Do societies re-package their narratives of recent events? And is that ‘history’?

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.

The cover of 'Shattered Glory'. Now out of print.
The cover of ‘Shattered Glory’. Out of print (sigh…)

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.

Me, on the Bridge over the River Kwai.
Me, on the Bridge over the River Kwai, a place that brings the human condition into sharp relief. Something happened to me five minutes after this photo was taken that gives the lie to notions of ‘rational egoism’. Ask me in the comments.

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

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23 thoughts on “Do societies re-package their narratives of recent events? And is that ‘history’?

  1. Wonderful post. I’ll be linking to this article in my upcoming Philosopher Friday’s installment on Walter Benjamin’s argument that all history must be torn from its transient flow in order to be taken up coherently – and that all we can look at objectively is a ruin or fragment. I think your understanding of the limitations of historical perspective are rather a bit clearer than Banjamin’s!

    1. Thank you! It’s one of my fields – I learned the philosophy post-grad from Peter Munz, himself a student of Karl Popper. An interesting topic. And then I had to apply it in a practical sense, which was challenging. I still recall some fairly interesting discussions I had with the chief government historian about ways of tackling recency in our respective books. There is no single right answer but the general principles seem clear.

  2. You’ve made interesting points about the issues in working toward dispassionate analysis of recent events. They all have to do with overcoming forms of blindness. Lack of context blinds us to larger patterns. Emotional perspective blinds us to problems that don’t emotionally affect us at the moment. Recency blinds us to distant events of the past and makes us think our present situation is all that matters.

    In principle, historians try to avoid these forms of blindness. In reality, of course, historians can never see everything clearly—they would have to be omniscient—godlike—to achieve that. And even the distant past is always being reinterpreted. But by building on the works of earlier historians, more recent historians do make some sort of progress in understanding the past. It would be discouraging to think that all historians do is to voice biased opinions that are endlessly debated, a sort of professional bickering. New primary sources are discovered. Certain things have been proven. To take a random example, no one can seriously argue any more that Thomas Jefferson did not have a sexual relationship with Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves.

    When I commented on the 9/11 post, I was remembering how what I saw on TV changed so much within a short time. As I mentioned, we went in only a day from trying to understand the bare bones of what was happening, to packaging the event to suit political, personal, and journalistic purposes. Some of this packaging was crassly exploitative. Politicians wanted to cash in on the anti-terrorist theme—to prove they and their party were the best to prevent a recurrence; television stations wanted to present the event in the most dramatic way to gain a bigger slice of the viewership pie. Motives were mixed, as always. People who sincerely grieved after the event might still also have sought some obscure gain from it.

    Unlike politicians, historians are in the business of trying to understand. Journalists form a mixed category, some of them out to write a sensational story, others approaching a topic out of a responsible pursuit of the truth. Perhaps these more responsible journalists are the historians of yesterday or last week.

    But now that I think of it, historians also come in all stripes. There can be professional loyalties and divisions in academic institutions, conflicts of interest, things that lead to a distorted perspective. There is a kind of “pop history” that seeks to entertain more than understand. Historians write for many specific purposes. It’s a complicated subject, indeed.

    P.S. What DID happen on the River Kwai?

    1. It poured with rain – as it does in South East Asia. My wife and I were on the other side of the bridge by that time. Out of nowhere a girl turned up with an umbrella. We huddled under it until the downpour was over. She refused to take anything in thanks for the gesture. A wonderful display of altruism and very humbling for us. It was particularly poignant given the place.

      I agree with your thoughts on the nature of recent history – and, indeed, it’s true that dramatic recent events always assume new meanings. All the faster now, I think, because of the way that the information revolution has worked. Whether history will judge them so is another matter. There’s also no question that historians come in all stripes and will have differing motives for following particular arguments.

