Yep, It's Time to Revisit the "Basics"; Or, I'm A Historian, Folks, A Historian

Apropos my comments as reported in yesterday's Los Angeles Times: Once again, it's time to remind readers (and myself . . . ) what's what here at the ol' blog and in the ol' professional life. Short version: I'm a historian. Historians spend their time thinking about the past; trying to understand "what happened"; and taking the Long View of the Big Picture.

And that's pretty much the beginning, the middle, and the end of what I do. I write history.

"Pretty much," but not entirely.

My work as a historian includes a delightful bonus: During the course of my research, I learn a great deal about my subject, and that knowledge informs my view of both the past AND the present.

So when a reporter calls to ask me about "current events," I'm qualified to do two things.  

First, I offer historical context on those events. For example, I told the reporter from the LAT that definitions and the technology of "humane" slaughter have changed over time; that Congress has weighed in on the subject from time to time.

Second, if the reporter asks me to do so, and if I have an informed opinion, I also weigh in on whatever current situation prompted the reporter's phone call, in this case, the closure of a California packing plant. But my comments about the CURRENT situation are informed by my research. The opinions I express are based on what I've learned from that research.

Let me rephrase that: My opinions are my own. I'm not paid by anyone or any company or any organization. I don't represent any group, company, organization. I'm on no payroll.

It's worth reiterating the source of my opinions: When I work on a book, I amass facts, information, and knowledge (such as it is). I use that information, insight, and knowledge to shape my opinion about "what  happened" in the past and what's happening now.

Here's one example: When I wrote the beer book, I (naturally) spent a lot of time and energy thinking  about alcohol in general and its place in American society. As a result of that thinking and study, I concluded that we Americans "enjoy" a sick relationship with booze; we demonize it and infantilize our relationship with it.

But I arrived at that conclusion after several years of studying the history of beer and booze in America. The conclusion --- my opinion --- was based on and stemmed from my research. When a reporter asks me about American's relationship with alcohol, I offer my informed opinion.

So it's been with the history of meat in America. I didn't know a damn thing about meat when I started. Knew nothing about slaughterhouses, the meat industry, what role meat has played in our diets, or how, if, and when that role changed.

More than five years later, I know a little something (okay, more than a little) about all those things. But I got there the hard way: I studied these matters and thought about them and studied some more. And arrived at conclusions. Conclusions based, again, on my work.

And when we humans have studied a subject and developed opinions about it, we often express our opinions. And sometimes our opinions are different from those held by other people. (Gee, what a profound conclusion....)

But expressing an INFORMED opinion about a matter does not mean that I'm a "shill" for one side or the other. (*1) The last thing I'm trying to do is dupe, swindle, or fool people.

And I'm here to tell you: Given how hard I work, it's disheartening to see that work confused with shilling. Alas, it happens. (*2)

Here's an example, one I've elaborated on in other contexts (not least here -- the relevant section is clear at the end, so you can skip most of the essay):

When the beer book came out, some beer geeks concluded that Anheuser-Busch funded my work on the book and that I was a "shill" for Big Beer. (They could not have been more wrong on both counts.) Why? Because I didn't write a book bashing "big beer." They don't like big beer and they assumed that a history of beer in America ought to express their view. When that book did not, its author was denounced as a shill.

Again, I'm a historian. (Maybe if I just keeping saying and writing that sentence, people will get my point??? I can hope.) As I noted here:

I didn’t write Ambitious Brew in order to “take sides.” I wrote the book because I thought the history of beer in America would enrich my understanding of what it means to be an American. Period. End of story. It never occurred to me to “take sides.”

So, too, with the meat book. I'm not a shill (unless, apparently, you disagree with me). I'm a historian who has spent the past five-plus years doing immersed in the history and culture of meat in America. Do I have some opinions? You bet. Am I willing to express them? You bet. Will I continue to do so? Yes.

I hope you will, too --- and I plan to greet your opinion with respect, and to distinguish your informed opinion from shilling. Because there's a BIG difference between those two things.


*1:  This business of denouncing someone as a "shill" simply because that person disagrees with you. Where the hell does that come from? If I'm a shill because I disagree with you, then aren't you also a shill because you disagree with me? (Think about it for a minute. Please.)

*2: I often wonder if the problem is simply this: Most Americans have NO IDEA what historians do. None. For that, I blame historians.