Thursday, 24 December 2015

Happy Holidays

I wish you all a happy festive season and send all best wishes and hopes for a peaceful 2016.

Thanks for continuing to read this blog.

2015 has been a lousy year for me, by my privileged first-world standards (though it picked up dramatically at the end) as you might have surmised from the rather infrequent posting, and an impossibly worse one for millions of others across the globe.

Let's hope for and work - in whatever way we can - towards something better for all.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Refugee Crisis, the Paris attacks and the Death of History. Part 3A

So, you're maybe saying, if History isn't about, or doesn't matter because of, all of the things you discussed in Parts 1-3, why does it matter? Rather than repeating myself yet again, allow me simply to refer you to The Manifesto. On the important emancipatory potential of a closer and more sophisticated study of the moments of undecidability that are historical events, I would just stand by the points I made when I last discussed public interventions by historians. It remains to explain why the discipline of history seems to be so resistant to these points.

Friday, 11 December 2015

The Refugee Crisis, the Paris attacks and the Death of History. Part 3

More on the deconstruction of narrative and the political irrelevance of specific histories...

Part 1 of this essay is here
Part 2 of this essay is here

Some further points might bring this [The argument advanced in Part 2] home.  The first is that, even if straightforward, binary hostility between Romans and barbarians, or between Christians and Muslims, does fundamentally account for a particular event in the narrative ‘chain’, that does not mean it explains any of the others. Equally, if one event can convincingly be explained according to a ‘longue durée’ account of the conflict for the control of long-distance trade within the ecological and economic context and constraints of interconnected Mediterranean communities – with ethnic or religious labels only used as rallying cries – that does not mean it necessarily works for any other event in the ‘chain’. In other words, any event can only be understood on its own.

The second – and quite obvious – point,  developing one I made earlier, is that no event in history has ever been caused by a preceding event.  The First World War did not in and of itself cause the Second World War. The assault on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 did not – in itself – cause, or bring about, the ‘War on Terror’.  At no point was anyone compelled by the First World War or ‘9/11’ to do anything in particular.  What they did, they chose to do.  I do not claim that anyone had a completely free choice or that there were no constraints on their actions or their political vocabulary but there was never a single way to respond to the attack on the Twin Towers, there was never a single way in which the trauma of the Great War had to be employed in German, or French or British politics in the 1920s or 1930s, and there was never a single way in which people had to respond to such uses of past events.  There has always been a choice.  The role of the historian is to account for and understand why certain responses, or certain vocabularies (or discourses), rather than others were chosen and ‘worked’ with their political audiences.

The third point that I want to make – and again it is a fairly obvious point and one that I have made many times before – is that the results of historical actions and events can be the diametric opposite of those intended by any of the agents involved. It is this accidental or ironic aspect of history (and indeed of being) that in my view continues to be under-explored, whether in history or in philosophy. An event intended as a straightforward crusade/jihad by one set of monotheists against another might in the end result in some sort of cohabitation and understanding; an event or action intended to bring faiths together might do the opposite (e.g. the Council of Florence alluded to earlier); an event or action not intended to have any religious significance at all might become the casus belli for a vicious inter-faith conflict.

If we choose to analyse any action or event in history, it is – obviously – us who define that event and its parameters.  Once defined, any event is – obviously (yet again) unique and unrepeatable.  It has, furthermore, no inherent relationship, qua event, with any other event, earlier or later. It may be linked by contemporaries to other events in various forms of political and social discourse, or by later historians constructing narratives as discussed above, but any such links are only ever made in the moment, in the ever moving present, and with effects (as with the events themselves) that can never be assured.

We must embrace the irreducible singularity of historical action and, therefore, history’s radical discontinuity.

