Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Book Review: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret Macmillan

burning_bookThere is an undeniable charm to those whose contributions to fields of human endeavor whilst just amateurs. History is littered with philosophers whose greatest contribution came whilst in their early 20’s and nearly everyone can recite the story of Einstein working as a patent clerk whilst inventing theories that outsmarted the professionals. Politics has its own sacred story of the outsider whose distance from the levers of government is their very qualification for office (See Palin, Sarah). The internet too has given millions a new voice and opportunity to contribute and communicate (this blog being just one example). We are in the era of the amateur. The stultifying demands of professionalism which serve to restrict are being torn down in favour of amateurs can say anything, in any way they desire. Often this is of great benefit, breaking down groupthink and exclusionary norms, and challenging elite control of information. But what about when this means we are exposed to ignorance, prejudice and invention, masquerading as a serious contribution?

In ‘The Uses and Abuses of History’ ($35.99 Profile Books Ltd) Margaret Macmillan sets out to document the many ways in which historical knowledge is mis-used by governments, politicians, writers, amateur historians, and indeed even her professional colleagues. Given a thorough thwack for their deviations away from big political history, the professionals however come out looking the best of a very sad and sorry list of popular engagement with their history. History, Macmillan notes has had something of a renaissance in recent times. People are far more literate, have more disposable income and leisure time, and our media, -much like a shark- needs to keep moving and consuming in order to stay alive. Not only is it easier to make and access history, but there’s something in the modern secular culture that makes us value history as a higher good. Something firm and unshakable from which we can stand:

History with a capital H… restores a sense not necessarily of the divine being but of something above and beyond human beings. It is our authority: it can vindicate us and judge us, and damn those who oppose us (p20)

Given this immense power, is it therefore something we are willing to trust into the hands of amateurs? While civilization created universities to refine and restrict those who sought to have a public impact through their dissemination of history, the mass education of the public, along with the many self-inflicted wounds professionals have inflicted on their field (as McMillan demonstrates clearly) have destroyed much of the authority of advanced education. In making it cheap, it has come to be treated as cheap. Technology has allowed almost in the first world to call themselves a historian and contribute to the debate. But where our natural impulse is to champion on those contesting the popular view, we should also be careful about automatically granting higher virtues and morals to those who contest from the bottom as against the top.

In all societies, but particularly those who pride themselves on the freedom available, it is impossible to stop the flow of information from amateurs. But given that we have made it so easy for this to occur we can at least change the attributes we give to those who undertake this task. We have erred in assuming that because the professional is corrupt the amateur is pure. We have erred in believing that because the professional is biased the amateur is unfiltered. We have taken virtue and authority from being a reward for decades of work, and given them to the fresh and the new as playthings. In this mixed up climate we have made the underdog the default superior in any competition.

By and large the opening up of history to the entire public to either consume or contribute is a very very good thing. At its best, History is a learning process that saves us from sloughing and sweating to make fresh tracks when clear paths already exist. It gives us a grounding and sense of awe at what has been achieved and what could be achieved (It is my knowledge of History that makes me a progressive instead of a conservative). But ‘The Uses and Abuses of History’ makes abundantly clear the destructive power of this knowledge and the risks and perils of amateur engagement with it. With the fire man learnt how both to improve his own life, whilst destroying his enemies; history is no less powerful, and unless handled carefully in this era of ridiculously easy dissemination threatens to cause the whole world to burn.