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Monday, 20 April 2015

The Myth of Relevance (Part 2)

[Here is the next installment of the chapter.  As last time, it was mostly written a year ago.  It is very much a draft and most if not all of the 'facts' mentioned still need to be double checked!]

There are other arguments presented for limiting the time and place of relevant history.  These can be illustrated by a series of different examples.  Some of these are taken from John Tosh’s interesting and valuable Why History Matters.  I disagree quite seriously with the line that Tosh takes but I am profoundly sympathetic to his overall project and certainly find myself in the same general part of the political spectrum.  In other words, I think he is firmly ‘on the side of the angels’.  My disagreement concerns the argument he has chosen to make in defence of the discipline and its value, which I think is mistaken in that I hope to demonstrate, that there are better, stronger arguments available to serve his purpose.

One argument for the relevance of history in the present is that it helps us understand current situations in the world.  The middle east, Iraq or Afghanistan furnish potential examples but so too do the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland or the conflicts in the Balkans after the fragmentation of Tito’s Yugoslavia.  Here the argument goes that if one knows about the historical ‘chain of events’ in the area under discussion, then one will gain a better understanding of the problems in the present.  The situation in the Balkans – the tension between different ethnic groups – is to be understood as the product of a particular series of events. Again, though, this argument for relevance presents numerous problems in its implications about the nature and purpose of historical enquiry.  The problems should by now be familiar.  The current state of affairs is assumed to be the automatic, logical outcome of preceding events.  That, in turn, implies some problematic assumptions about the objectivity of historical narrative and about causation, which we have already discussed.  The narratives used to explain or justify current political action are no less chosen, no less artificial, than the ones employed to explain ‘who we are and how we got here’.  Those alluded to by politicians in modern conflicts are  often no more constructed – even if they frequently are less empirically accurate.  Our modern nationalists are not operating under compulsion from the Past. As I have already argued, the Past has no power; it’s dead and gone.  It cannot even be properly conceived of without the deliberate construction of narrative, and all the problems that that entails.  It cannot make you do anything.  These modern politicians and their followers are, like the people involved in the Northumbrian Feud or the hypothetical diarist of Chapter 2, choosing events from their understanding of the past to justify what they are doing or what they want to do in the present.

Here the argument for ‘relevance’ shifts ground to claim that historical study enables us to challenge the ‘abuse’ of history for political ends.  We can stop to think more closely about the underlying implications of this argument.  Obviously it should be stated at the outset that this argument is motivated by the best of intentions.  The problems occur in the nature of history that is assumed.  The   implication is, firstly, that history is first and foremost about the collection of empirical facts.  This  happened like this; that did not happen, or did not happen like that.  That is, as I have been at pains to argue, not only a pretty low level of intellectual expectation for an academic discipline; it is fundamentally not what history is about, as opposed to chronicling and antiquarianism.  The second point follows from this and is that this argument for ‘relevance’ assumes that there is a single, univocal object history that is capable of being abused.  The only level of abuse that can reasonably be encompassed within the argument is the telling or presentation of falsehoods.  A questionable, if factually reliable, reading of history, based upon the available data, cannot easily be called an abuse without implying that there is a finite array of acceptable, non-abusive interpretations.  The argument may then move to discuss the motivation for such presentations of history, claiming that using history for political purposes is abusive.  It assumes, therefore, that history is capable of being written without some element of the political, broadly defined, entering into the process.  Or it supposes that there is a range of acceptable non-abusive motivations for historical writing: the simple neutral disinterested furtherance of knowledge for example.  Even if this were possible it could only function  at fundamentally non-historical levels of antiquarianism and chronicling.  Then we might reasonably ask what this deployment of erudite, accurate, factual history (itself non-political? non-abusive?) might practically achieve.  What, for example, might be attained by pointing out the factual flaws in nationalist historical narratives?

Let’s look at the problem more closely. We can again draw some examples from modern trouble-spots where nationalism rears its invariably ugly head.  Let’s take, for example, a modern Ulster Unionist or Irish Republican, or a Serbian nationalist (or a nationalist from any other area). 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 (as represented by the neo-Nazis of ‘Golden Dawn’ for instance), to know that in the 1830s 80% of Athens spoke Albanian? That the reason that (allegedly) Socrates could still read a Greek newspaper if he came back to life is not the allegedly millennia-long continuity of Hellenic culture and language but 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 is as close as Italian is to Latin)? Would it avail you much to point out to a Scottish nationalist that the Declaration of Arbroath was copied from an earlier Irish letter and that (contrary to the impression one would get from visiting the battlefield memorial) it post-dated the Battle of Bannockburn?  No.  All of these things might get you punched in the face, or worse, but would not help you to understand why.

Obviously, a simple and entirely valid advantage is conferred by the collection of accurate historical information and that is the ability to see through the truth claims of others when these are based around an appeal to history.  The counter-arguments provided might be ‘true’, in that they are based upon empirically-demonstrable historical ‘facts’.  Yet, they carry little practical weight.  Although such factual correction might influence third parties and, with luck, cut the ground from beneath some propaganda, it is unlikely to change anyone’s mind.  Frequently the result will simply be to entrench the idea further that some vague power is controlling and distorting ‘the truth’ in order to further their oppression.  As Slavoj Žižek has repeatedly argued, using the psychoanalytical concepts of Jacques Lacan, empirical arguments rarely cut any ice in such discussions because the root of the problem does not lie in the register of the Symbolic (crudely, the factual; that which can straightforwardly be represented in language) but rather in that of the Imaginary (the ideal/idealised).[This last bit needs re-doing.]

