The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

About History — Read It Anyway

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I’m terrified that we have lost our sense of history. In my high school and college people disparaged the subject as dull and meaningless, a long list of names and dates. They were wrong. It’s the story of ourselves I am talking about. In recent decades academics drifted into the strange exercise of projecting their current political views backward. That’s wrong. Without a coherent and intelligent story of past events, it becomes harder and harder to make sense of the present.

Without a grasp of history, the present drifts. People accept symbols and slogans and soundbites as a substitute for thought. Without a past, we strive for futures that at most offer temporary gain or fleeting relief from an existing problem. At most the past becomes a myth to rationalize some contemporary desire. The world is reduced to black and white. Simple, easy-to-grasp solutions are adopted uncritically.

Journalists, politicians and advertisers tell very short simple stories that we consume without chewing. People become nostalgic for a past that never existed. Big lies and little lies easily float in an ocean of ignorance. Our collective attention span is never any longer than the journalists’ interest in the next international crisis.

Partisanship is not the problem, but the way people are looking at political questions: By choosing sides as if they were soccer games, or basketball games.

The occasion for this rant is book that I just read: Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker. Baker is a writer of serious fiction. His breakthrough book in the 1990s was called Vox, which is a romance conducted over a paid sex phone line. The book was enthusiastically received by reviewers, and I remember trying to read it, although I had become impatient with fiction by then. It was just too precious. It failed to resonate because the plot and the dialog didn’t ring true. I just wasn’t interested in his wordplay.

Human Smoke was not so well received. Smart reviewers called it muddled, and they were right. You can sample a couple here in the New York Times and in the Guardian. Baker used fictional devices to make a pacifist argument on the basis of his telling the story of the beginning of World War II in snatches of anecdotes taken from newspapers, memoirs and other published material. There’s never enough of any anecdote to make sense of it. They all appear in a minimum of context, and they fall in on themselves.

Baker admires the saintly Ghandi, who was fighting the British for Indian independence, often quoting Ghandi’s correspondence, which clearly tells me that Ghandi was as focused on his own political ends as were the Baker’s villains in Europe and America. As some reviewers point out, Ghandi’s success probably depended as much on his opponent as it did on his strategy. There was a moral line that the British empire builders, as brutal as they were, did not cross. You cannot say that about Hitler and Stalin.

The anecdotes are ghastly, as was much of the story of the war. His accounts are emotional and devastating in many ways, but his juxtapositions aimed at defrocking our heroes are just bizarre. He dismisses the scale of the different evils he talks about, and makes the claim that one cannot be allowed ever to be a little bad in a fight against a greater evil. It’s sad but this attitude can only be a complete surrender to total evil. You cannot just wish away human nature.

The timing of the book is the strangest of all. He dives into the story in detail in the late 1930s and abruptly stops on New Year’s Even 1941. The war had four more years to go. The book was already long.

Baker explains at the end that he began his exploration when he happened across headlines in the Herald Tribune talking about the bombing of German and Japanese cities by our side. The writer, who is about 10 years younger than I, apparently had a comic strip notion of the war between absolute good and bottomless evil, the propaganda story. The more he read, the more he was appalled. The good guys were not squeaky clean.

A lot of revisionist history of the war had been written when Baker was a little boy. The most famous is the British historian A.J.P. Taylor, who carefully built his scrupulous arguments. Anybody who cared to read Taylor and many others would have already known that Churchill was wantonly militaristic, and that Roosevelt was politically duplicitous. Of course, none of that absolves Hitler. And more importantly, they would also have gotten an inkling that Hitler wasn’t the diabolical mastermind depicted in the allies’ propaganda. Like a comic book, our superheroes need supervillains.

But the truth is that Churchill did not anoint himself to fool the British into war; nor did Hitler make himself the Fuhrer and slip a fast one over the German people and make them march into rest of Europe. The story is far too subtle for Baker’s easy moralizing. By the time Baker picks up the story, all hell was going to break loose, and it did.

Since the war, civilization has been given a reprieve, in part by the vast bloodletting of World War II and by the power of the nuclear bombs. Politicians have been not as quick to risk the lives of their citizens as they were. I’m scared that it is only a reprieve and that we have no understanding about the nature and causes of war, and therefore no way to avoid the next one, whether it’s a really big one or just a little catastrophe. I’m afraid history hasn’t ended.

This is a different point than the often quoted line, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This quip by George Santayana from 1905 assumes there is some overall logic to history, some cyclical pattern.

That’s too simple. There are no cycles and patterns of history that we can discern. What we should get out history is more detailed and difficult: We should be getting an understanding of human nature and human behavior. That will be our best defence against the next round of big lies. We’re already swallowing a host of small lies on a daily basis. Especially here in the U.S. for the next 14 months until we elect the next president.


Written by theunbiasedeye

September 9, 2011 at 11:09 am

Posted in Culture, Politics

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