The Moment of Academic Pause

I am almost positive that there is a point in any academic pursuit of history when the accounts of the past reach a critical mass and forces a step back for some serious contemplation. I’ve experienced this a few times before tonight – once when I was reading Iris Chang’s 1997 book The Rape of Nanking, another time when I was researching the conditions aboard the westbound ships carrying slaves to the Americas, and yet again when my son and I were looking at the artifacts centered around the Holocaust in the National Museum of the United States Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio. However, in browsing S.P. Melgunov’s 1924 book, Red Terror in Russia 1918-1923 for yet another annotated bibliography, the dark side of humanity emerged once again and completely derailed my train of thought. My entry for the book:

Melgunov’s book, published shortly after the initial turmoil of the Russian Revolution had settled, chronicles the utterly disturbing details of the extreme lengths the Bolsheviks went to consolidate their power using fear. Literature more chilling and horrific could not and should not be pursued. The academic use of such graphic examples of barbarism are cautioned in terms of use, although Melgunov’s facts collaborate information lightly discussed in other primary and secondary sources.

The professor might take issue with the unprofessionalism, but at the moment, I really don’t care. “Literature more chilling and horrific could not and should not be pursued.” There are times when “content warnings,” often scorned and lampooned as a sign of societies’ increasing intellectual and emotional fragility, start to make sense.

Graphic violence in historic literature often tends to be omitted, either through the self-censoring of the author, the editorial process prior to publication, or academic review and recycling of primary sources. In a sense, history becomes sterilized from that which can be truly unsettling. It would be a mistake of naivety to assume that unfortunate and distasteful events never happened. However, a certain sense of distance from the topic and the researcher would seem to be the best course of action from becoming too emotionally involved with the topic at hand.

My routine this morning found me reading about the previously mentioned author and historian Iris Chang. I had not known that she had committed suicide in 2004. Though no one ever really knows the motivations that compel someone to take their own life, it would be unfair to Chang’s memory to simplify the cause of her actions to a single factor and imply that her research into one of the darker events in recent history was the “tipping point.” However, my follow-on reading brought me to reading more about the Society of Professional Journalists’ “Code of Ethics” and the inevitable question about why such a guideline for historians hasn’t been part of my current academic pursuits prior to this point…

I’m sure that the topic of ethics in the study of history will be mulled over in the future, but in the meantime, my Annotated Bibliography will not, unfortunately, write itself…

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