In the era of ‘fake news’, history needs a good grounding by its publics, writes Professor Suzannah Lipscomb
‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’ George Orwell, 1984
Bad history is the preserve of the charlatan. Deliberately falsifying the past has always been a way to hang on to power in the present. Sometimes the intention may be benign, but the ends seldom are. And because hanging onto power is intrinsically political, one of the most potent weapons against falsified history is trying to do good history in public.
There is much to point to in recent discourse but let us comfort ourselves with two examples that are reassuringly historical themselves. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave a rousing patriotic speech in October 2012 in which he told his audience, ‘This is the country that… invented the computer, defeated the Nazis, started the web, saw off the slave trade, unravelled DNA, and fought off every invader for 1,000 years.’
Historically speaking this was at best partial and at worst baloney. By my count, since the Norman Conquest of 1066 the British Isles has been invaded 13 times – in 1153, 1216, 1326, 1338, 1399, 1405, 1460, 1470, 1471, 1485, 1487, 1688, and 1797 – and I may be missing one or two. Then there are the omissions: it’s so much more comforting to say that Britain is the country that ‘saw off the slave trade’ than to admit to its role in beginning it or profiting hugely from the enslavement of other peoples, while the implication that Britain somehow single-handedly ‘defeated the Nazis’ is dangerous precisely because it is preposterous.
A previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had given a speech a decade or so earlier that had also appropriated this theme: My father’s generation knew what it was like. They went through the Blitz. There was one country and one people who stood side-by-side with us then. That country was America and the people were the American people.
Full marks for rhetoric; D- for history. Blair’s speech was made in New York following 9/11. Its purpose was ostensibly benign – to offer support to the US in her hour of need. But Brits were being bounced into action on a falsehood.
‘The Blitz’ is the name we give to the bombing of London and other cities in the autumn and winter of 1940–41. At the time, many countries ‘stood side-by-side’ with Britain: the dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, whose parliaments had voted to join the war in September 1939; the exiled governments of Europe from Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Free France, Greece, and Czechoslovakia; and, of course, hundreds of thousands of other empire volunteers.
Historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes, ‘Come to think of it, apart from Soviet Russia, just about the only important country on earth that was not “side-by-side” with us that winter, was the US, which was very profitably neutral.’ From this speech and many like it came the war in Iraq and the deaths of many civilians and military personnel. We can debate whether that wrought, on balance, good or bad, but what is beyond question is that the use of grounds like this for its pursuit were specious.
History is a hard thing to be accurate about. We work on the basis of incomplete evidence produced generally by people in power who, however unconsciously, wished to justify and perpetuate that power. We write in the grip of our own biases and subjectivities. We cannot tell the objective truth about the past, however hard we try. But what we can and must always do is not lie, and we must share with the public the effort of telling the truth.
Beyond sheer morality the reason that history – good public history – matters is because the nature of the histories we tell shapes the present. What we make of history determines the actions we take now. There is, as E H Carr put it, an ‘unending dialogue between the past and the present’.
The stories we tell about the past and the nature of power in the past determines the distribution of power in the present. It matters to tell the story of Britain’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, just as much as its role in ending it, because it makes us examine anew the very bases of wealth, power, and race relations in the present. It matters to tell the stories of those individuals who were shackled, chatteled, and sold, as much as those who profited from their enslavement, if we want a society that is dedicated to dignifying all peoples, let alone to the elimination of modern-day slavery.
The irony is that it is the discipline of history itself – its relentless scrutiny of evidence, its careful corroboration of facts, and its commitment to reading the text and subtext – that provides the perfect training in the sort of critical thinking needed to be able to differentiate the use from the abuse of history, and therefore the public manipulation of truth, fake news, and alternative facts in the present. I could say that there has never been a time when the critical skill of critical thinking about the failures, triumphs, and fallacies of the past has been more needed – but that would be bad history.
Suzannah Lipscomb is professor emerita at the University of Roehampton, the host of the History Hit podcast ‘Not Just the Tudors’, and co-editor, with Helen Carr, of What is History, Now? How the Past and the Present Speak to Each Other, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2021.
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