Admittedly, this sounds like uncomfortable advice, not least because it undermines almost every justification for the study of history that is ever trotted out.  What I just referred to as embracing the radical discontinuity of history and the irreducible singularity of past events cuts the ground from beneath any attempt to claim that history has any relevance at all, at least as usually defined.[1] Indeed, when I last discussed these ideas, one commenter claimed that I was arguing for the removal of the ‘whole point’ of history.  Historical narratives, which are supposed to be so important to the teaching of history,[2] and to the maintenance of cultures and nations, do not explain anything.  Indeed they only inform you of the most banal descriptive sequence.  Imagine blindfolding yourself, being spun round three times and then trying to walk through your house, while a friend filmed you bumbling about, walking into doors and furniture and trying different directions.  Playing the film back and watching it would serve exactly the same purpose as learning any historical narrative.  Historical agents have no idea where they are going.  They might think they know but it rarely turns out that way.  You can’t see the decision-making process from the film, and that process itself was based upon half-remembered, misunderstood, often misleading past experiences. And that is with a single, unilinear sequence, unlike the infinite different strands that can be followed in history.  History does not tell us who we are and how we got here except in the most banal fashion possible. This happened. Then this happened, and then this happened. But none of the happenings chosen was caused by the previous event selected or caused the one that came next. So there is actually no explanation at all; just a selective and misleading description.

The ideas I have proposed are also antithetical to any of the claims made that history has any bearing on what might be termed ‘policy’. I have argued before that no knowledge of history was of any value in the debates on whether or not to attack Iraq.  The argument that Blair and Bush would not have invaded Iraq had they but known more about history is one that has only been made effective with hindsight.  As I have said before[3], the argument that the British experience in Mesopotamia should have deterred the invasion is extremely weak and relies upon the notion that the inhabitants of the region were somehow bound to behave in 2003 in exactly the same way as they had in 1920. Such an argument could easily enough be disposed of in the run-up to the invasion and, had the war somehow been a success, would hardly  be being presented as a justification of history now, after the event. No. The only forceful intelligence available to help judge the feasibility or otherwise of attacking Iraq at the time was that which related to Iraq and its internal politics in 2003 – and we all know how much of that was either ignored or falsified – and the necessity of having some sort of reasonable plan for what to do afterwards. History had nothing to do with it. When Tony Blair told the US Congress, before the Iraq War that ‘[t]here has never been a time when … a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day’ it was the first half of the statement that was wrong, not the second. A study of history (by which, in this case, I mean the simple study of past events seemingly similar to those happening in the present) has never been capable of  providing much, if any, instruction.

The deconstruction of narrative fatally undermines the arguments for the importance of the long term in providing history that is somehow useful to the formulation of policy that have been made recently (by two more history professors from Harvard – it’s a faculty that seems currently not to be excelling itself in the intellectual stakes). Long-term narratives, as noted, are artificial constructs. The proposal that they can show which ‘threats’[4] are major and which are merely passing trends will simply not withstand scrutiny.  In addition to the selective construction of narrative (as above), the argument is obviously teleological and – ironically – therefore entirely contingent, dependent upon the short term. Yet, the book in which these extremely weak arguments were put forward managed to become the subject of a special issue of the once-great journal Annales. Thus far have we fallen.

Paul Krugman, Nobel-laureate economist and sharp observer of and commentator upon current affairs, has recently read both Tom Holland’s and actual historian Robert Hoyland’s accounts of the ‘Rise of Islam’ (the phrase emplots the narrative in itself, of course).  He concluded that, while they were interesting, he doubted that either tell us very much about the current situation. He is absolutely correct.  The only thing that helps us to understand what is going on now is the analysis of what people are doing now and why they say they are doing it.  This, clearly, follows on from the point I made earlier about past events having no force in and of themselves.

Clearly, the argument I am making here is probably profoundly shocking to people who actually do think that a study of a particular past can somehow usefully inform government. And yet the arguments to the contrary are uniformly weak.  Why has the discipline History let itself get into the position where it can make no robust argument for its intellectual value other than cock-eyed notions of relevance on the one hand or an élitist argument that historians need not justify what they do at all,[5] on the other?




[4] I leave aside the profoundly conservative concerns of this work.

[5] This, I am informed – perhaps wrongly – was the argument presented at Kalamazoo by Prof Marcus Bull: that medieval history us inherently valuable and interesting and that’s that.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The Refugee Crisis, the Paris attacks and the Death of History. Part 2

[In this part I begin to look at the ways in which the narratives used by 'historians' to comment on current affairs are constructed and the problems inherent in this.]

Part 1 of this piece is here.

