August 21, 2022

Miscellaneous thoughts on history, objectivity, activism, and useable pasts

 I thought I'd offer a few thoughts about history and the historical profession from the vantage point of my own (limited) experience. Maybe it will be beneficial in clarifying what is at stake in the current US debates about "presentism" in history.

Coming from a grassroots activist before I entered a History Ph.D. program, I have been steeped in leftist and activist versions of history as "useable past". The relevant political question was always, "what is to be done?"

Gradually as I went through graduate school, I became interested in holding that question in abeyance, so as to ask another question: "what happened/what is happening?" Doing so meant 'unlearning' or complicating some common activist shibboleths.

I came to appreciate the notion of objectivity as incredibly relevant, urgent and necessary to this work. I came to the gradual conviction that characterizations of objectivity as an outdated idea in service to the status quo, err mightily and consequentially. In fact, I concluded the opposite: that embrace of objectivity's irrelevance leads to the gradual hollowing out of an ability to say much of anything of substance. I came to this conviction through a period of soul-searching and encounter with post-modernism, which at the time I was in graduate school, was being treated by many graduate students in diverse disciplines as a kind of academic activism, the path to liberation from the tyranny of reason.

In short, I have become more and more convinced of the value of objectivity, problematic as it may be, for appreciating the strangeness of the past. We are still in the infancy of a comprehensive understanding the evolution and development of ourselves as a human species and civilization; enormous realms of human activity in the past, stretching over hundreds of thousands of years, continue to remain opaque to us in the present. History's relevance goes well beyond present political concerns.

Now what I've observed of the discipline is that a significant number of my senior colleagues came through opposite routes, privileging methodological mastery and academic professionalism all along. For them, I gather, politicizing history and questioning objectivity can feel like a fresh and necessary break from what may have become a stale 'academic' pursuit. The idea that the study of history can and ought to reflect presentist concerns, is liberating for them. While I respect the efforts of colleagues to combat the hide-bound conservatism of the academy, and remain fully committed to the idea of reading history to inform one's activism, I am starting to embrace the reality that my unique past experiences have led me to very different conclusions about the relationship between the academy and activism.

For one, from what I can see, a good deal of those I've observed pushing this direction, are taking their cues from a professional class of media-anointed activists and personalities, rather than the 'grassroots' as such. In my opinion, well-meaning efforts to push the historical discipline to embrace as axiomatic a form of "usable past" activism, has and will continue to contribute to undermining the broader societal relevance of historical thought, rather than contributing to its revival. There are more than a few people I've met over the years under the impression that by criticizing more conservative interpreters in the discipline they are combatting actual Nazis. This lack of perspective is a direct consequence of the lack of contact they have with the grassroots they claim to be producing a usable past for.

Useable pasts are necessary (and unavoidable in politics), but in my opinion historians ought to beware of making their production central to the discipline. In doing so, they undermine the very thing that makes the discipline unique. For me, at this juncture, a historical study conducted with methodological rigor and a commitment to objectivity, is something thousands of times more valuable, enduring, and interesting to read, than a study written to resonate with contemporary orthodoxies, often by those who fatuously claim to have transcended or outgrown the notion of objectivity.

And this brings me to my last notion. A certain dynamic ideological tension is necessary and good for the discipline and for the academy at large. I prefer to inhabit a university where the ideological landscape actually reflects the full and splendid ideological anarchy of the grassroots, not an ideologically purified sanctum. I have no truck for scholars who are serial abusers and do actual material harm. But the problem with mid-career historians embracing activism to go with the times, is that most of that energy is (naturally) turned inward, on others in the discipline who express IDEAS or OPINIONS deemed problematic or even harmful. These sort of efforts alienate me, as I find them highly myopic and often cloyingly self-righteous. In short, while I remain on the left, I find the push towards liberal ideological conformity within the discipline (reflected in the belief that bad ideas are equivalent to harm) incredibly dull and reflective of the alienation of historians from the grassroots. Some of my most interesting presentations have been to an audience of people who sharpened my thinking through vigorous disagreement. This sort of low-level 'conflict' sharpens faculties, increases acuity, and improves my thinking. In my experience, academic aversion to this sort of conflict is also reflective of kind of an alienation from the necessary life experience of encountering frank unvarnished disagreement. I'm grateful for my time as a grassroots activist because of what it taught me about the importance of this kind of contained conflict for a healthy civic life. It is my conviction that such disagreement is normal and necessary to human flourishing, and that it helps, not hurts, the 'left' and the project of studying the past from a 'left' perspective. Demands that historians apologize for the expression of ideas, and the apology for "offensive" ideas, are both symptoms of a more general malaise of bourgeois alienation from the grassroots.


