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“I was very good in history.” Thus decla­red Candi­date Trump a few hours before his epochal US presi­den­tial elec­tion victory. In the wider scheme of things, it was one of Mr Trump’s less offen­sive claims. Histo­ri­ans will debate whether his campaign demons­tra­ted that he did, in fact, have a good grasp of the history of the Repu­blic (or indeed the world), but our concerns are trivial compa­red to those of many others whose rights, live­lihoods and funda­men­tal values are now under attack.

That said, if the fight­back starts here and now, then the “here” for most histo­ri­ans is a space that stands in oppo­si­tion to the very tenor of Trum­pism: the huma­nities depart­ments of univer­si­ties. Here we must redou­ble our efforts to teach and demons­trate by exam­ple that the loudest voice is seldom the one with the best answers, that argu­ments can be fierce without us resor­ting to perso­nal humi­lia­tion, that money and mone­tiza­t­ion are not—cannot be—the only ways to judge human worth.

In other words, this is a battle over basic societal values. By foste­ring debate and criti­cal thought in the semi­nar room, and by discus­sing with our students issues such as histo­ri­cal rights, iden­ti­ties, conflicts and oppres­sion, histo­ri­ans posi­tion them­sel­ves on the battle’s front­line. We should welcome and acknow­ledge that respon­si­bi­lity more expli­citly; and we should argue more ener­ge­ti­cally that the value of huma­nities depart­ments lies not in their rese­arch income but rather in their basic exis­tence as spaces where ideas—including espe­cially our own—will be chal­len­ged, not echoed.

“diver­sity garbage”

We alre­ady know the look of one form of chal­lenge: in the wake of Mr Trump’s victory, flyers distri­buted at Texas State Univer­sity announ­ced that it was “time to orga­nize tar & feather VIGILANTE SQUADS and go arrest and torture those devi­ant univer­sity leaders spou­ting off all this diver­sity garbage.” Doubt­less, my own rese­arch and teaching would be conside­red “diver­sity garbage”: my field is global history with a parti­cu­lar focus on East Asia.

But there would be a more insidious attack that could be made on the work I do. In its worst exces­ses, global history stands for a cele­bra­tion of globa­liza­t­ion from the nine­teenth century onwards, a teleo­lo­gi­cal story of acce­le­ra­ting global inte­gra­tion and ipso facto prospe­rity. In its milder forms, global history still empha­si­zes connec­tions—of people, commo­di­ties, ideas, germs and envi­ron­men­tal transformations—that bind toge­ther the histo­ries of often dispa­rate commu­nities, and that do so across the borders of the modern nation-state. We are all global histo­ri­ans now, accord­ing to some scholars—implying that the objects of our teaching are also all global.

Except that “we” do not neces­sa­rily perceive oursel­ves as all global now. If Trump’s victory and Brexit teach histo­ri­ans anything, it is that the nation-state as an imagi­ned commu­nity is still alive and kicking. Many people do not neces­sa­rily feel connec­ted to the outs­ide world (whate­ver they mean by “outs­ide”), or if they do, the connec­tion is a nega­tive one that takes the form of a lost job or an unfa­mi­liar neigh­bour. “Connec­tions” can be a useful term of analy­sis: it can alert histo­ri­ans to the fact that the story of the Ameri­can Rust Belt is also that of northe­ast England or small town Japan, or that the fate of the Rust Belt is inti­mately connec­ted to that of the Pearl River Delta. But it fails in helping us under­stand the emotio­nal regis­ter of how people feel.

The chal­len­ges of global history

This gap—between the language of the analysts and of those being analysed—was the topic of “The Uncon­nec­ted”, a long arti­cle that appeared in The New Yorker one week before the US Presi­den­tial Elec­tion. In it, George Packer descri­bes the pheno­me­non by which Demo­cra­tic Party policy-makers in the 1990s focu­sed on poverty relief either in Africa and Latin America or in the Ameri­can inner cities: “poverty was foreign or it was black”. The strugg­ling commu­nities of the Rust Belt were ther­eby over­loo­ked: this was “flyo­ver coun­try” (a term that also captures the concen­tra­tion of Demo­cra­tic support on the East and West coasts).

It’s only a short distance from “flyo­ver coun­try” to “flyo­ver history”: that is, the accu­sa­tion that global history prefers to focus on meta­pho­ri­cal (and often lite­ral) coasts at the expense of the meta­pho­ri­cal heart­lands. Accord­ing to this charge, global history inte­rests itself with the stories of people who migrate, not those who stay behind. In this way, its intel­lec­tual inte­rests inad­ver­tently (or deli­be­ra­tely, so the attack would have it) follow patterns of outsour­cing, in which the voices of the subal­tern over­seas are given grea­ter expres­sion than those of the subal­tern at home.

Ortelius: Maris Pacifici, 1589; Quelle: wikipedia.org

Orte­lius: Maris Paci­fici, 1589; Quelle: wikipedia.org

I don’t buy this charac­te­riza­t­ion of global history. But there is enough of a grain of truth in it that we need to be ready to coun­ter it. In my own work, for exam­ple, I used to be inte­rested in the Japa­nese equi­va­lent of the Rust Belt. Now, after years of thin­king about “global” and “trans­cul­tu­ral” perspec­tives, I am more inte­rested in the Japa­nese over­seas diaspora. The first chal­lenge, then, is to consider whether these two inte­rests couldn’t be better combi­ned, in order to make the point that the “Rust Belt” and “diver­sity” are not mutually exclu­sive.

But the second chal­lenge is to deve­lop a more robust public language to explain and defend why it is that a global approach to history need not be “flyo­ver history”. I can think of pithy respon­ses, typi­cal for an acade­mic: to study roots is to study routes, and so on. But if all history-writing that is not Great White Men is going to be bran­ded as “multi­cul­tu­ral crap”, then pithi­ness is not enough. We need to find a language—and quickly—to fight back stron­ger.

That’s easier said than done. It requi­res histo­ri­ans to develop—or rediscover—a language that speaks to society as well as to the academy, that is both emotio­nal as well as analyti­cal. Perhaps, as a nega­tive stra­tegy, we need to label egre­gious uses of the past simply as “bad history”—no caveats necessary. Perhaps, on a more posi­tive note, we need to embrace the respon­si­bi­lity of being “experts” in order to expose the falla­cies of the Fara­ges. It would be great, more­o­ver, if we could reclaim the adjec­tive “great” and talk about what makes great history-writing—diversity, connec­tions, discon­nec­tions and all. If Mr Trump’s victory there­fore forces histo­ri­ans to think more clearly about the stakes of what it is we do, then we may even­tually be able to look back and say that the President-elect was unwit­tingly good for history, if nothing else.

Von Martin Dusinberre

Martin Dusinberre lehrt Global­geschichte mit Schwerpunkt Asien an der Universität Zürich. Er ist Mitglied des Zentrums Geschichte des Wissens und Mit-Herausgeber der Zeitschrift Historische Anthropologie.