Review of Michael D. Gordin, 'The Pseudoscience Wars'

Once it would have been possible to jump right into a discussion of Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (University of Chicago Press) with the reasonable assumption that readers would have at least a nodding acquaintance with the maverick psychoanalyst’s ideas.

But today -- as Gordin, a professor of history at Princeton University, notes -- few people under the age of 50 will recognize Velikovsky’s name, much less know of his theory of the traumatic impact of cosmic catastrophes on human history. It was a heated topic for discussion in the 1970s. I recall seeing a poster for a meeting of Chaos and Chronos, a student organization dedicated to Velikovskian matters that once had clubs on many U.S. college campuses. This was as late as 1980 or ’81. (Which only corroborates Gordin’s point, for I am approaching the half-century mark at an alarming speed.)

So, first, a lesson in now-dormant controversy.

Although he published several other books during his lifetime, plus a few more posthumously, Velikovsky presented his core argument in a volume called Worlds in Collision (1950). It was an attempt to formulate the key to all mythologies, or at least an explanation of some of the more striking stories and beliefs of antiquity. Drawing on sources both classical and obscure, he showed that cultures all over the world preserved narratives in which the world passed through incredible catastrophes: the earth shook, the heavens darkened, the sun stood still, floods wiped out society, fire or stones or both fell from the sky, and so on. The cultures that preserved the tales explained the events as a manifestation of God’s wrath at humanity, or as the consequence of gods’ behavior toward one another.

An orthodox Freudian, Velikovsky had no use for Jung’s nebulous ideas about archetypes in the collective unconscious. His theory was more concrete, if no less strange. The far-flung legends all made sense as distorted accounts of a series of astronomical anomalies beginning circa 1500 B.C.E., when (he argued) a huge mass of matter broke off the planet Jupiter and spun off into space. It passed dangerously close to Earth a couple of times before eventually settling into orbit as the planet we now know as Venus.

Its comet-like transit through the solar system generated a series of events, both in outer space and here below, that continued for the better part of a thousand years. Earth and proto-Venus came near enough to affect each other’s orbits, and that of Mars as well. Bewildered by the strange things happening in the sky, mankind endured terrestrial upheaval on an incredible scale -- tectonic disasters, weird weather, and shifts of the planet’s axis, for example.

Once, when proto-Venus came close to Earth, its atmosphere permeated our own long enough to precipitate a fluffy, snow-like substance made of hydrocarbons. And so it came to pass that the Israelites received the manna falling from heaven that the Lord did send to nourish them.

Well, it’s a theory, anyway. Harper’s magazine ran an article about Velikovsky’s book in advance of its publication. Other, less sober publications followed suit, presenting Worlds in Collision as demonstrating the literal (albeit distorted) truth of events recorded in the Bible. The response by scientists was less enthusiastic, to put it mildly. The word “crackpot” tended to come up. Velikovsky’s interdisciplinary erudition impressed them only as evidence that he was profoundly ignorant in a number of fields. The American people would be dumber for reading the book, and so on.

Upon seeing the early publicity for Velikovsky’s book, some scientists were so disgusted that they wrote to Velikovsky’s publisher, Macmillan, to complain. Worlds in Collision had been listed in the firm’s catalog as a scientific work. The letter-writers considered this disgraceful, and warned of the potential damage to the press’s reputation in the scientific community. After a few university science departments canceled their meetings with Macmillan’s textbook salesmen, the publisher became alarmed and sold its right to the book to Doubleday.

Velikovsky was unhappy about this, but the deal was hard on Macmillan as well. At its peak, Worlds in Collision was selling a thousand copies a week, despite being a rather pricey hardback. The backstage furor soon died down, as did public interest in Velikovsky’s claims. By 1951, his ideas must have seemed as if they would have no more of a future than the other big fad of the previous years, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. (The scholarly literature seems to have overlooked this bit of synchronicity, though I’m sure there is a master’s thesis in it for somebody.)

