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Getting History Right

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 12, 2009

DANGEROUS GAMES

The Uses and Abuses of History

By Margaret MacMillan

Modern Library. 188 pp. $22

In this provocative examination of the ways in which we use and abuse history, Margaret MacMillan passes along a story originally told by the writer Susan Jacoby. She was in a New York bar on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, and eavesdropped on a conversation between two "bewildered" men. First man: "This is just like Pearl Harbor." Second man: "What is Pearl Harbor?" First man: "That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War." To which MacMillan responds:

"Does it matter that they got it so wrong? I would argue that it does, that a citizenry that cannot begin to put the present into context, that has so little knowledge of the past, can too easily be fed stories by those who claim to speak with the knowledge of history and its lessons. History is called in . . . to strengthen group solidarity, often at the expense of the individual, to justify treating others badly, and to bolster arguments for particular policies and courses of action. Knowledge of the past helps us to challenge dogmatic statements and sweeping generalizations. It helps us all think more clearly."

Or, as she says elsewhere, history "helps us to understand: first, those with whom we have to deal, and, second, and this is equally important, ourselves." Had we possessed a clearer understanding of the difference between a nation's acts of war and a group's acts of terrorism, we might have been less susceptible to the various arguments advanced on behalf of undertaking a "war on terror" and an invasion of Iraq. "Wars are made on enemies," MacMillan writes, "not on ideas; wars have defined goals -- usually forcing the enemy to capitulate -- but a war on terror has no clearly defined end."

MacMillan, who is professor of history at Oxford University and the University of Toronto and author of the much-honored "Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World" (2002), appreciates what too many do not, that "if you do not know the history of another people, you will not understand their values, their fears, and their hopes or how they are likely to react to something you do." She cites the late Robert McNamara's heartfelt, if belated, acknowledgement that U.S. policies in Southeast Asia reflected "our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area," and George W. Bush's use of "crusade" in the wake of 9/11, since "Muslims, even moderate ones, tend to react viscerally when reminded of much earlier attacks from the West."

When political leaders are ignorant of history, as the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld triumvirate most certainly was, yet seek to employ it toward their own ends, the inevitable result is a distortion of history that is unwitting at best, deliberate at worst. It is easy to find in the past justifications or excuses for doing what one wants. It is rather more difficult to examine the past thoroughly and objectively and to learn whatever lessons it may teach us, however inconvenient they may seem. As MacMillan puts it:

"Sometimes we abuse history, creating one-sided or false histories to justify treating others badly, seizing their land, for example, or killing them. There are also many lessons and much advice offered by history, and it is easy to pick and choose what you want. The past can be used for almost anything you want to do in the present. We abuse it when we create lies about the past or write histories that show only one perspective. We can draw our lessons carefully or badly. That does not mean we should not look to history for understanding, support, and help; it does mean that we should do so with care."

As these extracts from "Dangerous Games" indicate, MacMillan's emphasis is less on how history is taught and written in academia than on how it is used in the public arena by politicians, journalists and others who seek to influence and rally public opinion. She laments the "specialized language and long and complex sentences" so widely used by professional historians nowadays and the tendency of the academy to leave "popular" history to "amateur historians." Yes, some of what they write "is very good, but much of it is not," as too many books that I've reviewed in recent years demonstrate all too abundantly.

What goes unmentioned in MacMillan's otherwise astute analysis is the trend among professional historians to view the past through whatever contemporary lens they find most congenial. A persistent theme in Gordon S. Wood's collection of essays "The Purpose of the Past," published last year, is that this practice of "presentism" is now so widespread in academia that it threatens to become standard and accepted practice. The hegemony of the "Holy Trinity" of race, gender and class theory has turned the writing of history in too many instances into propaganda machinery for certain political and ideological points of view popular among the rebellious young of the 1960s and '70s and still regarded as gospel in many university departments of history, the social sciences and literature.

This is a matter about which I have written often, and I do not intend to labor it further now. The point is that complaints by professional historians about abuses of history by politicians and other amateur malefactors lose some of their force when one considers that the history departments themselves are much in need of a housecleaning. This is scarcely the case with MacMillan, whose high reputation has been earned through scrupulous research, clear-eyed interpretation and eminently readable prose. But "Dangerous Games" would be an even better book had she placed this issue squarely on the table.

Still, "Dangerous Games" should be read by anyone concerned with making the public dialogue as open and honest as possible. Obviously, then, that means it should be widely read here in Washington, where even in the best of times history too frequently is used as a weapon "to label or diminish [one's] opponents," and where it is routinely distorted to sell policies or score points. If the American public knew history better than it does, it would be harder to pull off these deceptions, but unfortunately most Americans have been taught history badly and prefer not to think about it at all. That makes us suckers for warped history that gets us into trouble overseas, and at home as well.

yardleyj@washpost.com

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