A more positive impact might be to make political parties eschew any reference at all to the past.  This, one must admit, need not be a bad thing.  It might, especially, be no bad thing if it ended cheap demagogic appeals to a supposed national historical heritage (see above).  One might see an example of the cutting away of the grounds for such an appeal in the cross-party response to the British National Party’s employment of a picture of a Spitfire in its 2008 election leaflets.  It was rapidly pointed out that, such was the party leadership’s ignorance, they had picked a photograph of a Spitfire flown by a Free Polish pilot.  Indeed one could say that, rather than (as intended) symbolising the Battle of Britain as a fight against encroachment by foreigners, their picture actually illustrated the historical benefits of immigrant eastern European asylum-seekers taking ‘British’ jobs!  Had the ‘historical’ argument been developed, it might have undermined all future use of Churchill, the Battle of Britain and the Second World War by the xenophobic right – if the point had been made more forcefully that most of the Conservative Party in 1940 was in favour of a negotiated peace with Hitler, that Churchill’s biggest supporters in the ‘dark days’ of 1940 were members of the Labour Party and that certainly by the end of 1940 the war had ceased to be a national conflict and taken on some features of a ‘crusade’ for the liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny – in other words for an engagement and involvement with Europe, not isolation from it.  None of this would have been without value.

Within this line of argument, it is clear, modern history does indeed normally have a prior claim to ‘relevance’; arguments against xenophobic nationalism that are based on the English ‘nation’s’ formation through the migration into Britain of Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans are, though not without use, easily enough dismissed as referring to something that happened ‘a long time ago’ or that was somehow ‘different’.  The longer ago that something happened, the less use one can make of it in discussing modern politics.  This is usually the case, but not always; the end of the Roman Empire, allegedly at the hands of invading foreign immigrants or because of supposed moral degeneracy is frequently deployed by right-wing commentators as a ‘lesson from the past’.

Nonetheless, as mentioned the key drawback with these arguments is its reduction of historical activity to simple chronicling; historical ‘truth’ means factual accuracy.  Wherever a claim cannot be refuted on straightforward factual grounds, as the element of interpretation involved becomes greater the value of historical argument to modern politics incrementally lessens.  When academic opinion is divided (no matter how unevenly matched the sides in the debate), politicians have repeatedly been able to bat away objections produced by professional expertise with a sort of relativist line that it represents ‘only one opinion’ (as for example even with the reality of climate change).  One could claim, and legitimately enough (see chapter 1), that a formal historical education – or at least the existence of a class of historical professionals – is unnecessary for the furnishing of this level of historical argument.  Non-academic writers about the past could fulfil the need for factual data every bit as well as ‘professionals’. 

Another weakness of the traditional line about the value of historical knowledge is that it is frequently somewhat essentialist.  Specific types of people placed in a particular context are likely to behave in the same (or similar) ways to those observable in the past.  Thus the key flaw in John Tosh’s argument that historical awareness might have led to an avoidance of the (at best ill-advised) invasion of Iraq in 2003.  A knowledge of the problems and parallels that could be extracted, interestingly enough, from the study of the British occupation of Mesopotamia in the 1920s not only represents, at the level of historical endeavour, the simple accumulation of facts (chronicling, again), as just discussed.  It also – if, to take a hypothetical counter-factual situation, wherein historians are called in to advise the leaders of Britain and the USA in spring 2003, deployed as a warning  – makes the implicit assumption that the inhabitants of the region would behave in just the same way as they had done eighty years previously.  It is not difficult to see how easily such arguments could have been refuted, logically and indeed reasonably, by a president and a prime minister already bent on launching the invasion.  The argument that things ‘were different’ after the First World War is reasonable enough; so would be an accusation of a form of essentialist orientalism on the part of the historical advisers.  So?  These things happened in the past.  If one moved on – as the true historian (as opposed to the chronicler) must surely move on – from the cataloguing of verifiable events to their explanation, one would soon find oneself in the midst of discussions of the precise context for the events following the First World War and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire.  Discussion of this context would rapidly differentiate the recorded events of the 1920s from the likely consequences of actions in the 2000s, unless, that is, one did assume a set of timeless Arab attitudes, grounded in a view of the Muslim culture or tribal structures of the area as fixed and unchanging.  Such a view, it would correctly be pointed out, would deny the people of Iraq any capacity to act as independent historical agents or to make their own choices.  Once these assumptions were (rightly) exposed and questioned, the ‘relevance’ of the historical knowledge to the present would be seriously compromised.  These arguments against the war could furthermore be deflected in slightly different, if all-too-familiar, less confrontational fashion by thanking the historian-advisors for their input and suggesting that the historical knowledge they had provided would help avoid the repetition of similar mistakes…


  1. I really enjoyed this. A pretty obvious argument against the ability of "lessons" from history to help predict the future is that very few historians have retired to a private island having based some judicious bets on world events. A classical flawed bit of logic is used in the sort of thinking that sees something as unlikely and therefore "miraculous", lets say that you will produce exactly the right change from your pocket when buying a newspaper. Seemingly uncanny if it happens, but then you ignore all the times that you produced the wrong change, but did not think this was notable. A similar fallacy is sometimes used by creationists, which essentially says, the odds against all the millions of processes involved in evolution producing a sentient being are infinitesimally small. This is true, but the universe is very, very big and time is very, very long, so the odds that it would happen somewhere are relatively low. The odds of someone sitting at the top of that mountain and looking down and thinking about the odds are 1:1, since they could not do that unless they were a product of the process. This is really quite obviously flawed thinking, but bizarrely historians do this all the time. Inevitability is a word that historians used use very sparingly and possibly never at all. For those reasons, the usefulness of history in producing "lessons" is bound to be very limited. On the other hand "never get involved in a land war in Asia" actually sort of works.

    1. Excellent points. And you have anticipated, to some degree, what is in 'Part 3'! "Never buy a record by Asia" is another rule that works, as I have found to my cost.


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