      The biggest problem I see from my perspective – given that I do history professionally – is insufficient abstraction, both from events and from emotional entanglement with the subject. Here in New Zealand the field is miniscule and seems to attract people who validate themselves by status gained on the back of a publishing record, which they also seem to view as a limited commodity. I’ve grown accustomed to finding myself targeted by the sudden malice of total strangers in the field, to date inevitably people who prosper at my expense as taxpayer, purely because I’ve written a book in ‘their’ field and must therefore be punished for it, usually in public via the standard ‘straw man’ worth denial techniques beloved of academia. Debate driven by ‘wrong at every turn’ denial polemic is not a good environment in which to have a useful abstract discussion of the actual historical issues.

      1. Hi Matthew

        Good post.

        it’s an interesting time for historians, especially as we commemorate/celebrate/deprecate the history of WWI in a time of political sound bites but also genealogical activism. Much as I like Blackadder, I spend much of my time (being an historian of war, amongst other things, rather than a military historian) trying to put it into historical perspective (while loving fictionalization of history, science, religion, politics etc); Gibbon and Macaulay, some of my heroes, did it in spades.

        History, though, is an open field (Dame Anne Salmond is an archaeologist, some of my UK faves were MPs), so I wouldn’t be too worried abut alleged gatekeepers. You have an impressive track record, government funders have recognised that, so just keep pushing out the stuff – as I did for most of my life while doing ‘real work’.

        Happy New Year

        Gavin

        1. Hi Gavin – happy New Year! Yes, it’s most definitely a ‘moment’ in history and one we need to savour. But while I agree that history, in general, is an open field – and that I’ve had good support from the government sector for some of my social historical work, for which I’m grateful – I have to disagree that NZ’s military history field, specifically, is open in practise. While I’m free to offer military histories on merit and my own enterprise to publishers, the commercial reality is that when a publisher has a choice between, say, a series of military histories financially subsidised by a university, or one of my on-merit purely commercial efforts, they go for the subsidised option. And my records show how I’ve been practicably excluded from fair access to the opportunities to write the subsidised ones on salary.

          Publishers also don’t take risks; and when I find publishers balking at reissuing my military titles because they do not want to risk sales damage at the hands of the usual suspects in the public and university military historical community, among other experiences I’ve had, it seems clear that the field has been closed to me, in practise, by the actions of that community. And that’s without considering issues associated with collegiality, peer discussions, symposia, mailing lists and so on – and with that, access to opportunities – that others enjoy but which have also been denied me. I can’t even get answers to my email queries from them.

          The outcome, if I want to republish my military historical material at all – as I am, in fact, doing – is to bear costs that likely would not have been incurred had a small but influential number of New Zealand’s public- and university-funded military historians not decided to treat me like a war criminal as my apparent reward for my enterprise. All came unprovoked out of the blue from my perspective. I accept that they frame their conduct in terms of academic status, and it’s flattering to be confused for someone who actually values that status. Actually, though, I’ve long since lost respect for those terms of validation – all I can see is that they facilitate intellectualised, passive-aggressive bullying – and I don’t see why my fair publishing opportunities, public repute and commercial income should suffer because of the insecurities of gutless strangers who have spent their lives prospering at public expense, one way or another; who produce competing work at my expense as taxpayer; and who cower behind silence when confronted with their conduct.

          It raises reasonable questions about the equitability of the current very high public spending on matters military historical. I’m happy to discuss any of this with those concerned, of course, but it’s up to them to approach me under the circumstance.

          All the best for 2015!

      2. Now having an idea about your body of work, I can picture how others in the field might feel threatened. Too bad. It would be nice to have a collegial environment that fostered a civil exchange of opinion, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. Just look at the mudslinging in the “Letters” pages of publications like NY Review of Books and London Review of Books. Actually, sometimes it’s so outrageous that it becomes funny. Kind of a gladiator sport.

        1. New Zealand is especially bad. In the UK I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of University College London on merit of my scholarly contribution to the field. Whereas here in NZ the sole response from the top figures in the military historical community has been the malice of strangers. I can’t get included in their symposia. I have been advised not to apply for jobs because I wouldn’t be fairly assessed. None of those doing it have had the guts to approach me and all have every advantage over me of salary, funding and opportunity. And when I find publishers balking on the basis that they think the risk of a public worth denial frenzy – killing sales – is too high, it becomes clear that I have not only been shut out of the field but also done actual reputational and financial damage. Because all of this has come from the public and university sector at the expense of my commerial opportunities and returns I have to reasonably ask why, as a taxpayer, I am funding the study of military history in particular in New Zealand. I do have friends in the field here, but the circus from this sector has been palpable.

