The story appears on

Page B13

July 19, 2009

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

History's rich battles

WE all live in history. Some of us make it, others are made - or broken - by it. Many of us read it. A few write it. Most of us try, at least fitfully, to make use of it, usually by ransacking the past for analogies to explain the present and to predict the future. And more than a few, in Margaret MacMillan's amply documented opinion, routinely botch it.

MacMillan, the Canadian-reared warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, is an accomplished historian who has written about the British Raj, the Paris peace settlement of 1919 and Richard Nixon's relations with China. "Dangerous Games" is a frequently mordant and consistently provocative indictment of the myriad ways in which history as a way of understanding the world is too often distorted, politicized and badly mishandled.

MacMillan lays about with rhetorical broadsword and with fearless abandon. She inveighs against the eclipse of "professional historians" by "amateurs." She blasts the fall from fashion of political history in favor of sociology and cultural studies. She denounces identity studies of all sorts, particularly when they descend into what she calls the "unseemly competition for victimhood."

But she directs her most cogent criticism at the historically constructed identity that is nationalism.

MacMillan reminds us that history itself has a history - a subject known in the academy as historiography. Paradoxically, those professional historians whom she so admires grew up with the modern nation-state of which she is so wary.

The formal, university-based study of the past, governed by its own scholarly protocols and supported by an impressive apparatus of state-supported institutions like Britain's Public Record Office, the Archives de France and the United States National Archives and Records Administration (not to mention required courses in national history and officially sanctioned textbooks) emerged only in the 19th century.

So did the mass societies fostered by newly robust central governments ruling over dispersed, disparate populations whose members had somehow to be convinced that they owed their principal loyalty not to parish, village or province, but to what the scholar Benedict Anderson has called the "imagined community" of a distinct and coherent people: the nation.

Meiji Japan, Bismarck's Germany, Cavour's Italy and Lincoln's re-United States were all products of the nation-building surge that swept much of the Western world in the mid-19th century and spawned models for the rest of the world in the 20th century, usually under the banner of "self-determination." But "for all the talk about eternal nations," MacMillan notes, "they are created not by fate or God but by the activities of human beings, and not least by historians."

In our secular age, MacMillan adds, history has also displaced religion as a means of "setting moral standards and transmitting values."

So we now expect the "judgment of history" to be not merely objective and fair - the professional historian's usual criteria - but identity-affirming, nation-making, virtue-inculcating and generation-binding as well.

Small wonder that history has become such a hotly contested battleground, or that otherwise unbellicose professors are so often pressed into frontline service in the culture wars.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend