05 February 2014

Plants to seeds or seeds to plants?

Ira Chernus, who blogs at History News Network, takes a look at the idea that this year sees the fiftieth anniversary of 'The Sixties'. He uses this to make a springboard to a broader notion that historical scholars need to have a clear idea in their head about how to define an era under examination. Chernus points out that for most Americans 1964 wasn't much different to 1963, although the seedlings that would carry the blossoms that characterise 'The Sixties' had sprouted sturdily in 1964. It is simply a matter of, in retrospect, making the connections. Chernus argues that this matter of connections, however, is crucial to historical understanding. He proposes that while from our perspective The Sixties can be seen as plain as day, people at the time were largely unconscious of the change, and that in writing a history of The Sixties, the presence of this consciousness is important. He effectively says that one can't have The Sixties without people knowing they are living in The Sixties. I had already drawn similar conclusions while I was researching my original dissertation topic, and it represents one of the reasons why I turned to a different (although in my mind related) subject. I draw a different conclusion, though, about what this means if historical scholars want to write about a phenomenon that the public broadly understands as 'The Sixties'. The fiftieth anniversary of my 'The Sixties' occurred a few years ago, and my 'The Sixties' ends a little bit after the time Chernus seems to be suggesting they begin. But that's not the big lesson I draw from Chernus' post. For me Chernus is pointing out a fundamental flaw in the way historians can approach their subjects. I first noticed this in relation to John Higham's estimable Strangers in the Land, a book I view nonetheless as deeply flawed. Higham structures his book around the Immigration Act of 1924. This is the end of his story, and he tries to show all the seeds that sprouted to brought Americans to this. I'm not really willing to connect this piece of legislation as closely to the Nativist movements of the mid nineteenth century, one of the plants in Higham's anti-immigrant garden. As a consequence of pondering Higham's work, I question a 'looking back' approach to history. The various historical plants that grew into mid-nineteenth century Nativism did not all lead to the 1924 Immigration Act. In fact, I would argue, very little of mid-nineteenth century Nativism has much to do with later legislation, or even with today's political crisis over immigration, which afflicts the two main pillars of the Anglosphere, Britain and the United States. And, in the light of this, I concluded it is much better to start from the seed, and trace its growth, than to view the blossom, and look down for its roots. For me, a construct such as 'The Sixties', is a useful starting point as a teaching tool, or a marketing device, but historians should undermine the validity of these constructs for the purpose of understanding the past. They belong to the dying age of the weekly newsmagazine.

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