Interview with Jeffrey Fynn-Paul

History Reclaimed hopes to bring people back to the table to talk

Over the last twenty years, there has been a growing fear among some historians that the interpretation of history has taken a bleak turn. In response, they set up History Reclaimed, an initiative that attempts to challenge contemporary understandings of the past by providing more careful interpretations of the matters at hand. Among one of the co-founders is Jeff Fynn-Paul, a senior lecturer in Economic History at Leiden University. He argues that the current debate has gone too far off to one side and he hopes to bring it back to the center.

Growing up in the United States, a country defined by its relatively short history, academic Jeff Fynn-Paul has always been drawn to the romanticism and mysteries of European history. Its thousands of years of content allowed him to dive deeper than he could in North American history. By the time he became an undergraduate student, Jeff began to really notice inequality, both economically and politically, as being a large problem in society. Wanting to make the world a better place, he fostered a “kind of scientific interest in alleviating human suffering”, which kick-started a quest toward uncovering the roots of current problems.

With the project History Reclaimed, he hopes to do just that. According to History Reclaimed, “history has become one of the major battlegrounds in the culture wars that are causing anger and alarm across the democratic world”. The participating scholars argue that this has resulted in an inaccurate presentation of history, which undermines democracies, including their sense of achievement. 

The idea for the project came to professor Fynn-Paul when he noticed an ideological switch in the overall academic debate, as one side began to argue that the progress made since the Enlightenment had not been real. “I saw some outrageous claims coming out now that everything about European history has to be seen in the most negative light. This pessimist interpretation of the progress that we have made, worried me,” Jeff sighs. He quickly uncovered that at the root of such thinking is critical race theory, the belief that modern institutions are inherently and structurally racist, meaning that change should come from outside the system as opposed to from within. And this is dangerous because “that means you’re opting out of democracy itself. And then, it’s totalitarianism.” Jeff argues that progress can and has to be made from within democracy. “Democracy is essentially a conversation amongst different factions. The way to run the best government is by talking. In an age of polarization enabled by social media echo-chambers, History Reclaimed hopes to bring people back together; back to the table to talk”.

Jeff Fynn-Paul does not have the intention to disregard critical race theory altogether. He simply seeks to add nuances. “Critical race theory is an important set of ideas. It was going to arise sooner or later, and it has been really useful to give us an alternative way to view things. However, piggybacking on that is an actually radical set of ideas. One that undermines the foundation of democracy”. He continues, “the alternative to solely holding to critical race theory would be not to view history as only systemic racism, but to realize that there are other problems as well. There is class equality. There are all sorts of group dynamics. All of these historical and cultural factors are coming together, having caused problems, but understanding them will be a tool in helping solve them”. As a social scientist himself, professor Fynn-Paul believes that one can never subscribe to a theory where there is just one cause for major social development. “I know that some of it is racism, but some of it is caused by other things like economics, educational opportunity, cultural factors, and many other things”. 

History Reclaimed has definitely received its fair share of criticism. Alan Lester, a professor of Historical Geography at the University of Sussex, argues for instance that History Reclaimed has “defended a propagandistic view of the past aimed at the denial of racism”, despite its supposed intention to do the opposite. “It takes a relatively lonely academic to be able to see more than one side of an intellectual question”, Jeff responds. When asked how he would construct his views were the debate to swing too far off to the right, he reassures that he’d be “one of the first ones pushing it back to the left, honestly!”, so long as democracy and due discussions are maintained. In his large lectures, some of which have more than 500 individuals on the receiving end, he continues to be “as centrist as possible, as tolerant of every opinion as possible and as welcoming to everyone as you can be”. Outside of this role in the classroom, he continues to pursue scientific debates on various topics, which he believes remain key to solving the social problems at hand.

By Aiden Correia

*DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the author, BAISmag or BASIS.*

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Images from Unsplash

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