The Worlds in Collision affair might have been forgotten entirely if not for a special issue of the journal American Behavioral Science devoted to the whole matter, published in 1963. The contributors were interested not so much in Velikovsky’s ideas as in how scientists had responded to them – with peremptory dismissals based on the Harper’s article, emotional rhetoric, and behind-the-scenes pressure on his publisher. It amounted to censorship and the repression of ideas – the assertion of scientific authority against a theory, despite the lack of serious engagement with the book itself.

Velikovsky and Albert Einstein both lived in Princeton, N.J., during the 1950s, and Velikovsky could quote remarks from the physicist’s letters and conversation suggesting that Worlds in Collision was at least interesting and worthy of a hearing. This was by no means the only thing Einstein had to say. Gordin quotes a number of occasions when Einstein described Velikovsky as “crazy” -- and clearly he regarded the man as a pest, at times. But it's not difficult to imagine why the most famous Jewish immigrant in postwar America might develop sympathetic feelings for someone of a comparable background who seemed to be facing unfair persecution. Besides, they could speak German together. That counted for a lot.

In any case, their friendship also made it easier to argue that Velikovsky just might be too far ahead of his time. In the mid-1960s, students at Princeton University formed a discussion group on Worlds in Collision, and Velikovsky himself spoke there – the first of what became many lectures to packed halls. Given the spirit of the time, having been rejected and anathemized by the scientific establishment was, in its own way, a credential. Among young people, Velikovsky enjoyed the special authority that comes when mention of one’s ideas is sufficient to annoy, very noticeably, one’s professors.

In 1972, the editors of Portland State University’s student magazine Pensée turned it into a forum defending and developing Velikovsky’s ideas. Papers were peer-reviewed, sort of: they were submitted to scholars and scientists for vetting, though most of the reviewers were sympathetic to Velikovsky (and, it sounds like, also contributors). Pensée’s first all-catastrophism issue clearly met a need. It had to be reprinted twice and sold 75,000 copies, after which the journal’s circulation settled down to a still-remarkable 10-20,000 copies per year.

And if any more evidence of his status as countercultural eminence were needed, the American Association for the Advancement of Science held a Velikovsy symposium at its annual conference in February 1974. The most famous participant was the astronomer Carl Sagan, who challenged the author’s supposed scientific evidence for the cosmic-catastrophe scenario at considerable length. Velikovsky and his supporters were angry that all of the invited speakers were critical of his work. But the organizers invited Velikovsky himself to respond, which he did, also at considerable length. The symposium may not have vindicated Velikovsky, but it gave him an unusually prominent place at the table

He died in 1979, and five years later Henry Bauer (now an emeritus professor of chemistry and science studies at Virginia Tech) published Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy (University of Illinois Press). It was the first book-length analysis of the whole saga and, for a long time, the last. Most of the secondary literature on Velikovsky appearing since his death resembles the material about him published during his lifetime, in that it is polemical, for or against. The one published biography of Velikovsky that I know of, drawing on his own memoirs, is by his daughter.

So Gordin’s The Pseudo-Science Wars belongs to the fairly small number of studies that do not simply pour the old controversies into new bottles. In that regard, the title is something of a fake-out. The author doesn’t treat Velikovsky’s catastrophism as a variety of pseudoscience. He is dubious about the concept, both because it is applied to too many phenomena that don’t share anything (what do astrology, cold fusion, biorhythms, and the study of how ancient astronauts shaped human evolution really have in common?) and because no one has established an epistemological “bright line” to distinguish science-proper from its pretenders. The word’s real significance lies in its use in shoring up the authority of those who use it. Calling something pseudoscience is more profoundly delegitimizing than calling it bad science.

