2016 has been a very, very tough year. In so many of the major events that have gone on this year- whether it was Brexit, the US Election, Black Lives Matter, public discourse has taken an absolute thrashing. Those who have wanted to have real, public and substantive debates have been largely drowned out by well-funded efforts to trivialize discussion. According to those like Michael Gove and Donald Trump, informed discussion is inherently useless. And recently, a ‘watch list’ was created by an organization in the United States, a list of professors and educators who don’t teach ‘Conservative’ orthodoxy; at best, this is a way for students who consider themselves to be ‘Conservative’ to avoid any point of view that doesn’t reinforce their biases and prejudices. At worst, it’s a targeting list. Lack of ideological purity can be disastrous on the other end of the spectrum as well, where failure to immediately implement an ideologically pure program can lead to people being dismissed as no different than those they replaced. These are both completely disastrous approaches. 2016 has been a year in which to be seen to be angry and outraged has been of much more value than actually considering what is wrong, or how to address it.
It’s become clear to me that anybody who takes a public stance on really any issue gets screamed at by three groups of people. First, by those people who are ideologically opposed and so will scream no matter what one does. Second, by those those who are nominally of the same ideological stance, but believe one hasn’t gone far enough or been sufficiently ideologically rigorous. Third, one gets yelled at by those who benefit financially, politically or otherwise from a lack of actual discussion on important topics.
As just one example, since we’re in the middle of the centenary, consider the ‘discussion’ around the First World War. While there has been a lot of very good historical work and discussion done, it has been drowned out by people demonizing others in the media for not repeating the overly simplified and highly politicized perspective and message on that conflict that they’ve decided is the only acceptable one. All over the world, uncomfortable aspects of our histories have been oversimplified and politicized, as politicians and other groups do everything they can to actually having a substantive conversation about the real ramifications of history, and the responsibility for whatever may come out of that discussion.
There are real problems in the world- poverty, famine, sickness, structural and societal violence. Many of these stem from inequities created in the past. These issues cannot be solved, permanently, but they can be discussed, explored, addressed. All of this requires real, substantive investigation, the examination of all the data, and the bringing together of as many points as view as possible. For historians, for academics, indeed for everybody everywhere who would like to see the world become a better place for all, we must not surrender to the cacophony of anti-intellectualism and Political PR bollocks. The discomfort people feel as they reckon with past events is nothing with what future generations will feel when things get worse, and people of this period were too scared to let go of their privilege, too scared to compromise, too scared to work together and make things better for the future despite the temporary discomforts it will create for us. We must continue to ask questions, we must continue to actually seek to understand the uncomfortable and ugly past. The truth is we can never as a global community return to an idealized, and non-existent pre-globalization, pre-imperial past of peace, prosperity and isolation. Even if such a past did exist, we are far too connected physically, economically, culturally and historically. It is imperative that instead of being diverted by public ‘debates’ populated by ideologically pure slogans and mantras, that we actually talk about the real, physical, environmental, economic and political ramifications of what has been done in the past. And where possible, try to repair damage, ease pressure, and work together.
Historians, academics, and those who want to contribute to trying to make the world a better place must continue to do good work. We must continue to talk about the uncomfortable past, and we must always continue to talk about what we do, and how we do it. As the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences come under attack from those who can only evaluate anything according to the most obvious return on investment, we cannot respond with things like ‘studying history saves us from repeating it’, or justifications that mask what we actually do and twist it into something else.
Understanding the past and the origins and factors that contribute to our current circumstances is inherently a good thing. It is valuable. Without that understanding, all we can do is react to things like a Football keeper, and hope that we’ve jumped the ‘right’ way.
This year, things are going to be ramping up on www.BritishNavalHistory.com. In the past few months, I’ve brought on board several new staff members- Dr Alan Anderson, Matthew Willis and Kelsey Power, and I’m really looking forward to having all of us contributing on a regular basis. This year, in addition to our normal publication of articles, we’re going to be focusing on two things. First, helping to promote the many societies and organizations that look at maritime history, or really maritime studies through any discipline. Second, in a few weeks we’ll be launching a new series of blogs on academic practice. These blogs will be from researchers, writers, educators from many disciplines, and will focus on many different aspects of what we do as academics. There is so much we as individuals can learn from what our colleagues are doing, and this series of blogs will provide another forum for that to happen. 2017 is also the 350th anniversary of 1667, the final year of the 2nd Anglo-Dutch War, and we’ll be looking to promote the work being done on that period, and those who are doing it. We’ll also be resuming posting podcasts, beginning with two lectures that Alan is giving in London in a few days time. We hope to launch a replacement for the AVML Postgrad Essay Competition this year, to further encourage early career researchers to study maritime topics. I’m really looking forward to doing everything I can to support others who are doing good work, reinforce the conversations that are happening, and provide encouragement for other conversations to happen as well.