So let us look back at the actual ‘argument’ set out by Holland (in the Daily Mail, discussed yesterday).  Needless to say, it’s not one that he has devised himself, and this, fundamentally, is the problem with which I am concerned; it is one that has been espoused by some genuine historians.  What it illustrates is what I have called (and this is hardly novel on my part) the tyranny of narrative.  Ever since the 1960s, some historians, at least, have been aware that history does not – indeed cannot – exist outside the stories we tell about it.  [Note for the hard of thinking: that does not mean that individual events did not happen, or that people did not experience them in the ways that they describe in the sources, or that any historical account is as good as any other, or that it is not possible to redescribe historical events in adequate fashion.]  All history has to have some sort of shape imposed upon it, in order to be able to be grasped - or given a semiotic existence - in the first place.  History (the practice) can never step outside that: there is no neutral, non-narrative, non-textual vantage point from which different accounts or reconstructions can be judged. As Derrida said, there is no outer-text.  We might say there is no outer-history.  Again, far too many historians (indeed, the majority) have refused even to attempt to grasp this point[1] and its implications, which to me – is disgraceful.

Holland has taken a selection of events from the past 1400 years (in no sub-period of which, let’s remember, can he claim to be an expert) and linked them together causally or at least juxtaposed them in such a way as to create that impression.  This then becomes the standard narrative of millennial east-west conflict.  As ever, he is hardly the first to do this: Anthony Pagden, to take but one, has written this sort of grand narrative. [I sometimes wonder whether there is something in the water in some US history departments that makes male history professors, once they reach a certain age, feel the urge to write a grandiose millennial history about the Supremacy of the West or some such but let’s leave that to one side.]

What is at issue is not so much whether or not things happened, or whether or not they had certain results; it is not always even the causation of individual events that is at stake.  It is the way such events are couched, linguistically, and how they are positioned, linked or structured, narratologically.  It is the coherence and reality of the narrative itself.  Put yet another way, the problem lies in the very production of history.

It would be possible to construct the whole of the Christian-Islam narrative differently (leaving aside the fact that Holland manages to ignore the relations Islam might have had with other regions and religions, across the rest of the world).  But it’s not simply that Holland leaves out a whole string of facts that would have allowed him, even in a short newspaper article, to tell a different and more complex narrative of the interaction between Christianity and Islam.[2]  I am not suggesting that he claim that it had been a history of harmony, peace and light, which would be a yet greater distortion; not even that he give equal attention to religiously-motivated aggression on the Christian side; simply that one can tell this story in a way that shows that conflict has not been the whole story, and that Christianity and Islam have not always been the prime motivators in such conflicts as did occur.  

The more serious problem here is that there have been book-length studies by actual professional, qualified, eminent historians that have done much the same (see above).  The fact that in the early 21st century this kind of unsophisticated, unreflective master-narrative can still be churned out by trained, successful, intelligent historians seems to me to be absolutely shocking.  If anything it suggests that the practice of history is not merely stagnant; it has somehow managed to go into intellectual reverse. I will return to suggest reasons for this.  Most importantly of all, though, the problems with Holland’s (or Pagden’s) accounts would not be evaded simply by producing a different master-narrative, emplotted in a different fashion.  Or even in the provision of a set of alternative narratives.  The problem lies, as I noted earlier, in the very conception of history that is embedded in all narratives, the idea of history as coherent story.  Academic history, as practised at universities across the globe, is doing nothing (or almost nothing) at all to challenge this because, well, why should it? It sees no need for that as it slides ever further into being a simple, cosy, intellectually unthreatening subject, a divertissement, if you will, to round off a fine young gentleman’s, or lady’s, education before their career in the law or the civil service.  Well, fuck that.