Happily the author spends only a little time on Sociology of Deviance 101-type labeling theory before getting down to the altogether more compelling labor of using archival material that was unavailable to Bauer 30 years ago -- especially the theorist’s personal papers, now in Princeton’s collection. Velikovsky was something of a packrat. If he ever parted with a document, it cannot have been willingly. The Pseudo-Science Wars fills in the familiar outline of his career and controversy, as sketched above, with an abundance of new detail as well as insight into what Gordin calls “the development of Velikovskian auto-mythology.”

We learn, for one thing, that tales of a deliberate campaign of letter-writing and well-organized pressure on Macmillan through the threat of a boycott have little evidence to back them up. Accounts treating Velikovsky as an American Galileo typically suggest that his opponents wanted to prevent his ideas from receiving any hearing at all – that they were, in principle if not in method, book-burners.

But the existing documents suggest that the scientific community was chiefly troubled at seeing Worlds in Collision issued under the full authority of a major science and textbook publisher. A number of scientists responded by exerting pressure on Macmillan, but Gordin says the letters “were disorganized, uncoordinated, and threatened different things – some not to buy books, some not to referee manuscripts, others not to write them.”

Textbooks represented up to 70 percent of the publisher’s revenue, so professorial displeasure “had to be taken seriously. Macmillan could not afford to call it a bluff.” Once Worlds in Collision was sold to Doubleday (a trade publisher) scientists were content to mock the author’s grasp of geology, chemistry, celestial mechanics, etc. – or simply to ignore the book altogether.

Velikovsky converted the episode into a kind of moral capital, and Gordin demonstrates how shrewdly he and his admirers used it to build a scientific counter-establishment -- what one might otherwise call a full-scale pseudoscience. The analysis requires a number of detours, heading into territory where intellectual historians seldom venture – as in the sad tale of Donald Wesley Patten, author and publisher of The Biblical Flood and the Ice Epoch (1966), who ultimately proved too Velikovskian for the fundamentalists, and vice versa.

For a long time it seemed as if no one could go beyond Beyond Velikovsky. Gordin's book does not replace the earlier study, which remains an interesting and valuable book, and certainly worth the attention of anyone trying to decide whether to explore the terrain in more detail. But The Pseudoscience Wars puts the catastrophist’s ideas and aura into a wider and thicker context of ideas, people, and institutions -- a remarkable array, spanning from the Soviet genetics debates of the 1940s to today's fractious niche of (please accept my sincere apology for this next word) post-Velikovskyism.

Speaking of which, let me end with a prediction. While reading Gordin, it crossed my mind that the scenario of upheaval in Worlds in Collision might well speak to the sense of how precarious our little ball in space really is. Americans are not a thrifty people, but we do tend to recycle our cultural phenomena, and if there is one 20th-century idea that seems a likely candidate for 21st-century revival, it is probably catastrophism.

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New book on the "professional shift" in the discipline of history

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Author discusses new book on history's evolution as a discipline and what that means for the field today.

History department chairs talk challenges at conference

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Department heads discuss hardships facing the discipline and the way ahead during the American Historical Association's annual meeting.

Gains in history job market may mask serious challenges for those seeking positions

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Openings are up 18 percent, but other data suggest that finding tenure-track positions will remain challenging. And while applications to grad programs are falling, enrollments are not.

Essay on how historians are defining what students need to learn

Giants can move. So can venerable, cautious scholarly organizations like the American Historical Association. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation asked "Who Will Hold Colleges Accountable?" As a professor at Colorado College, and faculty chair of the AHA’s Tuning Project, I can answer: we will. In a moment where college education and the value it provides students, their families, and American society in general seems continuously under attack, the American Historical Association has been quietly helping its members define and promote the value of history. Carey’s piece, pointing out the outdated notion of credit hours that grant students "credit" and eventually degrees for the act of sitting in chairs or staring at screens, thoughtfully calls for scholarly societies to "define and update what it means to be proficient in a field."

