Thursday, July 03, 2008
In a lecture the New York Times columnist David Brooks notes that Bush always thinks in terms of fifty year time frames, 'almost as if,' Brooks is being reported here, 'he couldn't conceive of political action except in long run terms.' I think I've read this about Bush before and I certainly know he's inordinately find of historians, which is the flip side of the same coin. Politicians in general are fond of historians - usually through vanity, but also in a genuine attempt to understand their own trade, which, rightly or wrongly, is the trade that most fascinates historians. Publishers love history; history replaced science as the stock non-fiction genre a decade ago. Newspaper executives are always drawn to historians and, of all the academic disciplines, history is the one that offers the best prospects of media-advancement through columns and TV shows. I have, lately, decided this is a disaster. There's nothing wrong with history as such - though it is a much more fluid and epistemologically dubious realm than we are led to believe by its various popularisations - but its application is almost invariably wrong-headed. (That last phrase is revenge, a history master once said it of me in a school report.) History is almost always treated as linear. For example, the unreconstructed right, in their daydreams, long for the coming - or the return from Avalon - of Churchill or Thatcher. This is linear thinking. Both were the right people in the right place at the right time; now they would be meaningless. And I have heard many newspaper executives discuss contemporary politics from the olympian perspective of the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Human affairs aren't linear, they are chaotic. One might say human nature is consistent through time - which it probably is - but, in that case, you'd be better off reading novels instead of history. The danger of constantly appealing to history is the 'history will absolve me' (Castro) trap. If you think like that, then there is no limit to what you can do here and now because the limitless future will, at some unspecified point, decide you were on the right track. Note the way Mugabe keeps using colonial history to conceal his brutality. One can easily imagine Bush writing off the catastrophic strategic blunders in Iraq as mere trifles when seen from 50 years hence. We have had too much history and too many historians. (There are a noble, worthwhile few, of course; coincidentally, all are friends of mine.) History is dangerous, it could do with a period of benign neglect if not outright suppression.
PS. I have just noticed in the Mail - God knows how you find stuff on their web site so no link - that David Starkey (one of the friends mentioned above) was not among the 'group of leading historians' invited to dine with Bush at Downing Street. Starkey dismissed the ones that were invited as 'just a bunch of neo-cons' - in other words, they were there to tell Bush he would be absolved by history. QED.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 6:42 am