Gadget by The Blog Doctor.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Uses and Abuses of History


Margaret MacMillan was educated at the University of Toronto and at Oxford, where she obtained a B. Phil. in politics and a D. Phil. for a thesis on the British in India between 1880 and 1920. She is the editor of Canada and NATO and the author of Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, which won the 2003 Governor General's Award, the Samuel Johnson Prize, the PEN Hessell Tiltman Prize, the Duff Cooper Prize and was a New York Times Editors' Choice for 2002. Currently, MacMillan lives in Toronto, and is provost of Trinity College and professor of history at the University of Toronto. In 2007, she will become the Warden of St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University.

Here is a brief summary of her point of view, that is described in her book:
The Uses and Abuses of History

History is useful when it is used properly: to understand why we and those we must deal with think and react in certain ways. It can offer examples to inform our decisions and guesses about the consequences of our actions. But we should be wary of looking to history for dogmatic lessons.We should distrust those who abuse history when they call on it to justify unreasonable claims to land, for example, or restitution. MacMillan illustrates how dangerous history can be in the hands of nationalistic or religious or ethnic leaders who use it to foster a sense of grievance and a desire for revenge.

The quotations above were taken from this site

Allan Gregg interviewed her about view of history in the video below:

Here is a talk that MacMillan gave to the Lowy Institute. Click on the play button to start, and then the Watch FULL Program button for the whole talk:

Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of her book: The Uses and Abuses of History.

History, and not necessarily the sort that professionalhistorians are doing, is widely popular these days, even in North America where we have tended to look toward the future rather than the past. It can be partly explained by market forces. People are better educated and, particularly in the mature economies, have more leisure time and are retiring from work earlier. Not everyone wants to retire to a compound in the sun and ride adult tricycles for amusement. History can be helpful in making sense of the world we live in. It can also be fascinating, even fun. How can even the best novelist or playwright invent someone like Augustus Caesar or Catherine the Great, Galileo or Florence Nightingale? How can screenwriters create better action stories or human dramas than exist, thousand upon thousand, throughout the many centuries of recorded history? There is a thirst out there both for knowledge and to be entertained,and the market has responded with enthusiasm.

Museums and art galleries mount huge shows around historical characters like Peter the Great or on specific periods in history. Around the world, new museums open every year to commemorate moments, often grim ones, from the past. China has museums devoted to Japanese atrocities committed during World War II. Washington, Jerusalem, and Montreal have Holocaust museums. Television has channels devoted entirely to history (often,it must be said, showing a past which seems to be made up largely of battles and the biographies of generals); historic sites are wilting under the tramp of tourists; history movies—think of all the recent ones on Queen Elizabeth I alone—are making money; and the proliferation of popular histories shows that publishers have a good idea of where profits are to be made. Ken Burns’s documentaries, from the classic Civil War series to his one on World War II, are aired repeatedly. In this country, Mark Starowicz’s Canada: A People’s History drew millions of viewers. The Historica Minutes, produced by the privatefoundation Historica, devoted to promoting Canadian history, are so popular among Canadian teenagers that they often do school projects where they make their own.

Many governments now have special departments devoted to commemorating the past. In Canada, the Department of Canadian Heritage exhorts Canadians to learn about Canada’s history, culture, and land: “Heritage is our collective treasure, given to us and ours to bequeath to our children.” France, which has had a particularly active Ministry of Culture for decades, declared 1980 the Année du Patrimoine. Locals dressed up to re-enact the great moments of their history. In the following years, the number of heritage sites and monuments on the official list doubled. Scores of new museums—devoted to the wooden shoe, for example, or the chestnut forest—appeared. At the end of the decade, the government set up a special commission to oversee the commemoration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution in 1989.

In France there has been an explosion of re-enactments of the past, festivals, and special months, weeks, and days. The possibilities, of course, are endless: the starts and ends of wars, the births and deaths of famous people, the first publication of a book or the first performance of an opera, a strike, a demonstration, a trial, a revolution, even natural disasters. And the activity is not all government-inspired; much comes from local and volunteer initiatives. Châlonssur- Marne recognized the centenary of the invention of canning. It is not just in France that communities want to revisit their past: Perth, Ontario, had a week of festivities in 1993 to celebrate the giant cheese that it sent to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. As enterprising local governments and businesses have realized, the past is also good for tourism.

