Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Suppression of History

In a lecture the New York Times columnist David Brooks notes that Bush always thinks in terms of fifty year time frames, 'almost as if,' Brooks is being reported here, 'he couldn't conceive of political action except in long run terms.' I think I've read this about Bush before and I certainly know he's inordinately find of historians, which is the flip side of the same coin. Politicians in general are fond of historians - usually through vanity, but also in a genuine attempt to understand their own trade, which, rightly or wrongly, is the trade that most fascinates historians. Publishers love history; history replaced science as the stock non-fiction genre a decade ago. Newspaper executives are always drawn to historians and, of all the academic disciplines, history is the one that offers the best prospects of media-advancement through columns and TV shows. I have, lately, decided this is a disaster. There's nothing wrong with history as such - though it is a much more fluid and epistemologically dubious realm than we are led to believe by its various popularisations - but its application is almost invariably wrong-headed. (That last phrase is revenge, a history master once said it of me in a school report.) History is almost always treated as linear. For example, the unreconstructed right, in their daydreams, long for the coming - or the return from Avalon - of Churchill or Thatcher. This is linear thinking. Both were the right people in the right place at the right time; now they would be meaningless. And I have heard many newspaper executives discuss contemporary politics from the olympian perspective of the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Human affairs aren't linear, they are chaotic. One might say human nature is consistent through time - which it probably is - but, in that case, you'd be better off reading novels instead of history. The danger of constantly appealing to history is the 'history will absolve me' (Castro) trap. If you think like that, then there is no limit to what you can do here and now because the limitless future will, at some unspecified point, decide you were on the right track. Note the way Mugabe keeps using colonial history to conceal his brutality. One can easily imagine Bush writing off the catastrophic strategic blunders in Iraq as mere trifles when seen from 50 years hence. We have had too much history and too many historians. (There are a noble, worthwhile few, of course; coincidentally, all are friends of mine.) History is dangerous, it could do with a period of benign neglect if not outright suppression.
PS. I have just noticed in the Mail - God knows how you find stuff on their web site so no link - that David Starkey (one of the friends mentioned above) was not among the 'group of leading historians' invited to dine with Bush at Downing Street. Starkey dismissed the ones that were invited as 'just a bunch of neo-cons' - in other words, they were there to tell Bush he would be absolved by history. QED.


  1. Right you are - I'll just nip across to Amazon and cancel my Andrew Marr DVD...

  2. It's an interesting take Bryan, and the legacy obsession justifying short-term mistakes is a great insight...

    ...but surely the strongest thing you can claim is that history is a double-edged sword. You can't argue that all long-term forward thinking is wrong per se.

  3. I have just finished marking 540 A Level scripts. I'd be happy to see it suppressed.

  4. Ah thanks, George, straight from the coalface. And, Brit, of course, you are right. But forward thinking has to be done with full knowlegde of how wrong it is likely to be. The one thing you can always say about the future is that it will be unprecedented.

  5. i prefer to think that things move in spirals; the same situations recur but so differently that you can't reliably predict what will happen. The most your past knowledge achieves is a sense of recognition, e.g. "this reminds me of such-and-such a chapter in Thucydides". Occasionally it is some use, i think, but it can also be misleading if one supposes the present situation is essentially identical to the past situation.

    Also, the justified-by-history view assumes that all will become clear in the future. But this is not necessarily so.

  6. Absolutely right Bryan on both points. History is far too important to be trivialized, and it offers to much temptation to bar-room historians to use it to reinforce their own ignorance.

    Your point about Bush and all the neocons is spot on too--including Blair, of course. They keep pushing this idea that their holocausts and blasting of the ME to smithereens will all look different in the rear-view mirror--it is truly the universal justification.

  7. "This is linear thinking."

    I think what you are really having a pop at is the Whig view of history. Or what would now, no doubt, be called the Progressive view. Absolute claptrap of course, what with its essential belief that history is a story with a happy ending.

    We Burkean types like our history, if only so we can understand the foundations of our current position. With that blueprint we feel we can properly know the structure we want to build on: what Benedict XVI would call the Hermeneutic of Continuity.

    Your Whig/Progressive thinks - "foundations be damned, this is the Utopian vision I have in mind and I'm going to fashion the history to create a narrative that smoothly leads to that Utopian conclusion."

    p.s Hope you haven't upset CaptainB with this post.

  8. What is 'bar-room history' then, Chris?

    Is the frivolous application of the term 'holocaust' an example?

  9. Here they are -

    Simon Schama - A History of Britain

    Alistair Horne - A Savage War of Peace

    Valmai Holt - Major & Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guide

    Max Arthur - Forgotten Voices series

    Piers Brendan - The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

    Linda Colley Britons - Forging the Nation, 1707–1837

    David Cannadine - The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

    Martin Gilbert - Official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill

    Andrew Roberts - A History of the English Speaking Peoples since 1900

    A number of Churchill junkies here. And a ponce or two.

  10. Bryan,I was taught historiography first when I went up to university. That was great for encouraging critical thinking, except that when I tried applying it to the then current crop, I wasn't very popular. Starkey was very fresh back then and no doubt helped me choose the subject.

