History Judges But Who Is Presiding Part 2: Joan Wallach Scott’s ON THE JUDGMENT OF HISTORY

In 2014, I wrote a post here on The Boomerang about a phrase I kept hearing and which puzzled me, “History will judge…” Pundits and politicians alike were throwing this phrase around as if there in the future existed a panel of historians expected to pass judgment on humanity based on our actions (or in-actions).

Since I wrote that blog post six years ago, this phrase has come into even heavier rotation as chaos and morally ambiguous behavior became the norm on behalf of members of our executive branch, and, to some extent, our legislative branch as well.

I am not alone in thinking about the use of this phrase. Historian and Professor Emerita Joan Wallach Scott became puzzled by it in 2019 when a friend of hers commented on the anti-climax of the Mueller Report by saying that history would judge those who worked to corrupt the democracy of the United States.

This exchange sent Wallach Scott on an investigative journey to find the origins and the meaning of the concept of history as an agent of judgment. The result of that journey is the book, On the Judgment of History (Columbia University Press, 2020).

To investigate the meaning of this concept, Wallach Scott presents three case studies–the Nuremberg Trials following World War II, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa following the dismantling of Apartheid, and the movement for Reparations in the United States. What binds these case studies together is that they “explore the different ways in which the idea of the state as the embodiment and enactment of history operated.” (p. xx). Moreover, they engage directly with the nation state as the telos of history; they highlight the connection between nation states and racism; and they demonstrate the use of the nation state as the impetus for what the people involved intend to achieve. In the case of the Nuremberg trials, the goal is the conviction of the war criminals who perpetrated the Holocaust. In the case of South Africa’s TRC, a path forward out of Apartheid. In the case of the Reparations Movement, a reckoning with the United States’ original sin, slavery.

The case studies are based on extensive and impeccable research, as would be expected of a historian of Wallach Scott’s caliber. It raises several important questions, explicitly (“Could the nation state exist without racism at its core?” (p. xxii)) and implicitly (What is the purpose of history?) In her case studies, Wallach Scott demonstrates how history has been utilized (Nuremberg), deferred (South Africa), and challenged (the US). In the end, however, the case studies only partially succeed in addressing the issue at hand, namely why we today refer to history as an impartial, moral judge.

Wallach Scott shows us where the idea of History as Judge comes from by stating that it “is associated with the Enlightenment belief that there is but one History, which moves in an ever-improving direction: forward, upward, cumulatively positive.” (p. xv) Because of its origins in the Enlightenment, this One History of forward-moving positivity is inherently European, male, white, colonial, Christian (Protestant, to be exact), intrinsically intertwined with the development of the nation state, and the view of the nation state as the culmination of human civilization (or the nation state as telos).

To answer the question of why this phrase has caught on the way it has, Wallach Scott states that in an increasingly secular age, History has become the “righteous Judge of the Universe.” (p. 76) That is to say, where people used to turn to God on Judgment Day for the separation of sheep and goats, we now turn to History in a future deferred.

These conclusions have led me to the following conclusions of my own.

First, as Wallach Scott concludes, the idea of History as a moral judge is an expression of increased secularism in the United States. But, it is also an expression of the normalization of Apocalyptic Christianity in the American mainstream. Writes Wallach Scott, “The unveiling of the role of race in the economic history of the United States explodes long-standing, congratulatory progressive histories as myth. [—] This acknowledgment is a form of restitution and it opens the possibility for reclaiming the lost promise of justice, the messianic hope of the judgment of history.” (My italics.) Wallach Scott’s decision not to delve deeper into this view of history is the book’s lost opportunity.

Second, there is a conspiracy at the heart of American history and the argument over what that conspiracy is, is the reason for the seemingly irreconcilable polarization in American society today. I agree with Wallach Scott’s conclusion that “appeals to the judgment of history […] function more as consolatory polemic in the present than as evidence of deep confidence in the future.” (p. 82) There is no doubt that American society is in crisis. Until we can start having a constructive conversation about the buried secrets of our past, we will continue to be a society in crisis. History will not save us, because, as Wallach Scott also states, History with a capital H is written by a group of highly trained and specialized professionals known as historians. It is not a force of its own.

Finally, the idea of History as a Moral Judge of Good and Evil is an American idea and based on American values, which in the mainstream are Christian (Protestant, to be exact) values. Of the three case studies that Wallach Scott presents, two use history to pass judgment and one does not. It is not a coincidence that the two in question (Nuremberg, Reparations) involve Americans in leading roles. The third (the TRC) was an internal South African affair. As a historian trained and educated entirely outside of the American educational system, I reacted to the use of the phrase “History will judge” already in 2014 because the idea that such a notion is even possible was (and is) completely alien to me.

