Writing History and the Crisis in Punditry

Heather Cox Richardson

Participating in the discussion over the media’s role in the tragedy in Tucson, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi makes the point that media figures get their market share by offering their audience a certain kind of emotional charge, reassuring them that they are better than “the other.”

Where entertainers will go for inspiration now that that dog-whistle kind of performance is suspect, he doesn’t have a firm idea.

It seems to me that historians have, at this point, a great opening to jump into the public conversation. My friend and literary agent, Lisa Adams, is always reminding me that readers want to feel smarter after they invest time reading something. If, indeed, there is a market for making people feel superior, why can’t we invest our energies in making people feel smarter with good facts and argument, presented accessibly?

There is an unfortunate tendency among academics to suggest that anything written for a popular audience must be “dumbed down.” This is wrong. On the contrary, pieces written for non-academics must be smarter than anything we consume within the academy. Untrained historians will not accept a book that uses theory as shorthand in place of an explanation for how something actually happened (but they will happily accept theoretical constructs if they are proven). They will not endure poor writing, or incomplete explanations. Indeed, rather than dumbing down our arguments, it seems to me that writing for a non-academic audience often forces academic historians to give up the jargon and shortcuts that allow them to advance arguments their facts don’t prove.

At a time when there is a vacuum in the public arena waiting to be filled by writers who can offer a new kind of intellectual rush, historians have a unique opportunity to step up to the plate.

And it might just be good for us.