Saving the past

As we sail into the storm of recession it may well be the case that cultural matters come less into the public eye.  The history wars may go into abeyance, not because anyone has won them, but as people turn their attention to more pressing matters.  But they are certainly not over, nor will they in all probability ever cease.  The reason is that the cause of a history war is the attempt by individuals to use the past for political purposes.  Having a specific political objective in the present in mind, such individuals seek to massage our knowledge of the past, to twist and distort evidence and to create fanciful arguments to demonstrate the desirability of a particular course of action.

There is nothing new about such behaviour.  The English fabricated the idea of the ‘Ancient Constitution’ during their long fight with the King in the battle for their liberty.  They actually came to believe that such a beast had existed and were quite upset when a more sceptical historian such as David Hume seemed to suggest otherwise.  He was accused of being a Tory.  We might try to excuse the supporters of such an idea today on the ground that their ‘hearts were in the right place’, but both sides, King and Parliament, during the seventeenth century and beyond were history warriors.

Is it good enough that someone’s heart is in the right place when it comes to matters of history or does the study of history require other values, such as adherence to what the evidence actually says.  Should history be subordinated to other matters such as political ideals?

When it comes to the History Wars in Australia one can perhaps be generous and say that the History Warriors of the Left have acted as they have out of the best of motives.  They wanted no more than to aid the progressive cause.  What does it matter if our knowledge of the past is distorted and twisted if justice is achieved in the present?

Perhaps the problem is that while Oliver Cromwell is remembered by some as a hero in the fight for liberty, by others he is remembered as an intolerant bigot who indulged in the early modern equivalent of genocide.  There is something not quite right about those who are happy to subordinate truth and reality to serve the cause of a set of abstract principles.

The real world is a complex, contradictory and messy place.  Anyone who studies history must soon come face to face with the fact that the world always escapes the boxes into which we would try to contain it.  But if we are to use the past for political purposes it is absolutely necessary that we both force it into a box and then tightly close the lid.

What this means is that history warriors wedded to political schemes cannot be good historians because they cannot allow themselves to be open to the ambiguous and elusive qualities of human beings.  They cannot allow, for example, that relationships between the English settlers and indigenous Australians may have taken a number of forms.  For political purposes all they want to see are the massacres and the brutality.

Unfortunately this too often says something about them as human beings driven not by a desire to understand their fellow human beings and to enter sympathetically into the many forms of our common humanity, but by a set of abstract ideas that leads them to cheer on some and to condemn the rest.

The History Warriors of the Left are driven, as were the English puritans, to impose their idea of morality on the world.  The rest of us can look at that morality and may indeed find in it certain things that are attractive.  After all, the English Whigs did advance the cause of liberty.  But we must also recognise the costs of the ‘pious fanaticism’ that drives such people.  That is why we need the empiricism and scepticism that has been bequeathed to us by figures such as David Hume. 

Yes, there should be justice for indigenous Australians but it should not be at the cost of lies and distortions about the past.  We do not need noble lies, we do not need to vilify the dead, we do not need a Manichean division of people into the elect and the damned.

What history should teach us is a measure of humility about the human condition and what human beings have achieved.  If we appreciate the past in all its ambiguity, as being composed of people much like ourselves it may just assist us in the development of our own humanity.

Gregory Melleuish is associate professor of history and politics at the University of Wollongong.

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