On the Judgment of History by Joan Wallach Scott is a thought-provoking book that opens up for discussion on the role of history and what history is and can be. Ultimately, the book misses its mark because in its choice of case studies, it becomes a demonstration of the belief that the internal concerns of the United States are also the concerns of the world.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

One Year with the Passion Planner: Leveling Up

In the summer of 2019, I realized it was time for a change. I had been using the same calendar to plan my work since 1995 when I enrolled in my first university course. The calendar I’d been using was the Filofax, a professional calendar that doubles as a binder. Inside the cover, you fasten an annual paper calendar, which you exchange for a new one when the next year starts. For years, the Filofax filled every need I had. But last year, I noticed that I reached for it less often as I entered less information.

Just as when I started using the Filofax all those years ago, my life in 2019 was no longer what it used to be. I started using the Filofax when I went from high school to university. Now, as a university instructor who also publishes articles as a freelancer while simultaneously working on a book project, my professional life had become much more complex and the Filofax, I was sad to realize, couldn’t keep up anymore.

Once I made the decision to move on, the next step was easy. A while back there was a conversation in a Slack channel I belonged to where a group of my fellow Contributors to an online book site were raving about this planner they were using. It was called the Passion Planner. The years I spent in this community had taught me to trust the judgment of its people. So, when the time came to find myself a new planner, I knew where to go.

The Passion Planner is called a Passion Planner for a reason. It helps you plan your weekly schedule and professional to-dos while also providing you with tools to track and plan your passions, whatever they may be.

Large black calendar called a Passion Planner with a soft fabric pencil case with an image from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit
The original annual elite black Passion Planner, size large, together with my Tolkien pencil case from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern.

The Passion Planner comes in several different versions. I chose the original Passion Planner with the weekly layout that starts on Sunday. I decided to buy the large-sized planner because what I was missing with the Filofax was the ability to get a literal overview of the week.

Not only does the Passion Planner give you an easy overview of each week, it also provides tools for creating an overview of your life. At the very beginning of the Passion Planner, there are mind maps where you can set up goals for 3 months, 1 year, 3 years, and your entire lifetime. In between June and July, there is a six-month check in, and after December there is a summary of the year.

Each month begins with a spread that contains the monthly calendar as well as goals for the coming month, such as what to focus on professionally and personally, people to see, places to go, and things to learn. Each week contains space for setting similar types of goals, as well as personal and professional to-do lists, an inspirational quote that sets a theme for the week, and a large blank box called “Space of Infinite Possibility.” At the very end of the Passion Planner are blank pages that you are free to use as you wish. On the inside of the back cover, there is a generous pocket, similar to the one you will find at the back of a Moleskin notebook. The Passion Planner has an elastic to keep the planner closed and a permanent book mark of silk that will help you keep track of where you are among its many pages.

As I’m sure you have understood by now, the Passion Planner is a big book. It’s not something you cram into your pocket, or even into a large purse. But the way I see it, that’s not the purpose of the Passion Planner. The Passion Planner demands you to sit down and engage with it, and in engaging with your Planner you are also engaging with your own life situation.

How I have engaged with my Passion Planner is plain to see on its pages. January through March are oriented towards tasks and achievements. The goals I set for those months and weeks are mostly work related, and I can tell that I was under a lot of pressure and stress.

Towards the end of March, things begin to change. The change comes not from one of the weekly inspirational quotes, but from the Passion Planner editor’s comment on that quote. The comment reads, “Focus on working smarter, not harder.” From then on, every week I wrote as my goal: Work smarter, not harder. Still together with work related tasks that I needed to complete.

In mid-May, I added a second goal, this one in the form of a question that I got from Dan Rather in one of the very few interviews where he is the interviewee. This question has been his guiding question throughout his life, and it’s now also mine, “Will this take me where I want to go?”

I abandoned the task oriented goals completely in the final week of May. And in mid-June, I added my third goal, which was Bruce Lee’s motto, “Be water.”

Since then, each new month and week, I have set the same three goals.
Work smarter, not harder.
Will this take me where I want to go?
Be water.

These three goals evolved organically over the course of six months working with the Passion Planner. In combination with the self-reflective pages at the end of each month and the long-term mind maps, the tasks gradually shifted to the to-do lists, the daily schedule, and the Space of Infinite Possibility. Instead of setting up achievement-oriented goals for myself, I began setting up goal-oriented goals.

