowledging the context in which decisions were made doesn’t diminish the harm they inflicted. What it does do is help us understand how and why harm (and good!) happens, and what it takes to instigate change.

This is all the more important given the fact that the students many of us teach are likely to be the people who will be in the position of making those imperfect decisions in the future. They’ll be the public health nurses, the lawyers, the land use planners, and the small business owners – people who can learn much from understanding how Emily Murphy could be a feminist and support eugenics in the 1920s; how Gus Wedderburn could fight for human rights and sanction the destruction of Africville in the 1960s; and how Matthew Coon Come could be ready to sacrifice the interests of one Cree community to stop Hydro-Quebec from building the Great Whale project in the 1990s. All these decision-makers made history not in conditions of their own making – just like our students will.

Social history sought to rescue ordinary people from the “enormous condescension of posterity.” But the job’s not done.

Tina Loo teaches Canadian and environmental history at the University of British Columbia. Her current research examines forced relocations in postwar Canada – and tries to do what she outlines here.

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