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    Starkey and female historians (part 2)


    by Rumbold on 9th April, 2009 at 8:52 pm    

    Yesterday I looked at David Starkey’s condescending attitudes towards female historians and historical females. I attempted to disprove his assertions, and now I want to examine why he made them. Most people at this point would attempt to dissect Starkey’s personal life in order to show why he behaved the way he did. Such approaches always make me feel uncomfortable, and besides I believe that the answer lies not in who he is, but what he does.

    Starkey is a TV historian. Thanks to the media, he has become arguably the most prominent historian in contemporary Britain. Some might argue that he believes that prominent=best (as a comparison, imagine if the contestants on the ‘Apprentice’, an allegedly popular reality television show, believed themselves to be the best simply because they were on TV). Thus, he feels free to pontificate on many matters. This is not a bad thing per se. The problem is the way he does it.

    History is full of nuance. It is not possible to sum up vast stretches of time in a few words, nor do most events have definitive causes and effects. That is not to say that all ‘truths’ are equal (a ghastly post-modern idea), rather that there is often plenty of evidence for different interpretations. Take the French Revolution for instance; a seemingly-straightforward historical event. Yet at what point can you definitively say it started? And ended? What was the most important cause (economic, political, etc.)? What was the most important effect? Historians who have studied the French Revolution their whole lives will disagree on the above points, and all will provide plenty of evidence to back up their arguments. Thus, the best works are those which, while advancing a particular view, recognise and discuss the diverse range of opposing views.

    TV history doesn’t really allow for this. The presenter hits the viewer with a definitive account: this is what happened, this is why it happened, this is the effect it had. Are there long debates full of nuance shown? No. If the presenter obliged to highlight and discuss others’ work? No. The presenter’s truth is The Truth. So TV historians begin to think in TV history terms whenever they speak. Starkey’s comments were merely an excellent example of this. He felt that female historical figures weren’t as important as some historians argue, so he felt able to launch an attack on female historians and historical females in general; he was right, so everything they say must be wrong.

    It is a little bit sad really, as he, as others like him, are the ones responsible for disseminating history to the public.



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    11 Comments below   |  

    1. Roger — on 9th April, 2009 at 10:48 pm  

      It’s something that is inevitable with modern T.V. history. T.V. is a wonderful medium for narrative but not for analysis- you can’t go back and double-check a comment, look up a footnote, compare a refernce. Even the great T.V. analysts- Berger, Bronowski, Clark, say- put forward what was very definitely a personal view, the case for what they thought.
      In Starkey’s case, he became famous as a personality before he became famous as a historian, so he more often behaves as the personality who has to say something outrageous rather than a historian who is trying to give a judicious summary of what seems to have happened and why, even in the very limited aspects that Starkey would consider and the still more limited aspects possible on T.V.

    2. Refresh — on 10th April, 2009 at 12:35 am  

      Rumbold, thanks for your two thoughtful pieces on the subject.

      I agree that he is a product of TV. Bear in mind that there has been little appetite for ‘woolly’ delivery of anything let alone history. For ‘woolly’ read nuanced. Bite sized history is what we are getting.

      However I am hopeful that things are changing and people are again willing to learn and more importantly to think for themselves. I link that in with the disaster that is the economy, and the multiple sources of information we now have courtesy of the internet.

      People will no longer trust trusted sources. This was the case in the 60s and it will be again from here on in. A whole generation will be willing to question received wisdom, and Starkey will represent just that. Simply because he is so sure of himself.

      The other one that falls into the same category is Melanie Philips. She presents everything with absolute certainty and brooks no resistance.

      For me history is nothing without the politics, and that to me usually means presenting both (or multiple) sides of historical events. And I imagine each of those sides have their own historical sources and willing champions. We need to see and hear from as many as possible.

      As for the point about female historians feminising history, what the hell is wrong with that? Did women play no part in life? I am sure Nell Gwynne was able to impart some wisdom to the then King.

    3. justforfun — on 10th April, 2009 at 8:55 am  

      Historians EXPERTS who have studied the French Revolution OBSCURE SUBJECT their whole lives will disagree on the above points, THE FACTS and all will provide plenty of evidence to back up their arguments.PLEE FOR MORE FUNDING AND RESEARCH.

      Is History a Science now? There is no objective history. Its all opinions on past facts (if there are even facts - Did Joan of Arc actually exist for instance?) to re-inforce an agenda. A bit like religion really?

      Rumbold - we live in a TV world. The cure? - watch more TV to get a different point of view.

      Same with history books - read more books - and not just William Dalrymple ;-)

      Seriously - I see the gist of your point, but if TV history is to be as you say - I would suggest that you will need to reconcile which is more important to you.

      Good TV history or a privatized BBC :-)

      The TV history you desire requires more money and an audience who is educated and interested enough to sit through very complicated lines of thought and reasoning.

      Chicken or Egg ?

      justforfun

    4. justforfun — on 10th April, 2009 at 9:07 am  

      Refresh - “People will no longer trust trusted sources. This was the case in the 60s and it will be again from here on in. A whole generation will be willing to question received wisdom, and Starkey will represent just that. Simply because he is so sure of himself.”

      I’m not so sure about this bit of the above ….and Starkey will represent just that. Simply because he is so sure of himself.”

