History is more than a collection of dates and facts, kings and queens, battles and wars. It is also a guide for how we see the world, a shaping influence in the construction of our own worldview. Added to that, and increasingly seen in places like Russia, where media and writing of all kinds – everything that constitutes the nation’s intellectual life – can be conscripted into the creation of sinister political machinery, it can be a powerful tool. Even a weapon.
In light of this worrying and seemingly increasing trend, it seems worthwhile to look again at a recent study of the nature of history and how it is manifested, used and even abused outside of the academic realm.
Of particular value are MacMillan’s observations about the emotional attachment some feel for history; for many the possessive – ‘their’, ‘my’ – is frequently employed in discussion of the past. And this attitude is borne out in the way history is framed and the reactions this framing creates. After a powerful description of the way national identities, national stories and national myths have taken hold, MacMillan provides an interesting vignette which characterises the way some seek to take ownership of the past.
She describes an exhibition at a Canadian museum which was deemed to be insufficiently reverential of the nation’s veterans. Through her personal experience she recounts the way some surviving Second World War airmen rejected the scholarly narrative as put forward by the museum. For them, any mention of the civilians they had undoubtedly killed – and any discussion of the legality or morality of the means by which those civilians met their ends – was an insult to the armed services. Such a visceral reaction to history underlines two truths: history is still vital, and it certainly matters a great deal to those who took part in what E. H. Carr called its ‘dreary procession’.
In totality, MacMillan’s prose is elegant; her arguments are both well developed and well substantiated; and her cool and calm judgements are all – more or less – reasonable ones. In purely stylistic terms, this work ought to serve as a tremendously concise and well written riposte to any assertion that academic books in general – and academic books about history in particular – are by their very natures dull and dry. MacMillan does not allow herself the familiar jargon-heavy language of the academic; she does not resort to hedging – ‘every sentence ha[ving] a virtually or partially or so to speak in it’ – a tedious tactic of academics which is heavily criticised by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in his book, The Sense of Style. When she means something, MacMillan says it, and sometimes she does so very forcefully indeed.
At times, such as when she entertainingly dismantles the historicist myths of India’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party – which now makes up the government of the country, but did not do so at the time of publication – such stridency is attractive and enlightening. At other points in the book, though, one cannot escape the feeling that MacMillan is using the cover of writing historiography, and the sense of distance which that activity provides, to deliver particularly harsh verdicts on contemporary political foes.
She doesn’t like George W. Bush much, for one, and MacMillan allows her personal animosity towards the man who began the Iraq War to dominate the final two chapters of a five chapter book. This has a discernibly detrimental effect on the sweep and scope of her work; an excessive focus on the contemporary, when there are millennia of human history to examine, looks – dare I say – sloppy. In addition, her disapproval of the 43rd President leads to her committing a cardinal sin of historical writing: MacMillan makes a factual error in the course of a sweeping generalisation.
The United States, we are informed, has a ‘long history of opposition to imperialism’ – and that same history was disregarded in pursuit of war in Mesopotamia. Presumably any estimations of that long history do not extend as far back as 1898 where, in the Spanish-American War, William McKinley took his country into conflict with the aims of securing American business interests and winning Caribbean territory from a declining European power. The nature of this ‘long history’ might also be disputed by anyone who protested against the Vietnam war, for example, or any citizen of a nation – Iran and Nicaragua and Chile spring to mind – where the CIA overthrew and installed governments at will during the Cold War. One could mention Thomas Jefferson’s co-operation with Napoleonic France – an empire if ever there was one – in acquiring Louisiana for the Republic, or his non-recognition of Haiti when its slaves broke free from colonial rule. It seems almost churlish to bring up Manifest Destiny. Add to that the far from settled question of whether removing Saddam Hussein was an imperialist action in the first place, and such a statement is almost entirely invalidated.
The irony here is that only pages before, MacMillan was earnestly – and truthfully – telling the reader of the evils of those who conscript history, and particularly a deliberately partial view of history, to serve political ends. She falls victim to the same errors she criticises in others; and that is a truly great shame.
This book is not perfect, certainly, and I would advise anyone short on time to leave out the final fifty pages entirely – nothing of any great value would be missed. But, regardless of these criticisms, any work of historical theory which is written as well as this one is certainly worth looking at and – maybe with caution, in this particular case – taking to heart.
This review was originally published elsewhere.
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