Infinite Musings

The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it. Edward R. Murrow

Friday, June 01, 2007


I guess the public health system we have here in Canada has changed somewhat in the six years I've been away. I have no family physician anymore, and it appears the chances of finding one are about as good as winning the lottery. But, finally, after an extended wait, I was able to get an appointment with a rheumatologist. He looked over all the blood tests, probed and prodded my swollen joints, wrote a bit and then looked up and pronounced Savcoid something or other, and erythema nodosium. I found myself stifling a giggle, as his words brought to mind Angela Lansbury, the apprentice witch in Bedknobs and Broomsticks trying out some new spell. I waited for the rheumatologist to continue. But no, he had come to a full stop and had started to write again. It appears that those words of diagnosis were, he thought, sufficient. Oh...right. Savcoid something or other, erythema nodosium. What was I thinking? Of course! What else could it possibly be? I finally screwed up the courage to ask him to elaborate, if he didn't mind. What exactly did all that medical mumbo-jumbo mean in plain English? He tried, and faltered, looking for ordinary English words to explain. At the end the only thing I understood, and it was enough, believe me, it usually goes away in 6-8 weeks. PHEW! This wasn't a return of the rheumatoid arthritis from which I suffered over twenty years ago. It would go away. But why was it so difficult to explain that right away? I didn't need the fancy medical words at all. He could use those with fellow rheumatologists, or at a conference.

But then again, who am I to cast stones? I thought back to my own work at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. I was as guilty as the doctor of using my own mumbo-jumbo. It was fine when I spoke to people within the Tribunal, but when outsiders were looking for information about the Milosevic trial, I would breezily refer to 92bis, 89F, Rule everyone should know what they meant. It was only when their nods turned to looks of puzzlement, that I realized I wasn't really speaking English anymore.

And then take the Freemasons, whose nineteenth century history in Ontario I had to research for an assignment. Ever read any Masonic history? These gentlemen don't really need secret signals and codes. Their official histories are written with so many unexplained acronyms that it took me weeks to figure out what exactly I was reading. Mumbo-jumbo writ large!

I tried to think of other fields of endeavour, in our atomized, specialized world-everybody has their own particular mumbo-jumbo lingo that is largely incomprehensible outside the group. Who speaks, or, for that matter, writes plain English anymore? And then I grinned a grin, that would have done Dr. Seuss's Grinch proud. Historians! We write in plain English. What we write is still accessible to those that speak and read plain English. But before we pat ourselves too smugly on the back we need to recognize that plain English is not the only key to accessibility. We have a reputation for writing that is as dry as dust-a non-medicinal cure for insomnia-and remote.

Whenever people ask me what I'm studying and I tell them history more times than not they tell me they are interested in history/the past, but they hated studying history at school. When I tell people I'm studying Public History, I get that same quizzical look I used to get when I talked Tribunal mumbo-jumbo. I've spent much time this year trying to understand what public history is, and how it fits into "history". Reading numerous articles from the Public Historian for a recent paper, I got a better sense of some of the issues dividing academic historians and public historians. Are history and public history two different fields that only share the word history in common? Or, is there only one history, be it public, social, oral, political, economic, women's history (the list goes on), but differing audiences?

It seems to me that when public historians write anything, because their audience is the public, there is less room for the dry as dust, remote variety of writing. But some academic historians, this is a personal opinion, seem to think that if history is readable and accessible to the general public it somehow isn't academically rigorous enough. There is a disconnect between academic and public history, and more the shame. However public historians chose to define or align themselves, one thing is clear to me, after my year in the public history program. I find myself definitely on the side of wanting to speak to a public audience. Those people interested in the past, but who have not found history, as practiced in academe readily accessible. I am grateful for the opportunity to have studied public history in an academic setting. I hope I have learned how to make whatever work I may do rigorous enough to satisfy academic standards. But I also hope my journalism training and work experience outside of academia have given me the tools to make my work accessible in plain, and interesting English to a broader audience.

Sitting through war crimes trials I have seen first hand the power of history used by unscrupulous politicians, nationalist ideologues, controlled media to break-up a country (Yugoslavia an "imagined" community if ever there was one!), turn neighbour against neighbour and leave behind widows, orphans, displaced people, trauma and hatred that will take more than a generation to heal. History and historians cannot afford to be remote from the broader society. I don't think that necessarily means pandering to the public-give them what they want, entertain them-but it does mean producing work that is broadly accessible, and relevant. I have been particularly inspired by the National Council on Public History Presidential Address given by Robert Weible, “The Blind Man and His Dog: The Public and Its Historians,” (published in the Public Historian, Volume 28, Number 4. Fall 2006(pp 9-17)). I recommend it to those that may not have read it--no mumbo-jumbo and lots of food for thought.