Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: The Uses and Abuses of History

[Margaret MacMillan. The Uses and Abuses of History. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008.]

Margaret MacMillan is a respected academic historian who is firmly embedded in the liberal tradition. I haven't read any of her original historical scholarship but there is one of her monographs I may end up reading, depending on how a particular project of mine evolves. I say these things because I want to start off by establishing -- despite my reaction to this book, and despite having different understandings of the uses and limits of conventional history from MacMillan -- that I appreciate that she does useful work, that it is highly skilled work, and that she does it well, and also that she has skills and knowledge around a particular kind of historical knowledge production that I don't have and don't claim to have.

This book is an adaptation of a series of lectures delivered by the author at the University of Western Ontario. It is lay-focused though clearly filled with reflections based in the author's long career in the academy. Many of its central observations, when expressed as general statements, are things I agree with -- about the dangers of distorted, selective, or falsified history; about the importance of using history to rupture myths, especially national myths; about the temptations of oversimplification and the importance of not erasing complexity; and many other things. As well, a few more sustained passages are useful too. There's good stuff in the pages about national myths, for instance. And the section that lays out the competing historical narratives of the Israel/Palestine conflict is better than I would've predicted (though its presentation as two supposedly equivalent sides without decision is kind of a cop out, and a later passage that moves into ancient history supposedly also relevant to the conflict is something I would categorize as a questionable use of history). And some of the things it says about Canada are useful -- for example, the author played a role as an outside expert during the controversy over the Second World War exhibit at the Canadian War Museum, and was on the side of the split that argued that, really, saying that there continues to be controversy about the strategic utility and morality of Allied bombing of civilian areas of Germany was just being honest, whether it upset veterans or not.

Nonetheless, despite my acknowledgement of the abilities of the author and my agreement with a number of the book's key points, the majority of my reaction to the book was significantly less positive. Since my brief foray into grad school a few years back, I've taken to using pencil to add the occasional note or underline in the books I read, and my copy of this book has "Seriously??" added in many a margin. I'm not going to attempt to be anything approaching comprehensive in reporting on all of that, but I think a good way to tie all of the varied shades of my dismay together is to note that most of them can be related to the author's commitment to liberalism.

One major way this manifests, for example, is the liberal tendency to treat crimes committed and harms done by official enemies and by Others very differently than crimes and harms resulting from the actions of us and ours. This is built into liberal knowledge production in a sufficiently integral way -- necessarily, given liberalism's commitment to rule-based knowing and to a self-image of fairness -- that it can be very difficult to convince those steeped in such practices of the presence of a double standard. Viewed from outside, though, it tends to be quite obvious.

So the book deals a little bit with the ways the Canadian state and those close to it have been mobilizing distorted history for political ends in the last decade, but it does so very tentatively and makes very mild claims. This is in contrast with other recent books (this, this, and this) that tackle head-on the mis-use of history in the Canadian state's militarist cultural offensive, but also in contrast with the strident language used in this book to talk about abuses of history by states that can easily be thought of as enemies. As well, the most important crimes of us and ours in recent centuries -- slavery, colonialism, genocide -- are most clearly named in the book when they are being presented as examples of things that enemy Others (China, Islamists) talk about to distract attention from their own crimes, and are otherwise dealt with much more obliquely (when they aren't just omitted in toto from points where they would to my mind be entirely relevant). When talking about the actions that we and our friends have engaged in over the years, colonization is very selectively acknowledged, and certainly its centrality as one of the key axes of global history over the last five centuries is largely absent from the book. And it is fascinating, frustrating, and central to how liberalism does this sort of thing that you can guarantee that if, for instance, you were to quibble with the absence of contextualization of the Vietnam War in the larger arc of colonial oppression and anti-colonial struggle, she could likely respond by talking quite articulately about that relevance -- and yet, still, that was not deemed relevant to include in the few pages on the war in the book.

The ways in which the colonial history of Turtle Island is not completely erased in the book but is largely voided of political weight is even more breathtaking. The first mention of that history at all is in a section about challenging comfortable myths, in which the finding of one 9000 year-old skull from the Americas that some scientists thinks may have had European rather than Aboriginal features is deployed in a way that seems designed to rhetorically destabilize in a blanket sort of way the claims of indigenous people to indigeneity (74-5), but just sort of in passing and without much discussion before hopping away to another topic. What does it say about the framework you are working from and that you assume in your readers that a single anomalous finding of this sort is used to call into question massive amounts of other evidence and narratives of hundreds of nations, without further discussion or even acknowledgment of the weight of what you are doing with your rhetoric? Even if this finding did mean what she claims, which it doesn't at all, it is classic colonial disrespect to present it this way.

And then there's a passing mention of histories of claims to the land in what is now known as "Canada" that simultaneously acknowledges the highly unjust character of land transfers in the past while still somehow implying that really the biggest concern is lack of good records from those years (112). A little later, there is a sentence about "Aboriginals" invoking various sorts of history "to claim back what they argue are their ancestral lands" (118), in a paragraph that is otherwise about semi-mythological claims by various European peoples to various bits of land in Europe. This construction fails to make clear that, yes, it may be difficult to sort out competing narratives in determining if a given area was, say, Anishnabe or Haudenosaunee land pre-contact -- that is somewhat analagous to some ways that different claims get made in Europe. But even if the details of which indigenous nations have what claims to what part of the land are not always clear, the fact is that they don't need to be clear to us. What matters to us -- to settlers and the states we have imposed on Turtle Island -- is that there is no doubt whatsoever, no need for qualifiers like "what they argue are", in talking about Turtle Island as the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples and not of settlers. Organizing your account in a way that implies otherwise is a big problem.

