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Friday 12 October 2012

Professor Grumpy's Historical Manifesto

[This is an edited bit of my introductory 'briefing' lecture to my new second-years yesterday.  I didn't get the feeling it went very well - I think they were expecting a 15 mins 'here's the course book and my office hours are...' rather than a full-on manifesto.  But still, I got some decent feedback later on...  A Facebook friend asked how we justify medieval history not long ago, so here's my answer.  This section came after a section about why late antiquity had attracted my interest, personally, about all the big changes that took place around 600, and about why they might be important.  That concluded, though, by asking why it mattered to know any of that.  Now read on...]


Why does any History matter?

Think of the ways in which people – maybe you – justify the study of history. I expect two themes come up: relevance and ‘how we got where we are’. I’d say, though, that no history is relevant … or alternatively that all history is equally relevant.

What do people mean when they say that history is relevant?

It’s, let’s face it, usually a justification for modern history. To understand the modern world, the argument runs, we have to understand its history. So, to understand the problems, say, of Iraq, Afghanistan, or Ireland, or the Balkans, we need to know the history of those regions. Sounds reasonable, but actually we don’t. It’s no more use to study the modern history of those regions than it is to study the end of the Roman world.

Why? Well, let’s look at the problem more closely. Let’s take, for example, a modern Ulster Unionist or Irish Republican, or a Serbian nationalist (or a nationalist from any other area – including Scotland). Does a knowledge of the history of Serbia or Ireland help us understand his actions (let’s assume it’s a he)? No it doesn’t. For one thing, we’ll soon discover that the ‘history’ that he uses to justify his case or actions is cock-eyed and wrong. Does it help just to know the events he makes reference to, that he keeps harping on about – the Battle of Kosovo Pole or the Battle of Boyne, say? Does it help to know that in reality King Billy’s army was paid for by the Pope, or alternatively that Cromwell’s troops killed rather more English soldiers than Irish civilians at the sacks of Drogheda and Wexford? Does it help to know that for most of their history Serbs and Croats and Bosnians rubbed along together in their communities just fine (think about it; if they hadn’t, ‘ethnic cleansing’ wouldn’t have been ‘necessary’)? Does it help, when confronted by Greek nationalism (such as there’s a lot of at the moment), to know that in the 1830s 80% of Athens spoke Albanian? That the only reason that (allegedly) Socrates could still read a Greek newspaper if he came back to life is that Greek was reinvented on more classical lines, and purged of Slavic and Turkish words in the late 19th century (as was Romanian, which is the only reason why it’s as close as Italian is to Latin)? No. It might get you punched in the face but it won’t help you understand why.

Knowing 'what really happened in history' is Chronicling not history.  And it isn't much practical use outside pub quizzes*. 1: It reduces history to simple fact-finding; and simple factual recounting isn’t history. 2: It assumes that the simple course of events explains them, and thus that the course of events naturally, inevitably, led to particular outcomes (where we are today). 3: Our modern nationalists aren’t operating under compulsion from the Past. The past has no power; it’s dead and gone. It can’t make you do anything. These people are choosing events from their understanding of the past to justify what they are doing or what they want to do in the present. 
*Though it does provide a useful basis for undermining the claims of Nationalists and others, and that is important, it's not (and this is really my point) really history.

There’s another justification. If we’d only known more about Iraqi or Afghan history in the 20th century – so runs the argument in e.g. John Tosh’s Why History Matters – we’d have thought twice about invading because we’d have seen what would happen. What – because these people always act the same way in response to certain stimuli, according to some kind of timeless national characteristics? Isn’t that just a mite – well – racist? There are some general similarities for sure between Iraq in the 1920s and in the first decade of the 21st century but to assume that the latter state of affairs was predictable from the former is essentialist at best.

These arguments are usually deployed to bolster a claim that modern history is somehow more useful or relevant but, as I’ve just shown, they’re all a bit weak theoretically, relying on a pretty poor conception of history: history as only a collection of fact. Further they provide no justification for any sort of cut-off point in how far back we go. By their own logic, there’s no reason why, to ‘understand’ Afghanistan today you shouldn’t go all the way back to Mahmud of Ghazni in the tenth century, or to Sikhander himself, Alexander the Great, or further. For if the events of say the 1990s can only be understood by studying the events of 1900-1990, then the explanation is incomplete, because surely the events of 1900 can only be understood in terms of those of 1800-99, and the events of 1800 by those of 1700-99, and so on back to the earth cooling. A modern ‘relevance’ cut-off point is purely arbitrary and contingent and doesn’t at all follow from the logic of the argument.

So: let’s unpack the historical project and see what the really important – and relevant – elements of the analysis are. In looking at our modern nationalist and his/her relationship with the past, what are we, essentially, doing? First of all we’re showing an interest in understanding the world view of another human being – I’ll come back to that. Second, though, we’re adopting a critical stance to his or her thought or world view. Thus we’re recognising similarity in the sense of a shared humanity, but simultaneously acknowledging difference. We’re not taking the nationalist’s account as gospel truth; we’re questioning it, examining it critically. And that goes for all the voices from or about the past, or from the past about the past. History is about never believing what you’re told – taking a stance of radical scepticism. Put another way, slightly flippantly, the question we are always asking is not ‘is this bastard lying to me, but why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ (an adapted quote from a famous journalist.)