The AHA is developing just such a set of definitions. As a group of professional teachers and scholars of history, we do have standards and expectations for what it means to learn to think historically. We should be able to explain what college students who take history courses and major in history have gained from their effort. This might be risky because scholarly organizations generally avoid telling people what they should know, teach, or research in a given discipline. But with the help of a grant from the Lumina Foundation and 70 history departments and programs, the AHA Tuning Project is moving toward a "discipline core."

Now a "discipline core" is not your grandmother’s set of facts that all history students should know – the dreaded lists of dates, czars, emperors, wars, presidents or their wives – but a set of skills and habits of mind that college-educated students should have. And, it turns out, historians can agree about what people with a history degree should be able to do. The 14,000 members of the AHA don’t and won’t ever agree about what facts students should know, but we can agree about the importance of evidence in generating interpretation and the imperative of developing a rich context around those facts. For example, someone with a history major probably could have saved the Gap some money and bad PR by explaining the historical context of "Manifest Destiny" and why that phrase might not be an ideal T-shirt slogan.

History students need to be able to find and sift information, read with a critical eye, assess evidence from the past, write with precision, and be able to tell stories that analyze and narrate the past effectively. We can also agree about a variety of ways students can demonstrate such skills. None of these can be assessed with fill-in-the-bubble tests or any national standardized test, but require meaningful assignments, student responses, and attentive faculty feedback. Take number 8 from the AHA’s discipline core: "Explore multiple historical and theoretical viewpoints that provide perspective on the past." Students could demonstrate this very simply by describing, in written or oral form, a range of descriptions of a specific event. To use the Manifest Destiny example again, a student could describe how this concept emerged in the 1840s and how people in Mexico, in Washington, and in Texas or California might have perceived it as imperial ambition or dangerous racism. Understanding that these different descriptions represent different points of view is great practice in perspective-taking, a tremendously important skill.

The collaborative process that is central to "tuning" means that this set of professional standards will not be prescriptive, but rather will provide reference points to guide history departments and history teachers. Each college and university will read and use a core of professional standards to design courses and degrees that reflect the varied missions and contexts of educational institutions. Having core values and standards that define history as a discipline and the value of historical thinking can and will build programs that do far more than require students to be present for a set of credit bearing hours.

To learn these skills, students have to practice them -- a fact that will immediately ratchet up what goes on in and out of classrooms. Time in a classroom is not, as some skeptics suggest, a waste of money and effort, but essential to real learning. Students have to speak, write, and communicate in a variety of media and to have their work assessed carefully. They need places to practice both skepticism and empathy to acquire the habits of mind required of a history student. These abilities are essential to having thoughtful leaders and citizens, and college graduates with value in the workplace and the community – the central promise of a college education.

Scholarly societies and disciplinary organizations can and should develop professional standards that insist on effective practices at colleges and universities. The AHA is betting that professional historians want to be held accountable for what their students should know and be able to do.

Anne Hyde is professor of history at Colorado College and faculty chair of the American Historical Association Tuning Project.

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Survey examines how senior historians view academic careers

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At universities, teaching isn't highly valued, but at bachelor's institutions, research is highly valued, survey finds. And that research had better not be digital. Study also finds senior professors dissatisfied with academic leaders and students.

Essay on Death of Eugene Genovese

Intellectual Affairs

An ancient and corny joke of the American left tells of a comrade who was surprised to learn that the German radical theorist Kautsky’s first name was Karl and not, in fact, “Renegade.” He’d seen Lenin’s polemical booklet The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky but only just gotten around to reading it.

Eavesdropping on some young Marxist academics via Facebook in the week following the historian Eugene Genovese’s death on September 26, I’ve come to suspect that there is a pamphlet out there somewhere about the Renegade Genovese. Lots of people have made the trek from the left to the right over the past couple of centuries, of course, but no major American intellectual of as much substance has, in recent memory, apart from Genovese. People may throw out a couple of names to challenge this statement, but the operative term here is “substance.” Genovese published landmark studies like Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974) and – with the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, his wife -- Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism, not score-settling memoirs and suchlike.

