Forensic History: Bestowing Infinite Pains on Discovering What Actually Happened

In his much quoted critique of medieval historiography, R.J. Collingwood noted that historians,

… in their anxiety to detect the general plan of history, and their belief that this plan was God’s and not man’s, they tended to look for the essence of history outside history itself, by looking away from man’s actions in order to detect the plan of God; and consequently the actual detail of human actions became for them relatively unimportant, and they neglected that prime duty of the historian, a willingness to bestow infinite pains on discovering what actually happened.*

Set aside for now the more or less obvious irony of selectively pulling eminent quotes on historiography without reference to their own historiographical context. I want to highlight it here for the way that it frames the forensic basis of what historians do. “Telling it like it was” or “showing it the way that it happened” (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist) is a standard refrain of modern historical practice (as a professionalised research discipline). The work is oriented toward sources: who and what those sources are; the information they convey about people, places and events; and their credibility as conveyers of information (and by extension, the credibility of the information they convey).

*R.J. Collingwood, The Idea of History: With Lectures, 1926-1928 Rev. Ed. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 55. Originally published in 1944, after Collingwood’s death.

[Oxford University Press] [Amazon]

The Taliban Reader: War, Islam and Politics in Their Own Words

talibanreadercoverSome exciting news: Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, two key members of the Taliban Sources Project (TSP), have announced their plans for the  The Taliban Reader: War, Islam and Politics in Their Own Words. The book is due out in late 2017, and  Hurst  will be publishing it.

The purpose of the TSP was to enable access to primary sources otherwise unavailable to researchers by virtue of format, geography, language or political context. The project has intrinsic value even if no one makes use of the materials it contains, purely in terms of historical and cultural preservation.  But it really makes a contribution when scholars actively engage with the  source materials and put them to use. To put it  in  academicky bureaucratic terms, it’s all about “knowledge transfer”.

The Taliban Reader  is the first such  effort to come out of the TSP, which took three years of effort  to complete – longer for Alex and Felix, who have been at it for a decade now.  I’ll be writing something introductory or prefatory for the book. My own interest in guerrilla vernacular presses and communications is more on the comparative and thematic side of things, so that will be the flavor I lend to the book, at least in abbreviated format.

You can read Alex’s announcement on his blog, and the book blurb is in the Spring 2017 Hurst catalogue. Here it is again:

Who are the Taliban? Are they a militant movement? Are they religious scholars? The fact that these and other questions are still raised is testimony to the way the movement has been studied, often at arm’s length and with scant use of primary sources.

The Taliban Reader forges a new path, bringing together an extensive range of largely unseen sources in a guide to the Afghan Islamist movement from a unique insider perspective. Ideal for students, journalists and scholars alike, this book is the result of an unprecedented, decade-long effort to encourage the emergence of participant-centred accounts of Afghan history.

This ground-breaking collection, ranging from news articles and opinion pieces to online publications and poems transcribed by hand in the field, sets the stage for a recalibration of how we understand and study the Afghan Taliban. It challenges researchers to forge new norms in the documentation of conflict and provides insight into the future trajectory of political Islamism in South Asia and the Middle East.

The Common Vote

Recent events in Columbia and Hungary have precipitated new analysis of a recurring problem – the benefits and hazards of popular referenda. I grew up in one country where referenda were gifts that just wouldn’t stop giving. I later worked in several countries where similar problems resulted in the extremes of war. I now live in yet another which, in the relatively short time I’ve been here, has held two separate referenda of its own. The joke among friends is that I’m suspect zero – the index case from whence these things spring, bringing them with me wherever I go. From a professional standpoint, I like that there are enough cases to compare, contrast and learn – especially about what it means for the quality of democracy, political leadership, and mechanisms of governance.

In Foreign Policy – on The Dangers of Giving the Common Man a Say:

In general, the use of referendums is characteristic of times of upheaval — periods when the elites are uncertain of their support. Referendums were held in the wake of the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the fall of communism. They followed the re-establishment of democracies in Greece in 1974 and Spain in 1976.

The problem is that, in times of upheaval, these plebiscites are as likely to backfire as to help politicians get their way, or consolidate support. That was true for Napoleon I, Charles de Gaulle, David Cameron — and now it is true for President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Victor Orban of Hungary. In the Colombian referendum,  voters were asked to endorse a peace plan between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government, and declined. In the Hungarian case, the government asked voters to reject the European Union’s plan for redistributing refugees across the EU; they did, but failed to turn out in sufficient numbers to render the vote valid.

And from the Eurasia Group, which gets into Letting the People Speak?:

Populist VOTES are backfiring on the very leaders who set them

The collapse of Colombia’s peace deal with the FARC over the weekend is just the latest instance of a head of state staking their reputation on a popular vote and having it backfire, big time. Think back to Brexit last summer, where British Prime Minister David Cameron put his political career on the line by promising to resign if Britons voted to leave the European Union. And then what happened? Britons voted ‘leave’ and David Cameron…left.