Perpetual Motion: Technology, Slavery, and History

Once we stop thinking of the past as a failed but noble attempt at the present, many of its inexplicable, repulsive, or ridiculous aspects take on a new colour. A good example is alchemical transmutation, an evident impossibility that nevertheless occupied -- and not just occupied, but motivated -- the likes of Newton or Boyle, … Continue reading Perpetual Motion: Technology, Slavery, and History

Galileo Hates Your “Campus Free Speech” Arguments

"Four centuries after Galileo was silenced", a headline blares, "UK students are still curbing free speech." (At issue was a student union's no-platforming of Julie Bindel and Milo Yiannopoulos.) "Whether it’s Galileo’s heretical rejection of geocentrism, Darwin’s godless theory of creation or the bravery of dissidents resisting oppression all over the world," a Telegraph op-ed against … Continue reading Galileo Hates Your “Campus Free Speech” Arguments

Empathy for the Devil

The idea that "Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner" has never convinced me. Explanation is not vindication; it's often the opposite. Historical analysis does not always or even usually result in more sympathetic characters. And scholars who draw on ever more extensive archives to revisit the deeds and thoughts of the great and dead are more … Continue reading Empathy for the Devil

History in the Toilet

My last two posts dealt with a troubling letter and article the appeared a peculiar sort of publication: a history magazine. Perched between the worlds of "pop history", an unwieldy category to which both much good work and a good deal of dreck belong, and the often duller and less accessible world of professional scholarship, such … Continue reading History in the Toilet

How to Change History: William Petty, Irish slavery, and a fake debate

Treating debunked pseudo-history and personal attacks as legitimate criticism of historical research is bad enough on the letters page of a widely-read history magazine. Publishing articles based on spurious sources is worse. In my last post, I discussed History Ireland's publication of Mike McCormack's letter attacking Liam Hogan for exposing the myth of Irish slavery. … Continue reading How to Change History: William Petty, Irish slavery, and a fake debate

Irish Slaves, from Myth to “Debate”

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is important that historians try to get the past right -- to describe it accurately, to base their claims about it on evidence, and to represent the sources from which that evidence is drawn fairly. Historians face mounting challenges in public discourse from dishonest, misleading, or made … Continue reading Irish Slaves, from Myth to “Debate”

Crackpot Historicism

The observation that the Trump era is a good time to be a historian is by now cliché. The routine yet outlandish lies that increasingly puncture public discourse; the proliferation of "fake news" and the appropriation by its makers of the label "fake news"; the appeal to "alternative facts" and the self-fulfilling prophecy of "post-truth" … Continue reading Crackpot Historicism