As for the term “renegade,” well… The author of the most influential body of Marxist historiography in the United States from the past half-century turned into one more curmudgeon denouncing “the race, class, gender swindle.” And at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee, no less. The scholar who did path-breaking work on the political culture of the antebellum South -- developing a Gramscian analysis of how slaves and masters understood one another, at a time when Gramsci himself was little more than an intriguing rumor within the American left – ended up referring to the events of 1861-65 as “the War of Southern Independence.”

Harsher words might apply, but “renegade” will do.

He is listed as “Genovese, Gene” in the index to the great British historian’s Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (2002). Actually, now I have to change that to “the late, great British historian” Hobsbawm, rather: he died on October 1.

The two of them belonged to an extremely small and now virtually extinct species: the cohort of left-wing intellectuals who pledged their allegiance to the Soviet Union and other so-called “socialist” countries, right up to that system’s very end. How they managed to exhibit such critical intelligence in their scholarship and so little in their politics is an enigma defying rational explanation. But they did: Hobsbawm remained a dues-paying member of the Communist Party of Great Britain until it closed up shop in 1991.

The case of Genovese is a little more complicated. He was expelled from the American CP in 1950, at the age of 20, but remained close to its politics long after that. In the mid-1960s, as a professor of history at Rutgers University, he declared his enthusiasm for a Vietcong victory. It angered Richard Nixon at the time, and I recall it being mentioned with horror by conservatives well into the 1980s. What really took the cake was that he’d become the president of the Organization of American Historians in 1978-79. Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover had to be spinning in their graves.

When such a sinner repents, the angels do a dance. With Eric Hobsbawm, they didn’t have much occasion to celebrate. Though he wrote off the Russian Revolution and all that followed in its wake as more or less regrettable when not utterly disastrous, he didn’t treat the movement he’d supported as a God that failed. He could accept the mixture of noble spirits and outright thugs, of democratic impulses and dictatorial consequences, that made up the history he'd played a small part in; he exhibited no need to make either excuses or accusations.

Genovese followed a different course, as shown in  in the landmark statement of his change in political outlook, an article called  “The Question” that appeared in the social-democratic journal Dissent in 1994. The title referred to the challenge of one disillusioned communist to another: “What did you know and when did you know it?" Genovese never got around to answering that question about himself, oddly enough. But he was anything but reluctant  He was much less reluctant about accusing more or less everybody who’d ever identified as a leftist or a progressive of systematically avoiding criticism of the Soviets. He kept saying that “we” had condoned this or that atrocity, or were complicit with one bloodbath or another, but in his hands “we” was a very strange pronoun, for some reason meaning chiefly meaning “you.”

What made it all even odder was that Genovese mentioned, almost in passing, that he’d clung to his support for Communism “to the bitter end.” If decades of fellow-traveling showed a failure of political judgment, “The Question” was no sign of improvement. His ferocious condemnation seemed to indicate that everyone from really aggressive vegans to Pol Pot belonged to one big network of knowing and premeditated evil. You hear that on talk radio all the time, but never from a winner of the Bancroft Prize for American history. Or almost never.

Recognizing that Genovese’s “open letter to the left [was] intended to provoke,” Dissent’s editors “circulated it to people likely to be provoked” and published their responses, and Genovese’s reply, in later issues. The whole exchange is available in PDF here.

Unfortunately it did not occur to the editors to solicit a response from either Phyllis or Julius Jacobson, the founders of New Politics, a small journal of the anti-Stalinist left, which has somehow managed to stay afloat since their deaths in recent years. (Full disclosure: I’m on its editorial board.) They read “The Question” as soon as it came out. If my memory can be trusted, one or the other of them (possibly both: they finished each other’s sentences) called it “blockheaded.” Coming as it did from septuagenarian Trotskyists, “blockheaded” was a temperate remark.