      He comes accross as ‘counter’ the estabilshment because he is so dirtect and we are so used to mealy mouthed words and equivacation from the existing establishment.

      While the internet might give us access to many points of view - I don’t think our current education system is upto teaching children the required level of ‘critical reflection’ required when faced with pseudo-facts from the media and from bloggers on the internet.

      Our education budget needs to be doubled.

      justforfun

    5. Refresh — on 10th April, 2009 at 10:11 am  

      I take your point about the establishment - although I’ve never been able to decide know who that is.

      When it comes to trusted sources, I mean them to be opinion-formers which now simply mean TV pundits and personalities. And the media owners are the gateway to wisdom and authentication.

      Agree entirely with you regarding the education system. Education now is a lifelong training program.

    6. chairwoman — on 10th April, 2009 at 10:24 am  

      The other week I watched Simon Schama followed immediately by David Starkey.

      The difference in attitude and nuance was staggering, Schama’s analysis was considerably less prejudiced than Starkey’s, and he also doesn’t condescend. Interesting, considering that Schama is firstly an art historian, and Starkey a history historian to coin an inelegant phrase.

      Starkey is obsessed with the Tudors, and, as I said on the earlier thread, sees everything through Tudor eyes which detracts from any objectivity he may have.

      Does he still lecture at the LSE or is he now solely a Channel 4 personality?

      As for women, I have a sneaking suspicion that they don’t figure very highly in his view of things.

    7. Rumbold — on 10th April, 2009 at 11:29 am  

      Roger:

      Agreed. He was by no means a terrible historian before he went on television, and was an interesting, if blustering, revisionist.

      Refresh:

      “For me history is nothing without the politics, and that to me usually means presenting both (or multiple) sides of historical events. And I imagine each of those sides have their own historical sources and willing champions. We need to see and hear from as many as possible.”

      Exactly. And that is what the best historians do. Take discussions here- they contain far more nuance, as different people put their case, then you would ever find on the television.

      Justforfun:

      “Is History a Science now? There is no objective history. Its all opinions on past facts (if there are even facts - Did Joan of Arc actually exist for instance?) to re-inforce an agenda.”

      There are some facts (like the Battle of Waterloo for example), and the rest of history is based on evidence-based opinion. It can never be otherwise. I am not sure that the answer to one simplistic and misleading programme is to watch another one.

      “Good TV history or a privatized BBC

      The TV history you desire requires more money and an audience who is educated and interested enough to sit through very complicated lines of thought and reasoning.”

      Heh. But I am not impressed with the BBC’s historical output either. I really don’t believe that a nuanced historical programme would cost more. A handful of academics come fairly cheap, and you don’t need your presenter to stride through glamorous locations to make a point (or have the weird, ghostly faux-enactment scenes going on in the background).

      Many people have an instinctive love of interesting history. They don’t need to be treated like idiots for them to enjoy it.

      Chairwoman:

      Starkey has retired from university academia, which I suppose is the honourable thing to do. Schama is better, but not by much. And he continues as a lecturer at Columbia University, but neglects his responsibilities (several people who went there have told me he was never available when needed).

    8. Bartholomew — on 10th April, 2009 at 11:47 am  

      Good analysis - the lack of historical debate in documentaries has also been a gripe about Ken Burns.

      But there’s a bit on an elephant in the room here: namely, might Starkey’s views reflect a certain kind of gay male identity which is misogynistic?

    9. Amrit — on 10th April, 2009 at 12:22 pm  

      Excellent couple of posts.

      @ Bartholomew: Interesting! You may be on to something there… I’m actually about to do an essay on that particular gay identity…

      Many people have an instinctive love of interesting history. They don’t need to be treated like idiots for them to enjoy it.

      A-fucking-MEN. What strikes me is how many people are not thick at all - it’s just that (probably because big novels aren’t as central to ‘mass’ culture as they used to be) they might not have as broad a vocab to express themselves as they’d like.

      The answer to this would seem, for me, to make programmes that are clear and unpatronising. Instead, you seem to have TV bosses constantly deciding that everything should be simplified as much as possible. I think this is a dangerous concession to the ‘knowledge NOW’ culture of impatience, laziness and apathy that has unfortunately spread with the Internet.

    10. The Common Humanist — on 14th April, 2009 at 9:34 am  

      I agree Schama is a much better historian and presenter. The History of Britain is excellant.

      Having said that I am enjoying Starkeys’ lastest, Henry VIII - Mind of a Tyrant’ - I am appreciating the detail, the use of correspondance and, perhaps this is me alone, the use of actors to bring text to life.

      I also (just to give the Anorak its full airing) like Richard Holmes for military matters. R4 has just aired the second series of ‘America-Empire of Liberty’ - very good and R4s recent series on Byzantium I also enjoyed. I would love to see a TV version of both.

    11. The Common Humanist — on 14th April, 2009 at 9:36 am  

      “Many people have an instinctive love of interesting history. They don’t need to be treated like idiots for them to enjoy it”

      “A-fucking-MEN. What strikes me is how many people are not thick at all - it’s just that (probably because big novels aren’t as central to ‘mass’ culture as they used to be) they might not have as broad a vocab to express themselves as they’d like”"

      Second, third and fourth those comments!

      TCH

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