If we were to look at the master-narrative of Christian-Muslim relations, we could pick apart each and every point selected as a dot to be joined up in the story (comedic, tragic, epic, romantic, whatever-ic).  (And we must never forget that all narratives originate in an act of selection, from a sea of other historical happenings, of particular events, relating to a pre-determined tale.) It might for example be that some events in the story were conceived of and enacted at the time as episodes of straightforward, binary Christian-Muslim hostility, but such events were rare, if dramatic.  In most, other factors come into play, frequently – perhaps usually – reducing the religious element to rallying cries, if that.  When Süleyman the Magnificent first fell out with the future Emperor Charles V the cause was that Charles had taken the title of caesar, which Süleyman regarded as his own.  This was a quarrel about who was the legitimate ‘Roman Emperor’, which is an interesting and illuminating point in itself, suggestive of a quite different narrative, but it was ultimately a round in the developing conflict for Mediterranean hegemony between imperial Spain and the Ottomans.  Those kinds of politics can be brought into play in explaining the alliance between the Turks and Francis I of France, or the fact that when the fort of Sant’Elmo on Malta was finally captured by the Ottomans in 1565 the Venetian Republic rang its bells in celebration.  Neither of those historical facts or events find their way easily into the simple narrative of a centuries-long hatred between Muslims and Christians.

Nor does the history of the Byzantine Empire, if examined in the round, or the rise of the Ottoman.  Far from being the sentinel of Christendom, a bulwark holding back the ‘Muslim onslaught’, the Byzantine Empire spent much of its time fighting other Christians, whether ‘Latin’ westerners or Balkan ‘orthodox’ Christians like the Bulgars.  Its emperors were in no way above making alliances with Muslim powers, sometimes to fight other Christians.  The last emperors’ acceptance of western theology and papal supremacy, made in order to gain western support against the Ottomans, was regarded with disgust by their subjects, who were presumably well aware that the Osmanli had little or no interest in compelling eastern Christians to adopt a different Christian theology.  800 years previously, some evidence suggests that some imperial subjects in places like Egypt, members of the Miaphysite Church (which historians used to call Monophysite), welcomed the Arab invaders as
 more tolerant of their belief than the Chalkedonian emperors, who had recently begun a persecution of their church.  Holland omits to mention that the first ‘barbarian’ sack of Constantinople was at the hands not of Muslims but of western Christians in 1204; he omits the complex whirligig of thirteenth-century political alliances of Latin Christians, Orthodox Christians, Muslims and others that resulted in the re-establishment of the Greek-speaking ‘Byzantine’ ‘Roman Empire’ and the elimination of the Frankish (Latin) ‘Roman Empire’ in 1261.

Although first appearing on the western edge of Asia Minor, the Osmanli developed their regime simultaneously on both sides of the Aegean, fighting Christian and Muslim rivals in the complicated aftermath of the demise of the Latin Empire.  It was after the Empires of Constantinople and Trebizond fell (already Turkish vassals in any case) that the Ottomans began their major expansion eastwards and southwards across Asia Minor, against the Islamic Black- and White-Sheep Turks, Persians and Mamluks, and then westwards along the Islamic north coast of Africa.  The famous campaigns in the Balkans, Hungary and eventually up to the gates of Vienna and Malta were only one front of Ottoman political and military history, one which featured alliances with particular groups of Christians.  Only a singularly distorting view of Ottoman history can reduce it to the simple, if well-known, narrative of an Islamic assault on Christendom, whose various ‘prongs’ were halted at Vienna, Malta and Lepanto. One could go on: one could detail the lengthy western attempts in the nineteenth century to shore up the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against the expansion of Tsarist Russia, and so on. But I hope you get my point.

A whole series of similar points can be made about the master-narrative of the demise of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth and sixth century allegedly at the hands of barbarian immigrants or invaders. Battles between armies simply composed of invading barbarians on one side and defending Romans on the other were rare in the extreme in the period between 376 and 476 and those that there were mostly had little or no effect on the political developments of that period. Almost all of the crucial military campaigns or encounters of the period of the ‘Fall’ of the Western Roman Empire were waged (usually on both sides) by armies composed of Romano-barbarian confederacies, or of ‘barbarian’ soldiers fighting for a Roman faction. Most of the most important ‘barbarians’ of the fifth century grew up inside the Roman Empire. Even Alaric, the sacker of Rome, had been in alliance with the Roman Senate itself the year before, during his rebellion against Emperor Honorius.  A narrative that selects a handful of events that seem to involve invading barbarians, reads them – partially – with that interpretation in mind and then joins them up to create the narrative of ‘Barbarian Invasion’ is making up a story to fit a preconceived idea.  It is not a narrative that, to judge from the evidence they created – written or otherwise – all fifth-century people would have recognised.  Of course it is highly unlikely that they would recognise any modern narrative of the times in which they live.  All historical narratives are constructed after the event.

