CHICAGO -- Analysis of current events is too important for historians to ignore, one of the nation’s preeminent scholars on the Middle East argued last week at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.
Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, spoke on a panel titled “Historians, Journalists, and the Challenges of Getting It Right,” one of several sessions at this year’s conference devoted to the interplay of history and journalism. Other sessions included discussions on the American biography and the Cold War, publishing and the American century, and American intervention.
Cole, who writes a widely read blog on the Middle East, history and religion called Informed Comment and who once made news for being rejected for a post in Middle Eastern history at Yale University following conservative criticism of his opinions, is no critic of journalism or Luddite who fails to appreciate the information immediacy that characterized the Arab Spring. But the "first draft" of history in which journalists engaged in reporting on the uprisings was skewed, he and other panelists said.
One example is the proliferation of reports stressing the importance of Twitter and Facebook during the revolutions. Very few people in Tunisia are wired, and the percentage of the population using Twitter in Egypt might barely reach 1 percent, Cole said. “Gossip will do the trick if people are determined,” Cole said. Though he did not deny that technology was important, he said there was too much emphasis on it. Wired journalists from the Western world might have been looking for wired people in the Middle East to write about, Cole said.
Historians have an important role to play in adding depth and sophistication to our understanding of events when they do their work, yet many are reluctant to examine recent events, Cole said. Some historians are not comfortable dealing with the recent past and think that some topics are either too hot to touch or difficult to examine more than superficially because they were recent. “Well, I am arguing that the limit is yesterday,” he said.
Events like the Arab Spring are wonderful arenas for writing contemporary history, the historian said. Cole argued that he could write the history of Egypt of the last 10 years from a much firmer documentary basis than he could a history of the country in the '70s. There is no access to Egyptian archival material from the '70s, and American records from the period are still classified. For the last 10 years, meanwhile, there is not only a treasure trove from Wikileaks but also archival-type material in Arabic on the Internet.
“I would argue that for the Middle East today, there are many advantages for writing contemporary history, maybe over advantages that don’t exist for earlier periods,” Cole said.
With the Arab Spring, historians might be able to explain the social history of the modern Arab world. Cole mentioned the role of employee unions in the Egyptian pro-democracy movement and how their role was often overlooked by reporters. When textile workers in Egypt struck work to protest, the anti-government movement gained strength, he said.
Another outcome of this disenchantment with Arab dictators is what Cole called the “collapse of the Leninist critique of bourgeois democracy.” Historically, parliamentary democracy was not something to aspire to in the Arab world. But that might have changed in the last year, with left-leaning students openly calling for free and fair parliamentary elections.
Another panelist, David Moberg, a senior editor at In These Times magazine, mentioned how foreign reporting rarely gives any historical background to readers. He said issues that were not given enough attention during the Arab Spring included the role of unions in the uprising, economic disparities in the region, and the role of the U.S. government when it came to protests in Bahrain.
“In short, for all its accomplishments, U.S. journalism as a first draft of history of the Arab Spring suffered from using a perspective too rooted in an noncritical view of the U.S. and too deficient in its historical understanding of the region,” Moberg said.
Historians should not be reluctant to write the second draft soon, the panelists argued.