The other day a reader commented on a post I’d written about 9/11 as history and pointed out, quite rightly, that it doesn’t take long for events to be ‘packaged’ in ways that stand against the more dispassionate requirement of historians to understand.
I agree. There’s no doubt in my mind that dramatic events affecting whole societies are swiftly re-invented by those who live through them. Not least because of emotional entanglement with what’s just happened. This is normal, historically. I traced just such a re-invention of New Zealand’s 1915 Gallipoli defeat in my book Shattered Glory (Penguin 2010). By April 1916, just five months after the stalled campaign ended in an ignominious retreat, it had been re-cast as a glorious victory, because it was a sacrifice for Empire. This reflected prevailing pop-sentiment of the day towards our place in a wider British Empire and helped address grief at the death toll, which was colossal for a country of just under 1 million souls. But the conception of Gallipoli as triumph was the exact opposite of the military defeat and human truth; a demonstration of the way societies, en masse, rationalise events to suit immediate emotional needs. And it had an impact on our view of history because, in a demonstration of the stickiness of re-invention, that view is largely what guides the popular conception of New Zealand’s Gallipoli experience today, nearly a century on.
So can we analyse recent events ‘historically’, in the same sense that we can analyse something that happened a century or two ago? History-as-discipline is one of the intellectual pursuits that self-examines its analytical philosophy. Hobsbawm, for instance, didn’t divide history via round-number centuries but by events, typically, political and social (‘social’, inevitably, encompasses ‘economic’, which despite the ‘hardening’ of economics with a mathematical over-gloss since the late 1940s, is at heart about society).
To Hobsbawm, the nineteenth century was ‘long’, book-ended by the French revolution of 1789 and the First World War of 1914. Whereas the twentieth century was ‘short’, framed by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the end of the Cold War in 1992.
Those arguments were possible because Hobsbawm stood at the end of the cycles; they were evident to him and he had a distance to perceive what had happened in fully historical terms, certainly as far as the ‘long’ nineteenth century was concerned. But what about things that have just happened? Things we popularly call ‘historic’ but which still burn fresh in memory and haven’t achieved the more sonorous quiet of a deeper past?
To me there are several issues. The first is the problem of context. Sometimes, the deeper over-arching forces that drive the widest patterns of history – combinations of long-standing technological, social, political, ideological and, it seems, environmental factors – aren’t obvious for decades afterwards. We can’t tell precisely what a particular development may mean until it’s put into place not only of what went before, but also of what went after – and, usually, some time after. Last week’s, last year’s or even last decade’s news won’t cut it in these terms.
The second issue is the related one of emotional perspective. It takes about 25-30 years, or more, for one generation’s problem to be resolved and replaced by another; and also for the people primarily involved in it to be far enough back to be treated with the (ideally) abstract dispassion of history. It is only now, for instance, that we are seeing treatment of Winston Churchill that moves beyond the pro- and anti- partisanship of his life and immediate decades after his death.
Thirdly there’s the ‘recency’ phenomenon, in which we tend to view events just gone as larger than those further back, to the cost of proportion. This also fuels a tendency to view whatever just happened as the arbiter of the future. Take the Cold War, which – via Hobsbawm’s thesis – was a temporary product of the way the old world collapsed in 1914-19. But you wouldn’t have known that living in the middle of it. And when it did finish with the predictable collapse of the Communist economy, Francis Fukuyama insisted that history had ended – that Western capitalist ideology, as he defined it, had won, and there would be no further change. Ouch. This was ‘recency’ in full display.
The reality of abstract historical analysis, of course, is that it has nothing to do with ‘direction’ or ‘progress’ towards an inevitable or ideal one-dimensional ‘end’ such as I believe was implied by Fukuyama. Indeed, by definition, history cannot end. It’s a product of human change through time; and the onus is on historians to understand that deeper human condition, the ‘unity in diversity’ beloved of social anthropology, as a pre-requisite to being able to understand how that then expresses itself in ever-smaller scales of detail when framed by a specific society.
I’ve found through my own work in the field that practical detail changes affecting a specific society usually happen generationally – sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes with sharper impact as happened in the 1960s when the generation brought up in wake of the Second World War objected to the philosophy of their parents.
And so we have the tools with which to approach the issue of ‘recent’ history. The pitfalls of those tools may not be fully overcome – indeed, logically, they cannot be; but to know they are there and to understand how these limitations work is, I think, a very great step towards being able to couch recent events in more dispassionate light.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015