The point is not just that multiple narratives can now be told, nor even that modern ‘barbarian invasions’ narratives differ profoundly from most of the narratives composed in the fifth century itself. The point is that all narratives constructed to present a story that explains a particular end-point or outcome according to a certain cause or set of causes and as the result of a specific combination of prior events are fundamentally artificial. No argument can be ‘won’ here by the simple listing of other, additional or alternative historical facts (as above).  No one narrative, provided it follows the usual rules of evidence and logic (and admittedly not all do), can be declared to be any more or less ‘accurate’ or ‘truthful’ than any other. Strategies like the one I have adopted in the preceding paragraphs only work in showing that there is not one, single, ‘truthful’ story to be told about history.  The real strategy to be adopted in ending all of this sort of nonsense (as with the ‘Historians for Britain’ squabbling) lies in the deconstruction (in Derridian terms) of historical narrative and its production.


To that I will turn in Part 3 (tomorrow).
Part 3 of this essay can be found here.




[1] This is a point that the – bizarrely – self-styled ‘post-modernist’ critics of historical practice – Jenkins, Munslow and the rest – have singularly failed to comprehend, because their view of what history, ideally, is is fundamentally exactly the same as that of the sort of extreme positivist empiricists that they portray the rest of the historical profession as being. History should be ideologically neutral and empirically, factually accurate or truthful and, if that is not possible, history itself is impossible. What they fail to appreciate is that history’s very condition of possibility in the first place is precisely this impossibility. The fact that supposedly theoretical work that is as philosophically weak as that of Jenkins, Munslow and the rest should have acquired its eminence,
 influence and/or notoriety is yet another indictment of history’s sorry intellectual state.

[2] It is indicative of the attitude of Holland and his ilk that,according to his entry in Wikipedia he claims to ‘pull his punches’ about Islam for fear of being drummed out of the ‘liberal club’.  Not, n.b., because he has no claim to being any sort of expert or authority on Islam or the Arabic world (he churned out a book on the topic after a couple of years at most of reading other historians’ work; does he read Arabic, Persian or any other relevant language?) but because he might allegedly be turned out of the liberal club. This kind of grandiose self-delusion is absolutely characteristic of his ilk.

Monday, 7 December 2015

The Refugee Crisis, the Paris attacks and the Death of History. Part 1.

[The blog post I started composing about the riot of dumb articles posted about recent events - above all, the Refugee Crisis and the Paris Attacks - by actual historians and people calling themselves historians grew too long to be one post, so I have broken it up. Here is Part 1, in which I tackle some preliminary issues.  Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.]


"History could hardly be more brutally exploited. No one should doubt the dangerous nature of the memories that ISIS is playing with."

These words conclude an article in the Daily Mail by self-appointed ‘historian’ Tom Holland.[1]  Holland’s article rounded off a pretty shameful couple of weeks for the historical discipline (if indeed it be one such, because I am beginning to doubt it).  First of all, superannuated Berlin professor Alexander Demandt gave an interview to Die Welt in which he expressed the views that the refugee crisis was pretty much like the Völkerwanderung which (said he) brought down the Roman Empire, that a north-south ‘farbige Front’ (a coloured front: yes, you read that right) was opening up, but that the current immigrants were more dangerous than the Goths because they weren’t armed (and thus, I assume, we can’t justifiably just gun them down on sight).  The next week, after the Paris attacks, Harvard (yes, Harvard) professor of History Niall ‘Fire His Ass’ Ferguson penned a piece for the Murdoch Press arguing that Paris and the West were falling before a new barbarian invasion, just like Rome.[2]   Ferguson’s piece was of course taken up eagerly by UKIP News, with his credentials as an academic used to support the truth of the argument.[3]  Mostly Ferguson drew upon a half-remembered, half-digested version of Gibbon but he also cited, approvingly, the books by Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather, which (as people have attempted to silence me before for saying) lend themselves to precisely this sort of far right-wing argument.  Not only – to my knowledge – has neither of these two worthies made any sort of statement distancing themselves from this use of their writing (thus increasing my gut-feeling that they are happy enough with these politics); none of the usually posturing self-styled ‘socially committed historians’ has – to my knowledge – made any effort to speak out.[4]  That has been left to the usually self-effacing, unassuming Professor Mark Humphries and Dr John Henry Clay.  As ever, outside the UK, the picture was rosier.[5]  And finally ‘top historian’ Tom Holland wrote a shocking piece that simplified and distorted 1400 years of history into a binary struggle between Christianity (which seems to be lazily interchangeable with ‘The West’) and Islam (which seems to be lazily interchangeable with ‘Arabs’).  All this, in a whole range of ways, sums up the deep, probably terminal, intellectual crisis in which the discipline of History finds itself: one which, alas, the discipline itself is far too complacent, self-satisfied and cocooned to notice.