But Julius, at least, had more to say. He’d served as campus organizer for the Young Socialist League at Brooklyn College in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, when Genovese was there. They crossed paths – how could they not? – and Julius remembered him as a worthy opponent. Genovese could defend the twists and turns in Stalin’s policies with far more skill than most CP members and supporters, whose grasp of their movement’s history and doctrine boiled down to the sentiment that the Soviet Union was, gosh, just swell.  

Julius was not prone to losing debates, but it’s clear that these ideological boxing matches went into overtime. Picturing the young Genovese in battle, I find the expression “more Stalinist than Stalin” comes to mind. But that’s only part of it. He was also -- what’s much rarer, and virtually paradoxical -- an independent Stalinist. He brought intelligent cynicism, rather than muddled faith, to making his arguments. An article by the American historian Christopher Phelps demonstrates that Genovese “knew full well and openly acknowledged the undemocratic nature and barbaric atrocities of the Communist states” but refused to “condemn their crimes unequivocally in his writings” and denounced anyone who did. “It serves no purpose,” Genovese wrote, “to pretend that `innocent' -- personally inoffensive and politically neutral -- people should be spared” from revolutionary violence. (Phelps was a graduate student when he published the commentary in 1994. Today he teaches in the American and Canadian Studies program at the University of Nottingham.)

Genovese wasn’t a political hack; his opinions had the veneer of serious thought, thanks in no small part to the fact that he also became an extremely cogent analyst of the history of American slavery.  When he no longer had a tyranny to support, he “discovered” how complicit others had been, and began warning the world about the incipient totalitarianism of multiculturalism. His studies of the intellectual life of the slaveholding class began to show ever more evident sympathy for them – a point discussed some years ago in “Right Church, Wrong Pew: Eugene Genovese & Southern Conservatism,” an article by Alex Lichtenstein, an associate professor of history at Indiana University, which I highly recommend. Genovese’s scholarship has been influential for generations, and it will survive, but anyone in search of political wisdom or a moral compass should probably look elsewhere.


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Essay on James Harvey Robinson centennial and 'Doing Recent History'

This year is the centenary of James Harvey Robinson’s book The New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook, which made a case for teaching and writing about the past as something other than the record of illustrious men gaining power and then doing things with it.

“Our bias for political history,” he wrote, “led us to include a great many trifling details of dynasties and military history which merely confound the reader and take up precious space that should be devoted to certain great issues hitherto neglected.” The new breed of historians, such as the ones Robinson was training at Columbia University, would explore the social and cultural dimensions of earlier eras -- “the ways in which people have thought and acted in the past, their tastes and their achievements in many fields” – as well as what he called “the intricate question of the role of the State in the past.”

One hundred years and several paradigm shifts later, this “new history” is normal history; it’s not obvious why Robinson’s effort was so provocative at the time. You can see how it might have upset turf-protecting experts concerned with, say, whether or not Charles the Bald was actually bald. But it also promised to make connections between contemporary issues and knowledge of the past -- or threatened to make those connections, to put it another way.

Hold that thought for now, though. Jumping from 1912 to the present, let me point out a new collection of papers from the University of Georgia Press called Doing Recent History, edited by Claire Bond Potter and Renee C. Romano. (Potter is professor of history at the New School, Romano an associate professor of history at Oberlin College.)

There’s something puzzlingly James Harvey Robinson-ish about it, even though none of the contributors give the old man a nod. It must be a total coincidence that the editors are publishing the collection just now, amidst all the centennial non-festivities. And some of Robinson’s complaints about his colleagues would sound bizarre in today’s circumstances – especially his frustration at their blinkered sense of what should count as topics and source materials for historical research. “They exhibit but little appreciation of the vast resources upon which they might draw,” he wrote, “and unconsciously follow for the most part, an established routine in their selection of facts.”

