We’re Killing Ourselves

In reading this week’s articles about Wikipedia and reenacting, I had more than a few thoughts. So here I shall present what I was considering on what I felt were the two headliners.

 

First, in Embedded with the Reenactors I was stunned at the absolute disregard for any sort of political or ideological balance in Kowalczyk’s presentation of his experience. Such a treatment of what I had hoped to be an educated account of the experience actually made me quite angry at the outset. Here is an excerpt of what I felt at the time to be a particularly vile piece of writing:

The summer of 2009 was particularly ugly. President Obama had just entered office and banks too big to fail had been saved. As a country, we were debating whether health care was a basic right for everyone. A few days earlier, the government in Iraq had declared a national “Sovereignty Day” after U.S. forces handed over security responsibilities following the six-year war for oil and the American empire. In Afghanistan that day, a U.S. soldier wandered off his base without body armor or a weapon and was kidnapped and three troops died in an attack on the eastern front. And back at home, one had the feeling of even uglier times ahead, with Tea Partiers and racists chipping away at the goodwill and hope of the president’s election, his vow to end torture and close Guantanamo Bay, and it seemed certain the superhero candidate abruptly would confront the limits of his power in this age of government dysfunction and concentrated wealth. All of these things were on the minds of the re-enactors at Fort Niagara.

Without the French and Indian War, I was told in one re-enactor’s cascading cause-and-effect lecture, the British never would’ve taken hold of the American colonies, never would’ve quartered soldiers and taxed tea and killed Crispus Attucks; without the F&I there would’ve been no Washington, no Jefferson, no Lincoln, and therefore no Civil War, and so on.

Winston Churchill called the F&I the real first world war, someone added.

“It’s truly our nation’s forgotten war,” another mourned.

“Now that the Democrats are in office they’ll fund every useless social program and gut the things that really matter, like the national parks system.”

Someone else said, “This battle here is the reason today we ain’t speaking French.”

And one re-enactor offered this insight: “We’re people with an appreciation for history. We don’t just take The New York Times and go glug-glug-glug.”

Very few, if any, re-enactors recycled their bottles and cans.

My internal reaction to this was so intense and disturbing, I decided that it might be worth it to consider what it was that I was reacting to. I think that there are two things in this paragraph and initially that had turned me off to the article. First, Kowalczyk appears to be setting the scene and adding context, but his subtext is political drivel. In an article that purports to discuss the experience of a reenactor, and what it looks like on the field of battle he is trying to take issue with modern-day politics. He furthermore avoided any serious analysis of the questions that he asked. This sentiment was echoed by author of Abraham in Arms, Ann M. Little in her critique of Kowalczyk’s article. The second issue I took with that particular paragraph was that it appeared to be poking fun at the lesser humans that take part in reenactment, pointing out that they were republicans, proud of their non-French-speaking status and apparently of a conservative mindset. Kowalczyk, through the entire article, treated those men—many of whom are very well-studied in their history—as if they were some sort of oafish miscreants, of a lesser mental capacity than him.

Overall I did not feel as though Kowalczyk wrote a work worthy of being discussed at the academic level. It did not analyze the questions it asked. It did not consider the reality or position of the people it was supposedly observing, opting instead to portray the reenactors as stupid and petty, equating these things with conservatism and republicanism. Kowalczyk further failed to account for the possibility that reenacting might just not be for him. He wrote as if, because he didn’t like it and found it offputting, it must be wrong and not for anybody. In summary, at best Kowalczyk’s article was academically not viable, at worst it was abysmally poor journalism.