Let’s go back to the words I quoted at the start: "History could hardly be more brutally exploited. No one should doubt the dangerous nature of the memories that ISIS is playing with." Let’s leave to one side the idea that Holland himself is no stranger to the ‘exploitation’ of ‘history’, as I am sure his bank- or hedge-fund-manager would agree.  It’s the second phrase that interests me: ‘the dangerous nature of the memories that ISIS is playing with.’  Let’s think about this for a minute.  How can a ‘memory’ be dangerous?  How can the events of the past (all dead and gone) be dangerous in themselves?  I, for example, had a row with a Jewish bloke once.  Is that a dangerous memory?  Of course not.  If I choose (now) to make that fact the basis for a generalised, antisemitic hatred of all Jewish people, that would be dangerous.  But I might just as easily (and do, or at least try to) make it into the basis of a reflection on what a tit I was perhaps being back then, or as a reflection to bring myself up short when the baser instincts (which I suspect all of us who are honest have) might make me want to generalise from one unfortunate exchange.  In the latter case at least, therefore, that memory could be called the very opposite of dangerous.  France and Germany fought a string of tit-for-tat wars between 1756 and 1945 as a result of which millions of people died.  Is that a ‘dangerous memory’? It would be for Holland (were we to assume he was consistent in what passes for his thought).  But in fact it has been precisely that history and that positive desire to ‘put an end to all this’ that has forged, since 1945, closer ties between the French and German republics.  What could be – in Holland’s terms – a more ‘dangerous memory’ than the Holocaust?  But that has widely been used[6] as the basis for a desire to do all one can to prevent further genocides.  It is not the events of history, the ‘memories’, that are dangerous; it is what one does with them.  And here, of course, is the irony: Holland is playing with the events of the past every bit as much as Daesh/ISIS.  To paraphrase a commenter on my ‘official’ Facebook page, Holland is essentially saying ‘the world has been irreparably divided into us and them, and the problem with them is that they regard the world as irreparably divided into us and them’.

This is perhaps the central point that I am trying to work through in Why History Doesn’t Matter: that the past has no force in and of itself and cannot force anyone to do anything.  It is people who use a view of the past to justify what they are doing in the present that causes the problems.  No knowledge of any actual ‘facts’ of the past will be ‘relevant’ in helping you understand, confront or challenge that in any fundamental fashion.  This seems to me to be an obvious point but it apparently eludes a depressingly large number of the practitioners of history (by which I mean not raconteurs like Holland but actual bona fide historians) and that surely constitutes serious grounds for concern.

The second, closely-related point about Holland’s phrase is the idea that these historical events (and – intriguingly – the particular reading that Holland places on them) somehow constitute ‘memories’, inherent within entire groups of people.  Apparently, Muslims carry around, hard-wired into them, a set of ‘dangerous memories’ that can simply be ‘played with’ by Daesh.  Ponder that as a piece of imagery to be peddling to the readership of the Daily Mail.  Note also that Holland makes no attempt, at any point, to argue that what he calls these ‘memories’ are in any way false; on the contrary, his story presents them (albeit dubiously, as we’ll see) as historical fact.  The implication is that Muslims simply can’t cope with their history.  They have somehow to have their supposed ‘memories’ suppressed, rather than being awoken by Daesh ideologues.  By contrast, the white middle-class readership of the Mail evidently either has no historical ‘memory’ at all, which is why Holland has to spell it out, or at least it can safely deal with its historical knowledge.  There is no reflection by this ‘top historian’ on the relationship between the (dead) past and the (living) practice of history but then nor is there on the part of most genuine historians either.  This is why history is fast disappearing as any sort of intellectually respectable discipline.

