Reflecting on “History in a New Millennium”

Jeremy Popkin discusses many changes and controversies in History today. This ranges from the Irving v. Lipstadt Holocaust case of 2000 to various technologies, their merit and effects on history. While it is undeniable that history has and will continue to be changed by technology, Popkin provides little to no speculation as to how, even stating that Historians are notoriously bad at predicting such things. Could this be a weak cop out? As providers race to offer faster connectivity and smaller devices to provide “news” on the go, it seems obvious that the Internet will continue to be the technological advancement that changes every field of study more. However, I digress, neither Popkin or myself can tell the future and my five years in the field of wireless telecommunications may be clouding the historical “compartments” of my brain.

Popkin spends a significant amount of time on the Irving case. The case is significant because it solidified scholarly claims that their work could offer significant and factual information on past events for a clear interpretation. Therefore, when Lipstadt accused him of using his neo-Nazi affiliations to promote a Holocaust negationist agenda and provided evidence her case became infallible. Also in the early 2000’s, as Popkin points out, several other ‘historians’ fell into an Irving trap for lying about their personal lives and therefore discrediting their careers, plagiarism, and flat out making up evidence to support their theses.

Technology makes more information readily available, but this is not always a good thing. Gertrude Himmelfarb argued that there were two kinds of internet-posting historians, professionals and amateurs, and that the latter were ruining the field. This had to do with a saturation of bias and oftentimes completely false information because anyone can post things on the internet. Popkin then expands the internet’s complications by explaining that scholarly work is closed off to the public and high subscriptions also make them unaffordable to all professionals. Furthermore, with technology- namely e-readers, subscription levels continue to decrease and therein lies a problem on how long these close market peer-reviewed systems can work. Moreover, given the digitizing of historical documents and museums with special focus receiving donations that are open to scholars and visitors alike, are subscription sustainable and necessary? Media also plays a large part, as they are possibly the most bias resource that most people look toward for current events that will become studied history.

Discussing television, film, and museums, Popkin seems to be open to them now that they are working on changes. In television the History Channel is arguably worthless and Popkin instead focuses on the popularity of documentaries, explaining that they are not always reliable. In using Ken Burns and Simon Schama as examples, he lets the reader know that no matter if a professional historian presents the material, or if professionals are consulted, the information presented will always maintain bias. Therefore, he builds on this ‘big picture’ type of idea and applies it to film too, arguing that fiction or otherwise, an emotional value is presented in a sense that cannot be presented by scholarly work. Films, in pulling at their emotions, submerge the viewer in an era or in the (fake or misrepresented famous) person’s shoes to relive a history (of sorts) much like a museum and it therefore has some value as its own entity in its own right. Museums are also shifting to be of more worth, working to diversify and present views of victims, victors, all races, and genders. Though he presents an example where it the museum’s message can be lost in the presented interpretations he also explains that when it is properly presented, both in set up and content, that the value is great, if not greater than simply pouring over scholarly work because it is drawing in the learners as participants.

The end of Popkin’s discussion is on global history and transnationalism, deep history, and new biographies. All of these seek to change how history is studied and its aspects of importance. Deep history aims to loosen the dated and figurehead to the events approach of present and past history and focus on the big picture to see connections through history and how everything is linked- both to map events and to connect history to science. It is an approach that Historians should push away from, while it is certainly important to make arguments to tie events together and see a bigger picture, events shape cultures and countries- as do the people involved, and by losing details history is lost. History can not be oversimplified, it defeats the purpose of the study, which is to clarify the who, what, why, etc. of events. Not just this but generalizing historical events alters the memory of every generation to come and therefore the story of nations, races, and the connections trying to be made in the first place.

This piece left me with just as many questions as it offered answers to how historians are and should continue to handle a changing system for historiography. First, I think that it is a simplification on Himmelfard’s part to cluster writers as professional or amateur. A person without means can still access the materials and devote time to historical topics to the point of expertise without needing a degree, nor does every historian need to justify how everything they find interesting “contributes” to the field. For example, if a person is a passionate Middle Eastern Medieval coin collector and pours over books of Abbasid and Umayyad empires tax laws, conquests, and faith systems they could publish and discuss why a coin had the face of a king and changed to Qur’anic versus upon conversion to Islam without it being a new discussion or it having peer-reviewed value. Is it not equally as important to impress upon students to look for reliable sources and to master citations than it is to write off every non-doctorate-holding lover of history?  The other topic I found perplexing was that of film, while I most definitely understand the aversion to misrepresentation of the historical figures I see a need for more students to go into history and I believe that film motivates students to get interested in topics of history. In my opinion, let Hollywood keep making their movies and let professors continue to present the facts. Hollywood will never please everyone, even looking at the torn audience of the recent criminal Kray brothers film where those close to the Krays were part of forming the script and praised Tom Hardy’s performance and then Londoners said it misrepresented their reign on the city. People will always see what they want to see, but through proper education scholars and lead the dialogue on topics and continue to provide accurate source material for Hollywood, television, bloggers, hobbyists, and museums, whether they want to dress it up or not is on them.

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