The second “Headliner” article was Dr. Messer-Kruse’s experience with Wikipedia. Like Kowalczyk, Messer-Kruse considered an experience that he had and wrote an article based on that. The difference between the two was that Messer-Kruse presented an analysis of his subject, rather than just spew political vitriol. In The ‘Undue Weight’ of Truth on Wikipedia Messer-Kruse discussed his experience trying to add expert information based on primary sources to Wikipedia. It was quite an adventure, often maddening and at the same time humorous to consider some of the responses to his information. It was somewhat excruciating reading  Wikipedia editors parrot responses about consensus and “reliable sources.” It raised questions about the viability of socially constructed truth, and its weaknesses where it fails to include minority views. Perhaps such an idea is better considered in long-term benefits than what it means in the immediate present. However, what it does mean in the present seems to be trying to steer society into a sort of giant singular mindset. An ideology that I am not prepared to accept, and neither might I think would the reenactors who think that people just drink-up “New York Times glug-glug-glug.”

Overall I have to think that with resources like reenacting and Wikipedia, historians must become more flexible in our approach to the public. We are seen by many as learned, but not practiced—as if we are disconnected from the harsh realities of the world. In many cases academics are to blame for such a public perception. If I were a person who had paid $25.00 to attend the French-Indian war reenactment, I would have been terribly offended reading Kowalczyk’s article. Instead of blaming those people for their ignorance, perhaps some introspection is in order. Why do these people spend $25.00 to see something that I feel is irrelevant and offensive? Could it be that they draw different connections with the past, not from ignorance, but from different experience? In the case of Wikipedia, it seems that it is really not a place for penetrating, avant-garde interpretive history, so why waste so much time complaining about it? It’s not like Wikipedia is suddenly going to change their stance. Perhaps a better approach would be to go with the flow for now, and win battles where they can be won.

One thought on “We’re Killing Ourselves”

  1. After more thought on the matter, I felt as though I should amend my previous diatribe with a short reflection so as to feel less as if I had just had mentally vomited on a public blog. I felt as though my post had less to do with actually positively discussing the implications for reenactment or Wikipedia for the field of history than it did a personal reaction, and the reality is that I do have thoughts on how these two very public expressions are tied to, affect, and may be utilized by historians.

    Firstly, I should note that I am not a great fan of “New Journalism” as a style of writing or a genre in the field of journalism, largely for the very reasons that I expressed about Kowalczyk’s writing. I feel that it is journalism for the purpose of shock and agenda rather than thought and analysis. Its very intent is to elicit a reaction from its audience as it did from me, whether that be negative or positive. While I feel that reaction and emotion are very real things that historians and journalists should have to deal with, I don’t feel that trying to leverage those emotions against historical practice or understanding to achieve present-day agendas is constructive. I feel this way particularly for historians that hijack the practice of history in an attempt to influence present day realities–from Lincoln and Jefferson quotes all the way down to gay rights. History has an application as the study of the past, and while elements of it may be relevant to inform on present times, that ought not be the purpose of carefully practiced history. On this point I will allow Kowalczyk some leeway, as he is not a historian, but a writer.
    I believe that reenactment is a very useful tool for people to connect with the past. It is not perhaps so much about the spectator as it is the reenactor. Those who devote much time, to the point of near obsession, to the practice of reenactment, come into very close contact with the history as it was. While it may seem offensive to some, like Kowalczyk, that they are middle-aged men with some axe to grind, the reality of the history of that time is that there were not a lot of women or minorities involved, particularly on the winning side. There is a correlation here to the Wikipedia phenomenon and truth. The general move of academic history is to be more inclusive, to try and amplify the minority accounts–often the more factual accounts–to draw in a wider audience. In many cases however, the facts remain that the majority account, the historical consensus, is the factual account. Many times this is hard on our modern-day sensitivities, because it is hurtful to one or another minority group, but that does not mean that the majority is being intentionally mean, simply that they are remaining true to consensus. Hard as it may be to swallow, consensus yet remains as the accepted truth for the largest body of people.
    By focusing so much attention on minority perspectives, historians often alienate this majority body. They do so with the noblest of intentions, but they do so nonetheless. It seems to me that trying to appeal to a larger audience should include the factual perspectives, neither slanted to amplify the minority any more than the majority. This is an extraordinarily high aim for the historian. It is easier to remain comfortable in one of the other perspective.

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