After one year with the Passion Planner, I can safely say that I have leveled up. Not only in how I plan and keep track of my work, but also in how I plan and keep track of my life. Will I continue using the Passion Planner in 2021? Absolutely. I bought my next year’s Planner already in September.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

A Writer’s Tools of Her Trade: The Importance of a Good Pencil Case and Calendar

When I turned thirteen, my Mom gave me a pencil case. I was starting junior high school (högstadiet) in the fall and would no longer have my own desk where I could keep my stuff. Instead I would be given a locker and carry everything I needed from class to class. I used that pencil case throughout junior high and high school (gymnasiet), as a university student and beyond until the summer of 2019 when the zipper broke irreparably.

I immediately set out to find a new pencil case. Since I am a historian and book critic of history and speculative fiction, I needed a pencil case that suited my professional needs in more ways than one.

First of all, the pencil case needed to be soft. When history and writing are your line of work, you are a writer, a scholar, and a teacher all at the same time. This means that your pencil case needs to hold a large amount of stuff of different shapes and sizes. In my case, this stuff consists of pens, pencils, whiteboard markers and highlighters of different colors, erasers, and small cases of 0.5 HB graphite rods (or “leads”) for my mechanical pencil.

Second, the pencil case needed to have a historical and/or speculative fiction theme. Museum gift shops are an often-overlooked resource for fun, innovative, and unique things, and after much searching among various online museum shops, I found what I was looking for at University of Oxfords’ Bodleian Library: a soft pencil case with a picture from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, painted by the author himself. The pencil case was part of the official Tolkien merchandise collection, and it was absolutely perfect. Because I had to order it from England, the postage cost nearly as much as the pencil case itself and the delivery took nearly six weeks.

After using this pencil case for a year now, I can tell you that it was time and money well spent.

Passion Planner and The Hobbit pencil case.

Around the same time that my old trusted pencil case kicked the bucket, I also realized that I needed to get a new calendar. When I became a university student, the pocket-sized calendars I’d used as a high school student didn’t suit my needs anymore. So I moved on to the professional calendar that was all the rage at the time–the Filofax.

The Filofax is a clever type of professional calendar in that you purchase a cover that doubles as a binder. Inside the cover, you fasten an annual paper calendar, which you at the end of the year remove and replace with the paper calendar of the next year. The cover and the paper calendars are available in different types. My Filofax was a medium-sized cover in green calf leather, and the calendar I used was the Swedish (sometimes pan-Scandinavian) weekly spread starting on Mondays that also came with a political world map, a time zone world map, national holidays for all countries in the world, an address book, and extra pages for note taking.

I continued using the Filofax after I moved to the US, but using a Swedish calendar when you no longer live in Sweden is actually not a good idea. But, when you are in the habit of doing something and that habit still works for you, why change it?

Last year, I realized that I hardly used my Filofax anymore. Instead, I used note pads for lists and appointments while the Filofax lay untouched for days. At the same time, I was writing articles and book reviews for magazines and online publications. Instead of writing down deadlines and other information I needed to keep track of in the Filofax, I used the Excel spread sheet I had originally created to keep track of my pitches and submissions.

Whereas finding a new pencil case proved tricky and required a couple of months of searching, finding a new calendar turned out to be easy. I remembered a conversation on the Slack channel hosted by an online book site where I used to be a Contributor where my fellow Contributors were raving about a calendar known as the Passion Planner. From experience I knew to trust the judgment of this particular group of people, so without further ado I got myself a Passion Planner.

The Passion Planner I ordered was the large-sized, black classic Passion Planner with one week per spread that starts on Sundays. It was a bit pricey, I thought, when I placed my order, but then again, I had just ordered a pencil case from England because it answered to my needs, so I decided to take a chance, despite the cost.

Reader, I am very happy that I took that chance. After one year with the Passion Planner, I no longer use note pads and the Excel spread sheet is only for tracking pitches (whatever few there are during the pandemic). Also, I find it easier to get an overview of what I need to do each week than I did with the Filofax. In fact, I am so happy with my Passion Planner that I ordered my Planner for 2021 already in September.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Book Review Round-Up

I’ve been reviewing some interesting books for Foreword Reviews lately, and I thought I’d share those reviews with you. Hopefully they will introduce you to books you might be interested in reading. Enjoy!

 

Mary McAuliffe, Paris, City of Dreams. Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Creation of Paris. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).
The re-creation of Paris from a medieval urban maze to the city of lights and boulevards comes to life in Mary McAuliffe’s historical exposé Paris, City of Dreams.

 

 

 

Sam Van Schaik, Buddhist Magic. Divination, Healing, and Enchantment through the Ages (Shambala Publications, 2020).
Sam Van Schaik’s historical investigation Buddhist Magic reveals the significance and historical roots of magic in modern Buddhism.

 

 

 

 

Lynn M. Hudson, West of Jim Crow. The Fight against California’s Color Line. (University of Illinois Press, 2020).
California’s history of racist legislation against Black Americans is brought to light in Lynn M. Hudson’s West of Jim Crow.