It is not just about market forces, though. History responds to a variety of needs, from greater understanding of ourselves and our world to answers about what to do. For many human beings, an interest in the past starts with themselves. That is in part a result of our own biology. We have a beginning and an ending, and in between lies our story. Nineteen million people around the world are now signed up to the online service Friends Reunited, which will put you in touch with long-lost friends from the distant past, even from your earliest school days. If we want to go still further back, and an increasing number of people do, we research our own genealogies. Most national archives now have special sections set aside for patrons who are investigating their family histories. Thanks to the Mormons, who collect parish registers, genealogies, and birth records for their own purposes, Salt Lake City houses an enormous worldwide collection of records. The internet has made it even easier, with dozens of sites where you can search for your ancestors, with more specialized ones dedicated to a single family name. In Canada and the United Kingdom, the popular television shows Who Do You Think You Are? cater to our fascination with celebrities and the hunt for ancestors as they trace back, often with surprising results, the family trees of the famous.

Recent developments in science make it possible to go beyond the printed records. The decoding of DNA means that scientists can now trace an individual’s ancestry back through the mother’s line and can find others with the same genetic makeup. As the databases of informationbuild up, it becomes increasingly possible to see how human beings have migrated over the years. This is important for anyone who wants to go back beyond where the paper trail peters out. It is particularly important for those who never had much of a paper trail to begin with. Those immigrants who came in great waves to the New World in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to escape a miserable and uncertain life in Europe often lost all links with their pasts, sometimes indeed even their old names. For the descendants of American slaves, who lacked even the faintest hope of recovering the path their ancestors followed from Africa and not much more chance of finding out what happened to them once they were in the United States, DNA has suddenly opened the door to selfknowledge. A moving program called African American Lives, which was broadcast by PBS in 2006, looked at the DNA of famous black Americans, Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones among them. Sometimes the results are disappointing: Family stories about the great-grandparent who was descended from kings are often just that—stories. Sometimes there are surprises, as when an obscure professor of accounting in Florida found he was descended from Genghis Khan. Perhaps, thought the professor, he owed his administrative skills to his terrifying ancestor.

Our fascination with our own histories can be narcissistic—how much time should we spend gazing at ourselves, after all?—but it also comes from the desire to know more about ourselves and the world in which we happen to live. If we can stand back and see our own histories in a wider perspective, then we see how we are not just the products of particular individuals but of whole societies and cultures. If we are members of certain ethnic groups, we may find that we have inherited views on other ethnic groups, and we may find that others regard us in particular ways. History has shaped our values, our fears, our aspirations, our loves, and our hatreds. When we start to realize that, we begin to understand something of the power of the past.

Even when we think we are striking out in new directions, our models often come from the past. How often have we seen revolutionaries, committed to building new worlds, slip back unconsciously into the habits and ways of those they have replaced? Napoleon came to power as the result of the French Revolution, but the court he set up was modelled on that of the displaced Bourbons. The top Soviet Communists lived within the walls of the Kremlin, as the czars had once done. Stalin looked back to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great as his predecessors, as, I suspect, Vladimir Putin does today. The Chinese Communists scorned China’s traditional society, but their top leaders chose to live right at the heart of Beijing where the imperial court had once been. Mao Zedong himself withdrew into mysterious seclusion, much as the emperors had done over the centuries.

"Men make their own history," said Karl Marx, "but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past."

During the Cold War, though, history appeared to have lost much of its old power. The world that came into being after 1945 was divided up between two great alliance systems and two competing ideologies, both of which claimed to represent the future of humanity. American liberal capitalism and Soviet-style Communism were about, so they said, building new societies, perhaps even new human beings. The old conflicts, between Serbs and Croats, Germans and French, or Christians and Muslims, were just that and were consigned, in Trotsky’s memorable phrase, to the dustbin of history. The threat of massive nuclear war, of course, was always present, and from time to time, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, it looked as if the last moment of the planet had come. But it did not, and in the end most of us simply forgot about the danger. Nuclear weapons took on a benign aspect: After all, the balance of terror meant that neither superpower dared attack the other without risking its own destruction. We assumed that the United States and the Soviet Union would remain locked in their conflict, between war and peace, perhaps forever. In the meantime, the developed world enjoyed unparalleled prosperity, and new economic powers, many in Asia, appeared on the scene.

My students used to tell me how lucky I was to be teaching history. Once you have got a period or the events of a war straight, so they assumed, you don’t have to think about them again. It must be so nice, they would say, not to redo your lecture notes. The past, after all, is the past. It cannot be changed. History, they seemed to say, is no more demanding than digging a stone out of the ground. It can be fun to do but not really necessary. What does it matter what happened then? This is now.

When the Cold War abruptly ended in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Empire in Europe, the world enjoyed a brief, much too brief, period of optimism. We failed to recognize that the certainties of the post-1945 years had been replaced by a more complicated international order. Instead we assumed that, as the remaining superpower, the United States would surely become a benevolent hegemon. Societies would benefit from a "peace dividend" because there would be no more need to spend huge amounts on the military. Liberal democracy had triumphed and Marxism itself had gone into the dustbin. History, as Francis Fukuyama put it, had come to an end, and a contented, prosperous, and peaceful world was moving into the next millennium.

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