Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Historians' Paradox


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

August 13, 2014


                When I joined the Forensic Studies, later Criminal Justice Department at Indiana University in 1976, my colleague Ellen Dwyer invited me to join a history-sociology informal seminar she was organizing with historian of crime Barbara Hanawalt.  Barb was a specialist on crime in Elizabethan England.  I was the only “sociologist” in the group.  Members of the seminar introduced me to the Social Science History Association meetings.  I think I owe Ellen and Barb more than anyone else for opening my passion for putting contemporary crime/criminality trends in historical perspective.

                Time and again when one historian presented findings from her or his research, other historians would find exceptions to any proposition the presenter stated about the significance of her or his findings, akin to the law school exercise, “I can distinguish your case.”  As you can imagine, I stood out as the most reckless generalizer in my presentations on trends in crime and criminality figures.  What more than one historian among us seemed to prize most was to find that a social phenomenon in a particular time and place was unique.  It was a stimulating Socratic exercise, but to me, it presents a paradox.

                If the historically most valued contribution about a phenomenon in a time and place is that it is something unique, then the truest, most beautiful history is one that never repeats itself.  What then of the saying that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it?

                I’m an incorrigible pragmatist.  When I look at current trends in violence and peacemaking efforts, I look for past parallels.  As I write, President Obama has just ordered that not combat troops, but advisers, will be sent to northern Iraq.  And the CIA is reportedly doing its own thing.  I attended my first Vietnam teach-in at Michigan in 1964, where (paradoxically for me), defended the domino theory—that if we didn’t stop Communism in Vietnam, we would lose Southeast Asia.  We had just turned from having only military advisers in Vietnam, to sending in combat troops.  No proposition is certain, but President Obama certainly is sliding down a slippery slope.

                I can’t help adding one observation about history.  Any time anyone describes an event, it is already history.  We can’t avoid it.  Love and peace, hal

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