One could go on but let’s draw a veil of charity over it, leaving only the point that it is a pretty damning indictment of putatively élite British education and its supposedly starry products that they can swill out language and arguments as light-weight and illogical as this.  Leaving aside all of the problems with ‘top historian’ Holland’s historical reconstruction, his characteristically florid, bombastic, overwrought prose (diagnostic of the schlock-horror-novelist that he essentially is) lacks the slightest sign of any intellectual reflection. It is thoughtless, careless and at best logically loose – and loose talk costs lives.

Part 2 of this essay can be found here.

-----

[1] Unsurprisingly, like most of his ‘historical raconteur’ ilk, Holland comes from a ‘private school and Oxbridge’ background. His qualifications, a first-class BA, are no greater than those of many thousands of other people, who nevertheless do not claim the title of ‘historian’, let alone ‘top historian’.

[3]  For other reactionary political use of the trope, see http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/659694fe-9440-11e5-b190-291e94b77c8f.html#axzz3slVEkDY5

[4] If any of the rogues’ gallery of poseurs in attendance at this conference, in remembrance of the greatest faux-radical poseur of them all, has made any sort of public intervention about any of this I am not aware of it.

[6] Outside Israel, where, with tragic irony, the commemorative lesson appears to be not so much ‘lest this happen again’ as ‘lest this happen to us again’. I can understand that easily enough, but I can hardly condone its use to justify Israel’s genocidal policies in Gaza and the occupied territories.  This, by the way, makes me no more opposed to the existence of the state of Israel than my disapproval of Putin's policies makes me opposed to the existence of the state of Russia.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Guest post: The Paris attacks and the abuse of history, by Mark Humphries

[This is an important post in many ways. The least significant is that it is the first guest post I have ever had on Historian on the Edge. I have always wanted this to be a space where others could write if they liked. I can't think of anyone I would like to have the putative or dubious distinction of being the author of my first guest post than my very good friend Prof Mark Humphries.  More importantly, though, The Paris attacks and the abuse of history is a super, intelligent, scholarly and clear riposte to 'Fire His Ass Ferguson's' diatribe in The Sunday Times. Most of all, I hope that as Mark is a reasonable, politic and subtle thinker rather than a raging, angry, oikish firebrand like me, this might actually cut some ice where it matters.  This has been tweeted and done the rounds on Facebook as it deserves, but I hope it will teach a further audience here. Over to Mark:]

Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, does not shy away from controversy. His debate about the legacies of European colonialism with Pankaj Mishra in the pages of the London Review of Books is enough to show that. The recent horror visited on Paris has prompted from him another broadside, published in two Murdoch-owned titles, The Sunday Times and The Australian. In his op-ed, he argues that modern Europe, like the Roman empire in the 5th century AD, stands on the brink of collapse before insuperable external forces – but the 21st Europeans are too complacent to spot the obvious analogy. Where Rome faced barbarians, modern Europe faces Daesh. He quotes from Edward Gibbon’s lurid description of the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410, offering it as an obvious parallel to Friday’s massacre in Paris. Ferguson wants to push the parallel further: fifth century Rome was complacent about its frontier defences; so too, he argues on the basis of the recent influx of refugees, is modern Europe. The link he posits is causal: “Poor, poor Paris,” he concludes. “Killed by complacency.”

Ferguson admits he “do[es] not know enough about the fifth century” to trace what he would see as ancient parallels to the supine responses of modern European leaders to current threats. But I do know about the fifth century: it is my historical stomping ground, and I, along with others in the field (to judge by social media), have read Ferguson’s op-ed with dismay mounting to anger. He seriously misrepresents the historical experiences of the fifth century, which matters when a Harvard history professor purports to be presenting the past to a general audience.

For all his lack of knowledge, Ferguson claims to have done some cursory research. In addition to Gibbon, he cites two important studies of the end of the Roman empire, both published in 2005: Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization and Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire.

