I just finished reading this New York Times article by Timothy Egan talking about how Americans have lost any sense of history and are ignorant about their own history. I don’t know enough about the situation the United States of America today to know whether or not Timothy Egan is correct, but I can say for sure that it is certainly the case in the United Kingdom, where I’m currently living.
Part of what I do is educating, and I find myself confronted by intelligent students coming out of school and college wanting to learn, yet with very little grasp of any meaningful understanding of history. Many struggle to make connections between events in the past and the present, and fail to realise that history is a very broad area that inter-relates culture, art, media, sports, technology, way of life, etc., as well as the ‘boring’ lists of kings, queens, wars and statutes. Explaining to them how the capitalist system came into being and how it actually operates, and its historical context, was a revelation to most of them.
My own school curriculum was fairly mixed, and it really depended on who was teaching the subject. I was really lucky junior high and alternative school to have amazing history teachers, but in regular high school ‘social studies’ just went through the motions, and nobody learned anything.
I think I was always just naturally interested in history, among other things, and that’s what led me to pick it as my major when I went to university. I didn’t go there intending to study history, I went there with an interest in theater and I was studying English, but my history classes were just so interesting I found myself taking more and more of them, right up to PhD. Although I didn’t go on to become an academic historian, the writing of cultural history is one of my pursuits. I’m the kind of person who is interested in history and actually reads history for fun, and reads things such as newspapers or watches documentaries or TV programs with a kind of historical and analytical mindset. I’m quite aware that that is not ‘most people’.
However, and here’s where we get back to Egan’s argument, it’s not really necessary for everybody to love history; it is necessary to have at least some kind of grasp of historical context. A very immediate example is what I watched on question time, the British current affairs program on the BBC, last night. Recently, the heir to the throne, Prince Charles was observed having a private conversation, where he apparently (in fact, there isn’t any real evidence of it) made some off-the-cuff remark likening Pres. Putin to Hitler. The media duly reported it as fact. Hence its appearance on the current affairs program alongside actual problems such as Britain’s current housing crisis.
Of course, likening any present day political leader to Hitler is completely egregious as well as totally stupid. I’m not really sure why people keep using the Nazi comparison, except total and utter intellectual laziness.
But that is by the by. What really appalled me was when the politician Neil Hamilton spoke up in opposition to the fairly unanimous mass agreement of the audience and the rest of the panel, that Putin did indeed share a number of characteristics with Hitler. Let me say first, I’m no fan whatsoever of Mr. Hamilton or his party. This is not the place for me to explain why, but let me just say I don’t share their ideology one iota. I have no plans to vote for them and I’m not impressed whatsoever by Mr. Hamilton’s career as a politician. Nor am I a particular fan of Mr Putin, unlike the leader of Mr Hamilton’s party. (anyway it does not matter if I support Putin)
However, from a historical point of view, Mr. Hamilton was actually correct in what he said. Mr. Hamilton appealed to the sense of historical perspective, and asked the audience and his fellow panelists to consider the historical context of what they were blithely agreeing to. He pointed out that for many different reasons, one cannot actually compare Putin to Hitler, and made the point, which I thought was really good, that to liken Putin to Hitler is actually incredibly insulting, given the way in which Russia suffered during the second world war fighting Hitler. Hamilton’s appraisal of the comparison was acute and well observed, and backed up by facts which could all be easily checked by recourse to a reasonably decent history book. Actually, even Wikipedia would have been able to inform the audience sufficiently to get them to reconsider their views.
It’s funny, because I don’t think that, even if the Prince did mention Hitler, it was anything more than an off-the-cuff remark. What’s really creepy is that whole panel of people, including the ‘PhD qualified’ Cambridge graduate, Tristram Hunt of the Labour [sic] Party, were quite willing to agree that, yes, actually, there is something to be said for the comparison. I’m really aghast at this. Russia today, and since the late 90s is not anything like Germany after the first world war. It has a lot of problems, but they are not the same problems. The Russians have no systematic program of perceived superiority or desire to wipe out an entire race or sector of people. The Russians have no systematic program to invade and enslave mass populations in order to give themselves ‘living space’: in fact, they barely know what to do with their own enormous amount of living space. As Hamilton pointed out, the history of Ukraine (not to mention the Caucasus) is extraordinarily complicated, and certainly that complicated history is never properly addressed in media reports about what’s going on there right now. It’s far easier to just have the romantic idea of “freedom”, and let’s just forget about the facts.
So, just as we’ve been conditioned by the media and craven politicians to believe that Serbians are by nature a bunch of bloodthirsty Balkan monsters led by vampires; and that Egyptians couldn’t possibly have rejected their ‘democratically elected’ leader; and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, we are now supposed to join in the chorus of Adolph = Vladimir and start – start what? Preparing for war? Ok, so where is the new Omaha Beach? Because if he really is Hitler, we must do something about it. But, of course, were not going to, because he isn’t a Hitler and nobody actually believes he is. But again, we have to have our two-minute hate.
What horrified me more than anything was the way in which the presenter of question time, Dimbleby, shouted down Neil Hamilton’s explanation by saying something like “Enough. Now we don’t need a history lesson.”
But a history lesson is exactly what we need. Where on earth are we going to get it?