    I'd say the counterfactualists are bringing something fresh now, and from what I can see tie the subject back into the study of complex systems where that political elite view manifestly fails. But I hesitate because there are so many unread books in my antilibrary ;-).

    Looking forward to your De Vany story, by the way.


  11. The David Starkey quotation is here (the last item in Richard Kay's column) and includes another answer to the question What do you call a collection of "historians" invited by Gordon Brown to dine with George Bush?

  12. Even individual history is unreliable, i only retain sketches of what i did yesterday.
    If i write it down in a diary it becomes an interpretation or even a fabrication of what happened. Ditto criminal witnesses who often unwittingly distort and bend past events. History is one great subjective fog.

  13. The best predictor of the future is the past. This is why we study history. Unfortunately, history usually tells us more about now than then because no one can transcend their era and all historians writing now are living now. And when we read them decades later, we see them through *this* lens of now.

    It's a conundrum, sans doute, but I think I see history as Elberry does. If it were clearly predictable, then we could solve a lot of world problems. Same with the stock market. If analysts could really predict what would happen, they'd be fantastically rich and so would their clients; instead, it's hit or miss.

  14. Historical absolution, of the kind George Bush is fond of, is either hubris or an excuse for failure. In his case, it is hard to tell which it might be. Could it be both? Anyway, given that losers don't write history, as a rule, I would guess George is in for a hard time in the next few decades with the way world power is shifting.

  15. just to dissent here - "neo-con" is just a euphemism for "conniving Jew (or their lackeys)."

  16. History should above all else teach us the lessons of human frailty, it may not be perfect but has anyone come up with a better teacher, can you say that the human race has advanced so far beyond the mistakes of it's past that it can, without any referral, make sound judgment.
    This is not about politicians, it,s about us, our daily intercourse with our fellow man, fuck politicians, when push comes to shove they don't matter,

  17. 50 years is not the county of the historian, surely it's yours. But we are allowed a fun comment now and then.
    Your blueish crane should be elected to the Boris seat.


    1, bloody paaagaens(98%)
    2, realy they have money, real money. Well OK then(100%).
    3,Irish with money or just a bloodyminded Irish with a army sreak- Welsley-.....
    4, A little Amerrcan will do.

    Your best bet is with Ten Cruse.

  18. One can easily imagine Bush writing off the catastrophic strategic blunders in Iraq as mere trifles when seen from 50 years hence.

    If you are going to ignore any future calculation of the intervention in Iraq, then in what sense can you call it a catastrophic strategic blunder? You can't make any claim to strategic thinking without taking a long view. If intervening in Iraq was a strategic blunder, what would have been the purpose of non-intervention? What would have been the strategic purpose of a continuation of the standoff with the regime of Saddam Hussein, the sanctions regime with its horrific human toll on Hussein's subjects, and the disastrous and corrupt oil for food program?

    I'm sensing that this newfound distaste for history might just have something to do with the realization that, in the long run, the overthrow of the Hussein regime might just be seen as a good thing. I've yet to hear anyone explain how the alternate history, whereby Hussein regime would maintain its grip indefinitely, under Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay, would be something for future generations to look back on with pride. How proud are we of acquiescing to the 60 year reign of the Kim's in North Korea? I doubt many North Korean citizens are grateful for our forebearance on their behalf.

  19. Duck has it.

    Bryan has a valid point that politicians can use 'history will prove me right' as an occasionally dubious justification for doing unpleasant things.

    But that's the most Bryan can say. Talk of 'strategic blunders in Iraq' is meaningless if his own main argument is to stand.

    I was pro the Iraq invasion in a least-worst-option kind of way because I couldn't see that keeping Saddam and his heirs in power could ever have better long-term consequences for Iraq or the rest of the world than removing him. That's a legacy-justification. Of course in real life there are cock-ups, flukes, and unintended and unpredictable consequences both good and bad. So all you can do is muddle along as best you can, try to learn historical lessons, and do what you think is the right thing given the evidence and your best guess.

    Otherwise it's just an excuse for never doing anything.

    (Though I've seen plenty people complain about the lack of intervention in Zimbabwe whilst simultaneously damning the intervention in Iraq, which is typical of leftist moral high ground-grabbing doublethink.)

  20. Bryan, we still await a demonstration of your knowledge of the concept of "paragraph". :)

  21. "If intervening in Iraq was a strategic blunder, what would have been the purpose of non-intervention? What would have been the strategic purpose of a continuation of the standoff with the regime of Saddam Hussein, the sanctions regime with its horrific human toll on Hussein's subjects, and the disastrous and corrupt oil for food program?"

    Well, so far it's resulted in the death of nearly 1 million Iraqis and thousands of soldiers lives. But, if Iraq were in the long term to become a country of peace and relative freedom for it's citizens, i would think the invasion was worth it.
    Unfortunately there is more chance of the dinosaurs coming back. Southern Iraq has already elected hard line fundamentalist leaders where women regularly have there heads cut off for not obeying proper dress codes.
    Even if America stayed there for 100 years the bombings would continue for 100 years with the death toll rising acccordingly.
    For the long term i think stability will be achieved in Iraq. But it will come at a cost for women , homosexuals and non muslims. I can't really see anything other than a theocratic government taking hold in Iraq. In fact, it's arguably there already. Anything else is just wishful thinking.