As if in reply, the editors of Doing Recent History write: “We have the opportunity to blaze trails that have not been marked in historical literature. We have access to sources that simply do not exist for earlier periods: in addition to living witnesses, we have unruly evidence such as video games and television programming (which has expanded exponentially since the emergence of cable), as well as blogs, wikis, websites, and other virtual spaces.”

No doubt cranky talk-show hosts and unemployed Charles the Bald scholars will take umbrage at Jerry Saucier’s paper “Playing the Past: The Video Game Simulation as Recent American History” – and for what it’s worth, I’m not entirely persuaded that Saucier’s topic pertains to historiography, rather than ethnography. But that could change at some point. In “Do Historians Watch Enough TV? Broadcast News as a Primary Source,” David Greenberg makes the forceful argument that political historians tend to focus on written material to document their work: a real anachronism given TV’s decisive role in public life for most of the period since World War II. He gives the example of a sweeping history of the Civil Rights movement that seemed to draw on every imaginable source of documentation -- but not the network TV news programs that brought the struggle into the nation's living room. (The historian did mention a couple of prime-time specials, but with no details or reason to suppose he'd watched them.) Likewise, it’s entirely possible that historians of early 21st-century warfare will need to know something about video games, which have had their part in recruiting and training troops.

Besides the carefully organized, searchable databases available in libraries, historians have to come to terms with the oceans of digital text created over the past quarter-century or so -- tucked away on countless servers for now, but posing difficult questions about archiving and citation. The contributors take these issues up, along with related problems about intellectual property and the ethical responsibility of the historian when using documents published in semi-private venues online, or deposited in research collections too understaffed to catch possible violations of confidentiality.

In “Opening Archives on the Recent Past: Reconciling the Ethics of Access and the Ethics of Privacy, “ Laura Clark Brown and Nancy Kaiser discuss a number of cases of sensitive information about private citizens appearing in material acquired by the Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For example, there's the author whose papers include torrid correspondence with a (married) novelist who wouldn't want his name showing up in the finding aid. Brown and Kaiser also raise another matter for concern: “With the full-text search capabilities of Google Books and electronic journals, scholarly works no longer have practical obscurity, and individuals could easily find their names and private information cited in a monograph with even a very small press run.”

The standard criticism of James Harvey Robinson’s work among subsequent generations of professional historians is that his “new history” indulges in “presentism” – the sin of interpreting the past according to concerns or values of the historian’s own day. In Robinson’s case, he seems to have been a strong believer in the virtues of scientific progress, in its continuing fight against archaic forms of thought and social organization. With that in mind, it’s easier to understand his insistence that social, cultural, and intellectual history were at least as important as the political and diplomatic sort (and really, more so). Students and the general public were better off learning about “the lucid intervals during which the greater part of human progress has taken place,” rather than memorizing the dates of wars and coronations.

None of the contributors to Doing Recent History are nearly that programmatic. Their main concern is with the challenge of studying events and social changes from the past few decades using the ever more numerous and voluminous sources becoming available. Robinson’s “new history” tried to make the past interesting and relevant to the present. The “recent history” people want to generate the insights and critical skills that become possible when you learn to look at the recent past as something much less familiar, and more puzzling, than it might otherwise appear. I'm struck less by the contrast than the continuity.

Robinson would have loved it. In fact, he even anticipated their whole project. “In its normal state,” he wrote one hundred years ago, “the mind selects automatically, from the almost infinite mass of memories, just those things in our past which make us feel at home in the present. It works so easily and efficiently that we are unconscious of what it is doing for us and of how dependent we are upon it.”

Our memory — personal and cultural alike – “supplies so promptly and so precisely what we need from the past in order to make the present intelligible that we are beguiled into the mistaken notion that the present is self-explanatory and quite able to take care of itself, and that the past is largely dead and irrelevant, except when we have to make a conscious effort to recall some elusive fact.” That passage would have make a good epigraph for Doing Recent History, but it’s too late now.

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