 

 

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

The Book by Keith Houston. Or, In Praise of the Lone Genius and How to Erase the Persian Empire from History

960px-Persepolis001

The ruins of Persepolis, Iran. Persepolis was one of the capital cities of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Source: CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=655691

What would you say is the greatest invention of the Middle Ages?

To me the answer is obvious.

The greatest invention of the Middle Ages is the book.

Or rather, the codex, to use its technical term.

A codex is a stack of folded sheets, made from papyrus, parchment or paper, collated along one side to form a spine and then placed within a protective casing made from wood or thick paper. In other words, what we today call a book.

The reason why codex is the technical term for a book is that “book” is a collective term for different types of objects that serve as repositories for writing, either printed or by hand. Other such objects are clay tablets and scrolls made from papyrus or parchment. The codex itself can be divided into several different types, such as illuminated manuscripts (handwritten on parchment during the Middle Ages), incunabula (books printed before the year 1500), or chapbooks and pamphlets (cheap pocket-sized printed books popular during the 17th and 18th centuries).

41UHen-IwaLThe history of the codex is a fascinating one. So fascinating in fact that Keith Houston decided to dedicate an entire book to the history of the book. His book is called The Book. The subtitle is A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time.

I agree with Houston that the book is a powerful object. Even though the physical format of the book is ever changing–from clay tablet to scroll to codex to digital tablet–the book itself endures. However, Houston’ book is not a book about the book. It’s a book about the history of how a book is made, with particular emphasis on the development of printing techniques.

Houston starts his narrative in Ancient Mesopotamia and the invention of writing, without which there would be no books. He then moves through history and discusses the inventions of papyrus, parchment, and paper; the making of ink; the development of writing as an everyday mode of communication; and the development of printing presses in China and in Europe.

At this point, Houston makes a jump in time and in content. Instead of discussing the book as a powerful object during the Early Modern Period with the advent of the chapbook and the pamphlet, without which there would not have been an English Civil War nor an American Revolution, no liberal democracy, no Freedom of the Press Acts or demands for free speech and social equality, Houston instead falls into the rabbit hole of the mechanics of printing. The siren song of the story of the lone male genius is powerful, and Houston steers his ship right towards its rocky shore.

If Houston is to believed, four Ancient civilizations contributed to the development of what was to become the codex–China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. China’s inventions are recognized but their actual influence on Europe is questioned. Mesopotamia and Egypt serve as conduits towards the achievements of Greece and Rome, here presented as European civilizations which, in turn, upholds the out dated argument that Mesopotamia and Egypt were somehow European as well.

The traditionalist Eurocentrism of Houston’s historical summary causes him to dedicate two pages to dismissing the significance of the Phoenicians and their alphabet with the purpose of maintaining the link between modern English and Egypt as a “European” civilization. And, he skips over the one Ancient civilization that did more for normalizing the use of writing in everyday communications than any other, namely Persia.

The Persian Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BCE) was the largest empire of the Ancient world. From its heartland in present-day Iran, the Achaemenids ruled a territory that reached from the shores of the Levant and North Africa to the Indus Valley in northern India. They kept this vast territory together through an intense letter exchange between the ruler of the empire, the King of Kings, and the satraps, or governors, of the empire’s many provinces.

960px-Achaemenid_Empire_at_its_greatest_extent_according_to_Oxford_Atlas_of_World_History_2002

Notice the King’s Highway/Via Maris between Susa and Sardis that for millennia connected the Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean. In the Persian Empire, this road served as the backbone for government communications through letter writing. By Original creator: MossmapsCorrections according to Oxford Atlas of World History 2002, The Times Atlas of World History (1989), Philip’s Atlas of World History (1999) by पाटलिपुत्र (talk) – This file was derived from: The Achaemenid Empire at its Greatest Extent.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73745174

When Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Empire, he kept the system of satraps and the network of communications, which after the Successor Wars became part of the states of the Hellenistic kingdoms. As Hellenism spread throughout the Mediterranean basin, other states and empires became Hellenized as well, among them Rome.

If you ask Houston, the history related in the above paragraphs never took place. According to him, letter writing as a means of state communication that led to the normalization of writing for everyday communication happened in Rome.

Within the history view put forward by Houston, this makes sense. Persia was the enemy of Greece, and Houston has obviously only read the Greek view of the Persians. He sees Rome as the foundation of European civilization, even though the Rome he is referring to was long gone by the time an idea of “Europe” began to take shape. Mesopotamia and Egypt are there to pave the way for what was to come.

Keith Houston’s The Book falls into the trap of the lone genius and provides a cherry-picked overview of the history of the codex.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.