Another feature that this book shares with many different liberal accounts of things is a very shallow engagement with the Left -- both the histories of those states that appropriated for themselves the mantle of socialism, and also the various intellectual and political traditions tracing some lineage to Marx. As often with these things, much of what it says is, in an immediate sense, true of specific people or institutions or in specific ways, but the blanket way statements are made and the choices made about what to say and how to say it creates an impression that amounts to Cold War caricature rather than the kind of nuance and complexity that other parts of the book claim to favour.

Then there is the section talking about the ways in which history can be used such that people's attention remains focused on the past, to the neglect of problems in the present. Yet there is no clear distinction made between, say, governments doing this and using apology for long-past wrongs as a way to distract from inaction in the present (as one could argue the Harper government did with the apology for residential schools), and people's own decisions about how to relate present realities to past oppressions and take action to create justice for themselves. I would argue that such difference in standpoint matters immensely. This book goes on to caution about people using history to construct a mantle of victimhood for themselves. It does so in a very careful way, as if it knows it is treading on dangerous ground, but I think it still ends up encouraging a reading that will affirm the dismissal by many mainstream white people of the claims of Black and indigenous people whose struggle in the present links current-day problems to the past, and will be mobilized in casual ways by privileged people in general to dismiss people seeking justice and liberation. And, in fact, it's very troubling that the book constructs this opposition between a focus on past problems and a focus on current problems, for instance between the legacy of residential schools and poverty on reserves today, as if the former was not one important mechanism in producing the latter, and as if indigenous people who think addressing the former is important are somehow foolishly leaving the latter unaddressed. Overall, this implication that claims based in historical legacies of injustice are often dubious combined with a complete lack of analysis of the oppressive present and how it was produced by the past, is a serious problem with the book.

Another way the book ties into the overall pattern of liberalism is through various things that it says explicitly about how best to know the world. For instance, there is a section near the beginning that expresses some skepticism for ways of doing history that are informed by theory and that get too far from "what really happened" (37). Again, there's lots to say here. Academic obscuritanism for its own sake is irritating and politically dangerous, but recovering ways of knowing and naming the world in the service of social transformation will sometimes mean ways of talking about the world that seem weird and alienating, and figuring out how those two different tendencies are at play in any given moment is not always easy. But there seems no space in this book's account to recognize that sometimes it is precisely a bit of theory and a way of talking about the past that is a little less easy to engage with that is required in order to get at "what really happened."

Also, there are many places where the book engages in the liberal tendency to disguise political choices as apolitical technical decisions. For instance, in making its case that there is a role for professional historians that amateur enthusiasts cannot fill -- which I don't necessarily disagree with -- it makes it sound like skill and know-how are all that goes into producing knowledge about the past, and that choices that have some sort of political basis are always and inevitably counter to the goal of producing good knowledge. I just don't agree with that. Yes, skill and know-how and care and fidelity to the evidence are important, and you certainly don't have to look hard to find political choices that produce bad history. I completely agree that ways of understanding the past and the present that deliberately substitute what is comfortable for full, prickly engagement with the world are a problem that must be opposed, even (and I would say especially) when those doing so claim in some sense to be doing so with critical, radical, or left intent. Yet practices of knowledge production are never solely technical; they are always political as well. Liberalism often claims otherwise, and claims to have found ways to avoid the latter, but it inevitably amounts to hiding the politics rather than escaping them.

There's more I could say. I haven't touched on the various highly dubious generalizations about Muslims and terrorism and so on, nor her assertion in the final chapter that really business and the military make the best use of history and we should learn from them (all the while citing examples of current imperialisms learning from past imperialisms in a very matter-of-fact or even approving way, as if the US learning from the French experience in Algeria merits nothing more than, "Look! They're learning from history!"). But this has already been longer than I intended and I want to wrap up. And I want to do so with this: I began with the assertion that the author's commitment to liberalism is at the root of a lot of what I found troubling in this book. Another way to get at a related tangle of issues is to say that any general analysis of history, its uses, and its abuses that doesn't fall into some version of the problems in this book must, must, must begin from a frank and critical discussion of how we know the world and how we know the past. Because liberalism is dominant, it doesn't feel the need to lay out its epistemology, so it can disguise political decisions as technical ones, and it can sweep readers along in ways that sound authoritative and convincing and universal when they are very partial and questionable and specific. Epistemology must be where a book like this starts, but other than the implications contained in its modest skepticism about theory, this book has little to say about epistemology, or at least little that makes visible the foundations of what it is doing.

I'm not sure who I would recommend read this book. There are a few bits and pieces that are useful in various ways, but I really think that for the average reader looking to learn a bit about history and how it works, there are way better things to be reading.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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