Our culture has a curious relationship with history. On the one hand, we are dismissive of it; to call something or someone “history” is to consign them to irrelevance, and “ancient history” is even worse. This is bound up with our deeply-felt, if irrational, belief that the passage of time necessarily makes things better, so the past must have been worse than the present, and the further back in time you go the worse things must have been. We also like to believe that what happened in the past does not constrain our situation today, although of course it inevitably does.
But we are also deeply conscious of history, in a way that other cultures are not and indeed our own used not to be. If you look at mediaeval depictions of Alexander the Great, for instance, he is shown wearing contemporary armour. The past was imagined to have been much the same as the present. For us, however, as L. P. Hartley put it, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” History is exotic, other, even alien. We love books and movies set in the past, even if they are usually produced by people whose attitude to historical accuracy is comparable to King Herod’s attitude to childcare.
This does not, however, free history from our criticism. Passing judgement on the past is by no means a new pastime – Sellars and Yeatman’s definitive spoof 1066 And All That is full of Good Things and Bad Kings – but it has recently become an obsession in some circles. Curiously, we seem able to do this without imagining that anyone in the future might disapprove of us; we are obviously right, everyone else (past or future) merely thought/will think they were/are right. For instance, the person who wishes to cancel George Washington for having been a slave-owner may well own a dishwasher (for much the same reasons); it isn’t hard to imagine future generations taking a dim view of that.
The recent trend of pulling down statues of people of whom right-thinking people disapprove is just a conspicuous example of this. For example, some people seem to imagine that we can fix the problems of southern Africa by pretending that Cecil Rhodes never existed. This notion is not without its appeal, but the prospects of success are slim.
Now it is true that George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four that: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” But this was in the context of a totalitarian society, in which such control might be feasible. The real world is rarely so well-organised.
Henry Ford said in a 1925 lecture: “I don’t read history. That’s in the past. I’m thinking of the future.” This is more proof, if more were needed, that Henry Ford was not a deep thinker. (He also wrote: “Mass production is craftsmanship with the drudgery taken out of it,” which is the reverse of the truth.) It is obvious that the future originates in the present, and the present originates in the past. It may not be a coincidence that Ford’s legacy has not turned out to be a thing of loveliness.
But how can we know the truth about history? This depends very much on the kind of questions we choose to ask. It is true that written sources tend to be biased and incomplete. History is often written with a conscious agenda, but even when it isn’t it is inevitably selective. Most written European history between the end of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance comes to us via monks or clerics, for the simple reason that almost everyone literate fell into one of those categories.
Clearly you can’t believe everything you read in history-books, any more than you can believe everything you read in the newspapers (or on blogs like this one). This doesn’t mean that they contain no useful information at all, though. It simply means that critical thinking is required. Sadly, this appears to have been surgically removed from the educational curriculum, certainly in the UK and by all accounts in the USA and elsewhere.
A reliable strategy, where it can be followed, is to read multiple sources with known and conflicting biases, and try to determine where the truth seems to lie. For example, the standard account of the Industrial Revolution in England can be balanced with E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (Pelican, 2013). Incidentally, this strategy goes back at least as far as Thucydides, and is (at least in theory) the way modern historians approach their source material.
It is often objected that we learn nothing from history. Collectively, this may well be true. (Collectively, human beings seem to behave like idiots most of the time.) It cannot, however, be an absolute truth, since learning anything is the result of what happened to us in the past; otherwise you would still be merrily inserting your hands into the fire. Such lessons as we can learn from history are of course less clear-cut. History never repeats exactly. But this is not to say that useful parallels cannot be drawn.
Consider the cycle in which civilisations rise and fall. Joseph Tainter, in his classic study The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988), discusses a number of historical examples and concludes that the common theme is declining return on the investment in the complex structures and processes that are needed to keep things running. That is to say, at some point it makes more sense to give up on the whole project than to keep pouring resources into it.
This is something concrete we can look out for in contemporary events, and indeed when we look for it we shall find it. Industrial society depends on an enormous amount of complex infrastructure, which is hugely expensive to maintain – not just financially, but in terms of energy and physical resources. Just think what goes into keeping a motorway functioning: not just the physical roadway, but the signage, the drainage, traffic police and all the rest of it. At what point does all that become a price no longer worth paying?
Another useful result of the study of history is to provide context for contemporary events. The value of this is shown by what you get in its absence: the English are, on the whole, studiously ignorant of the history of Ireland, and thus are unable to comprehend why large parts of the population of Ulster would like to be shot of us. US reaction to 9/11 is another example. “Why do they hate us?” Well, a good start on answering that question might be to read French journalist Matthieu Auzanneau’s book Oil, Power and War: A Dark History (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018; originally published in French under the title Or Noir: La grande histoire du pétrole, La Découverte, 2015). It will explain a great deal about US-Arab relations and quite possibly make your hair curl.
Without this context, much of the world around us is inexplicable, and so we tend to attribute much of it to mere lunacy, especially where religion is involved. I grew up in England during the heyday of the Northern Irish Troubles, and it was always framed as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants even though theology had very little to do with it. It was at least as much of a class war as it was religious war. (Then again, even the French Wars of Religion were about much more than religion.) In the same way, we steadfastly pretend there is no historical or political background to militant Islamism. It’s just the fault of random nutters. Right.
The poster child for this syndrome is Donald Trump. I should make it clear that I hold no brief for Mr Trump, and I dare say he is as despicable an individual as he is made out to be, but the fact remains that he spoke for a real and large constituency in the USA, namely those parts of the American working class who felt – with good reason – that they had been thrown under the proverbial bus. Since neither of the major US political parties was prepared to acknowledge this, let alone speak for these people, they were obliged to resort to Mr Trump. It is by no means clear that the Biden administration is likely to address this issue.
So the critical study of history is an important tool in understanding where we find ourselves and why, and also in trying determine what sensible options we might have in trying to plot a course towards a tolerable future. As the saying goes, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. We don’t really want to be rhyming with this guy:
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