But what he does with these works amounts to eye-wateringly simplistic distortion. For instance, basing his deductions on Peter Heather’s discussion of the economic attractions of the empire to its barbarian neighbours, he remarks: “Like the Roman empire in the early 5th century, Europe has allowed its defences to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its malls and stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.” Notice the pernicious conflation there between economic migrants and refugees: it is a point Ferguson labours elsewhere in his article, when he remarks “Things in their own countries have become just good enough economically for them to afford to leave and just bad enough politically for them to risk leaving.” For Ferguson, all these people, no matter how desperate their circumstances, represent an undifferentiated external threat.

There are other conflations too, this time underscoring an “us” versus “them” mentality of fear. He writes begrudgingly: “It is doubtless true to say that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe are not violent. But it is also true the majority hold views not easily reconciled with the principles of our liberal democracies, including our novel notions about sexual equality and tolerance not merely of religious diversity but of nearly all sexual proclivities.” But this is a straw man argument, producing a caricature of “us” that fails to account for the wide variety of opinions on matters of inclusion and tolerance to be found across Europe. In equal fashion, his construction of a Muslim “other” is a caricature devoid of nuance.

But this caricature aids his simplistic argument about a Europe beset by hostile forces from without. Some of my fellow historians have asked the obvious question why Ferguson fixates on the fifth century, when the seventh century in the East, which saw the rise of Islam, might present more obvious food for thought. Perhaps Ferguson knows even less about that. But there is another point here, in that it enables Ferguson to construct a narrative that fixates on the West. Edward Gibbon, whom Ferguson cites with approval, pulled a similar trick. In his ‘General considerations on the decline of the empire in the west’ that concluded volume 3 of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon made this European dimension explicit by considering how a similar chain of events might impact on the Europe of his own day.

Gibbon, then, saw the demise of the Roman empire in the fifth century as a peculiarly western tragedy; it was also one that risked happening again. No modern specialist of the period would accept Gibbon’s analysis as anything more than the posturing of an Enlightenment intellectual decrying the forces of “superstition” and “barbarism”. That Ferguson chooses to do so fits neatly with the primacy and ascendancy of the West in his historical vision. In this he is not alone: a string of right-wing commentators in the United States have expounded a similar vision equating modern America with ancient Rome, and issuing dire warnings that it risks a similar fate. This perspective has been subject to withering deconstruction by the late Jack Goody, who argued in his The Theft of History (2006) that much of world history has been shoehorned into a narrative framework derived from and designed to satisfy the experience of the West. It also purposefully leaves out of the picture the dynamic interactions and genuinely shared histories of the West and the rest of the world. But that is not a story that suits an agenda of “us” pitted against “them”.

Even Gibbon came to question the validity of his analysis and see that not everything could be blamed on an external barbarian foe crashing inwards towards a civilised centre. The final, sixth volume of his Decline and Fall was published in 1788. A year later, France was thrown into the convulsive horrors of revolution. Gibbon was compelled to acknowledge that he had completely missed the significance of internal problems, notably civil war, in bringing about Rome’s demise. In notes made for a never-realised seventh volume of his history, he wrote: “Should I not have deduced the decline of the Empire from the Civil Wars, that ensued after the fall of Nero or even from the tyranny which succeeded the reign of Augustus? Alas! I should: but of what avail is this tardy knowledge? Where error is irretrievable, repentance is useless.” Ferguson would do well to meditate on this.

Peter Heather, one of the modern historians of Rome’s fall cited by Ferguson, allows for a more nuanced analysis of the empire’s collapse. He writes: “there is no serious historian who thinks that the western Empire fell entirely because of internal problems, or entirely because of exogenous shock.” I’ve often wondered what the obvious opposite of Heather’s “serious historian” – a frivolous one – might write. Having read Ferguson’s ill-judged and shallow analogies between 5th century Rome and 21st century Europe, I think I now know.

Poor, poor Ferguson. Undone by complacency.

Mark Humphries
m.humphries@swansea.ac.uk

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Ethnic Transformations: A Rider

Although I had bumbled my own way to the conclusions reached in the previous article about the context for Æthelberht's Laws, Patrick Wormald had already reached them (or ones very similar) 20 years ago.  See The Making of English Law round about p.100.  This will go into a footnote, as will an acknowledgement to Dr Levi Roach for putting me onto it, though I really should have known to look there to start off with if I was any good... What I will make of this point, however, is likely to be rather different from what Wormald did.