Faithful readers may recall the parallel-universe cabinet proposed in our 2004 election issue (the one with "Bono for President" on the cover), which included Mark Noll as Secretary of History: "Imagine the president meeting every two weeks, say, with his historian. Everyone else around him is focused relentlessly on the present, not least on the ever-proliferating opinion polls. When his advisers venture into history, they generally do so in the spirit of a raidto rip from its context a precedent, an anecdote, a jeweled phrase that will serve some partisan purpose. But for a half-hour every fortnight, the president simply listens to his historian telling him about another time, with its enigmas and ironies intactyet also, always, a tale of choices made for better or worse, hence bearing on the choices to be made today."
So I fantasized in November 2004. Alas, there's no indication that such a new cabinet post is about to be created. Still, undaunted, historians continue to ply their trade, and earlier this month I had reason to reflect on just how useful their work can be. The occasion was the every-other-year convention of The Historical Society (I urge you to visit the website and check out their excellent publications, Historically Speaking and The Journal of the Historical Society), held this time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The subject was "Globalization, Empire, and Imperialism in Historical Perspective."
We urgently need an antidote to the journalistic clichés and the even more deplorable pseudo-scholarly discourse surrounding the interlocked themes of globalization, empire, and imperialism. We need the distancethe perspectivethat good historical thinking affords. ...1
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