May 13, 2022

secular forms of Christian perfectionism within academia

I can vividly remember in the cult I was raised in, moments where we were made to listen to Christian apologetics--'proving' the inerrancy of the gospel, 'proving' how evolution wasn't real, or how Christian courtship was the only way to have a happy marriage. The function of these sessions, no matter how much it was asserted that this was so, was not to genuinely explore evidence to arrive at an unbiased conclusion, nor to encourage a genuine diversity of thought, but to find the pathway through to the predetermined 'correct' idea. In this way, otherwise outlandish and illogical ideas were able to appear to well-intentioned and perfectly intelligent rational people as having a strong patina of plausibility. When the factor of subtle communal pressure was added to this, it meant that anyone who wanted to remain in community would not challenge the orthodoxy. This meant that what was really at stake epistemologically and methodologically was obscured by gnosticism, in which God's will on earth was presumed instantiated by the group's leaders. To ask uncomfortable questions about groupthink was the same as questioning God's will.

There are massive differences between a small cult and the secular academy, but some of the more extreme progressive academic discourse resembles nothing so much as the gnostic theology of a cult. Like a cult, the goal is not independent thought but to find the way to the 'correct' idea, stated in the 'correct' language, that broadcasts that you belong to the 'right' people. There is not an independent method to arrive at truth, because truth is (like it was in the cult) purely a function of where you stand in relation to who is in power.

Now there is nothing wrong with forming a group around certain ideas; every group's foundations are to some extent a matter of social conformity rather than independent moral reasoning. But this tendency in academia concerns me because of the gap between what these groups imagine the stakes of their ideas are, and the actual state of the university within US society today. They remind me of warriors who have lost the map of the terrain of battle, and have become deluded that their real and ultimate enemies are within their academic disciplines. As neo-liberalism and austerity carve our vocation as humanities scholars into bits, and as the right ramps up the culture wars against the university, some of them imagine that it would be a good thing for certain departments or disciplines to be destroyed in the name of progress towards a 'revolution' deemed to be held back only by a cabal of 'status quo' scholars who lack sufficient faith in this alleged progress.

The end result of this secular form of Christian perfectionism seems nearly the same on the left as the conservative Christian cult I grew up in: a proportionally tiny group who imagine that the walls of the academy are the world itself, and that they are at the center of the site of a tremendous battle purifying the evils on the way to remaking the world. Like the cult I grew up in, this type of thinking appeals to the alienated and disaffected among the intellectuals because it is full of hubris that is made to appear morally justified. But this tendency is limiting. Such groups are inherently weak, easily divided by ideological infighting over small issues and thus easily picked off and overwhelmed by ideological opponents who really understand power. Not understanding power except in theoretical terms, this academic 'super-left' (to borrow Ali Mazrui's phrase) remain on the margins of it, and this place itself comes to seem like a form of exceptional virtue, as well as a form of evidence that there is a conspiracy against the truth they possess.


April 4, 2022

The cave at Hira and the importance of place to mystical experience

I've long been fascinated by the earliest "revelation" received by Muhammad, which he interpreted as being from the angel Gabriel. I believe Muhammad's experience in the cave with the Angel Gabriel was real. While I accept that Muhammad is the only valid source for what happened to himself, I am also convinced that the orthodox interpretation of the experience is only one of a range of possible interpretations one could have given to it. For instance, if Buddha Gautama was in that cave, I do not think he would have spoken of the Angel Gabriel, for the Angel Gabriel would have been culturally alien to his worldview.

When I step back from Muhammad's interpretation and think about the sacred space of Hira, the impression I'm left with is the fundamental importance of that cave as a 'gate' to another reality, where there is always the potential for humans to have an experience of, an experience that lies beyond the sensory world of common sense experience. All revelation and mystical experience in human history, if it is not the specious invention of a complete charlatan (a possibility!), is made possible by the intersection between these spaces and the personalities of certain sensitive individuals.

In studying the life of Muhammad, I've come to understand that it is only natural for one who has such an experience to interpret it through the lens of their own linguistic and cultural frame of reference. And I also hold out that it is always possible for the one experiencing this to misinterpret its meaning, since even the greatest of humanity are potentially unreliable guides to an experience that by design overwhelms one's senses and sense of normalcy. These interpretations in language are almost always a partial understanding of phenomena that remain fundamentally mysterious. But I am convinced there are other places on this earth very similar to Hira cave. This is actually one reason I can think of why the recovery of indigenous epistemologies is very important work, not only politically, but spiritually.


March 16, 2022

Lamya al-Mugheiry and the global worlds of the Swahili

One of the fascinating minutiae of the global Swahili-speaking Omani diaspora is the late great Lamya al-Mugheiry. Born in Mombasa, Kenya and raised in Oman, Cairo and the UK, according to Wikipedia, she ran away from home at age 16 to pursue a musical career in New York city. A brilliant vocalist with a five octave range able to hit the 'whistle register', she sang vocals on Duran Duran's "Come Undone" during their Unplugged tour, worked with Soul II Soul, and released a highly underrated solo album, "Lamya". She passed away suddenly of a heart attack in Oman in her mid-forties [thanks to Sa'ad for the correction]. Someone ought to write her posthumous musical biography. Because otherwise I'm gonna do it, once this first book is done.


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