And that’s exactly it, because what we’re doing after that analysis of the evidence is trying to understand why people are acting like that. Why are they making that cock-eyed use of the past? These are questions that require not data but theoretical models, an analytical tool-kit if you like – and you can get that tool-kit from the study of any history. Thus all history is equally valid, equally relevant – or equally invalid and irrelevant if you prefer!

The true point of history, as I see it is as a basis for engaging with, and action in, the world, not a simple exercise of sitting in a library finding out stuff about the Emperor Maurice or Stalin or Philip V. That exercise of critical engagement with what you’re told is a key to that. But there are other key elements at stake.

Another key point concerns the idea that history had to be like that, that it had to have particular outcomes, that the world we know was the natural outcome of all that. But nothing is ‘just like that’. It doesn’t have to be that way. To understand change you have to see all the other possibilities that were open and that could have come about. It’s about ‘keeping faith with the impossible’. Many of the things we think of as natural ways of classifying the world aren’t natural at all: like race and sexuality. If studying late antiquity does have an advantage it is in making that very clear. Late antique people didn’t see colour as the basis for their way of organising the peoples of the world; they didn’t have concepts of homosexuality or heterosexuality. Their ideas of sexuality were quite different.

Which brings us back to understanding the other: seeing these people as humans, like us, and yet somehow different; listening carefully to their stories but critically examining them. Paying attention to alternatives and different ways of doing things isn’t about wishy-washy relativism; it’s not saying that all things are equally valid – it is about trying to understand them.

All that gives us enormously important skills in dealing with, and acting within, our world in the present. When the papers tell us that this or that category of people are doing this, or are like that, or are to blame for something else, historical analysis gives us the skills of source criticism; it also accustoms us to think twice before accepting a judgement; it allows us to try and see other possibilities, the other side of the story. If we make a judgement it will almost certainly be a more sophisticated and less extreme one, but wherever we end up it will be a more responsible and informed choice of opinion and action, and if we spread that, we do good.

There’s a humanity that permeates the entire process of historical enquiry; the critical questions we ask, the desire to understand, which we must bring from history to our everyday lives. They make it impossible in my view to cast human lives off to the demands of the market, or the nation, or the class struggle. That’s why I always say there’s a huge ethical demand involved in history. Huge. Unbearable in fact. But a good historian doesn’t switch off her critical faculties when moving from the seventh century to the twenty-first. There is a demand for commitment there. So I hope you see why I think my politics are the politics of history; they’ve after all grown out of twenty-odd years of being an historian, and I think being a pretty good one at that.

Now – all this, I am sure is making some of you a bit uncomfortable. Good. History is meant to make you uncomfortable. Clio, the muse of history, is like Jesus: she brings not peace but a sword. She will make you rethink everything you think you know; everything you think you hold dear; she will make you question everything. Everything you were brought up with; everything you thought natural. She’s not here to wrap you in cotton wool and say ‘there, there’ everything is just how it’s supposed to be. She’s not there to bring succour to your view of your country, or smooth over the bad stuff that it did, or to soothe your conscience about the massacres perpetuated in the name of your religion, or the slaughter committed by people who at least claimed to share your political beliefs. She’s there to make you uneasy. She’s there to stop you from falling victim to her evil twin, Myth. In a sense I want to free you from feeling like the past controls us; that we have to base our identities in the present upon myths. That means we don’t have to feel guilty or apologise, either – just to be aware; to understand.

Put another way, the historian is the ‘Internal Affairs guy’. This is a well-known figure in popular TV ‘cop shows’ and rarely a ‘good guy’. He or she is there to suppose that the hero has lied or done something wrong and that the villains might have been wronged or be telling the truth. The character rarely turns out to be as unsettling as that but it works as an analogy. For me, the historian is not there to provide comforting truths but to question them. The historian must always be prepared to wonder whether the ‘heroes’ of history are not, in fact, the villains,

If you believe anything at all, if you want your belief to be solid, in other words, it has to be on the basis of taking it apart and putting it back together on the basis of radical scepticism.

Politicians of all sorts – left and right - always want to control the teaching of history. History is a real political football, and in the light of what I’ve just been saying you can see why. It’s about not believing what you’re told without close scrutiny; it’s about trying to understand the other; it’s about trying to see and evaluate another point of view. That makes history potentially VERY dangerous. What a history degree should be is three years of thinking dangerously. And the sixth and seventh centuries are as good a thing to think dangerously with as any other era.

So, voilà. That’s my historical manifesto. You can read my views on this sort of thing at various stages of development on my blog. The main thing is that that’s what I want this course to do – to bring out this sort of critical ethical tool-kit through the study of an interesting, and important period of change.