        2. Further to this – I had a chat this weekend with a friend who served in the army, years ago, with one of the miscreants I’m referring to. The miscreant is currently a Professor and uses his job title every time he mentions his own name in public. I described the problem I was having, and my friend said (robustly, using the NZ-specific meaning of the slang), ‘well, he was a twat when he was in the army.’

          A succinct and direct summation of character which puts the people I’m dealing with in due perspective! Doesn’t undo the damage done but it’s kind of funny.

    1. Indeed – and I think every country needs to carefully consider how they’re re-casting their history in the immediate – they all do it!🙂 Time usually brings the reality out, eventually, but meanwhile there are practical effects on everyday people, often deleterious, that could be avoided if all the various governments, societies and so forth around the world, stepped back for a moment, took a deep breath, and looked at the way things are with reason, tolerance and kindness. Theme words for me, but they’re so important, I think, in so many walks of life, of thought, and of human endeavour.

  3. I really love this post. It has my mind racing off in many directions all at once. I think that’s a good example of the reaction a quality essay should create.

    I’m suddenly reminded of the hippy communes that, at the time, were going to show the world just how human beings will live in the future. In the end, nearly all failed and they became a footnote in history. I doubt very many people in their thirties now even know what a commune (as envisioned in the 60s) is. When the Berlin Wall fell many rather naively hoped that THIS would be the turning point in the world. We wouldn’t need massive armies anymore, and we could get back to improving the human condition by spending money on healthcare and social programs. Islamic terrorism, and economic collapses nixed all that. The rise of Vladimir Putin and a resurgent Russia is showing us the Cold War didn’t really end. It just took a brief hiatus.

    1. I agree! I remember hippie communes here in NZ in the 1970s when I was a kid – we ran about 5 years behind California, socially, and the local movement was infused with some of the ‘drop-out’ generation from San Francisco who came over here when the steam ran out of their lifestyle over there. All was effectively funded by our generous welfare state’s unemployment benefit provisions, meaning they were relying on the very society they were supposed to replace, in order to survive. Needless to say this ‘commune’ idea wasn’t something humans are hard-wired to handle anyway (we appear to be set up for the nuclear and extended family), and it all fell over in fairly short order.

      Putin’s Russia doesn’t surprise me – as you point out, the end of the Cold War brought a false sense of hope because everything had been framed by those oppositions. A generation on, it’s becoming evident that Russia went from a dictatorial Tsarist police state to a dictatorial Communist police state, and when that fell over – after a brief period of cowboy anarchy – they slipped back into, well, you’ve guessed it… I don’t know where this will go precisely; a lot of the Cold War was fuelled by ideological oppositions that have gone away, but of course economic power plays and general political rivalries make a great substitute, it’s what fuelled the First World War and that side of human nature hasn’t changed. I hope sense prevails but my cynical nature and the lessons of history suggest otherwise…

      1. After so many years of “you pretend to pay me, I’ll pretend to work” lifestyle in Russia, it’s no wonder capitalism came as a shock to Russians. Democract and capitalism aren’t easy. You have to work at it. It’s no wonder Russians soon pined for the “old days.” A perfect situation for Putin to step in and take over. It’s funny how people can be with their evils. Putin brought back the old days of totalitarianism quite easily because Russians were so familiar with it. I think the man has gone quite mad. His “adventures” into the Ukraine are just triggering a new set of problems.

        1. I think the Russians all wanted capitalism. And religion. Both denied them by the Communists. A few became very, very wealthy indeed on the back of the cowboy capitalism in the 1990s and I gather that is where Putin draws his power base. All it did was swap a communist hegemony for a wealth based one, all paid for by the rest of the populace of course. As you say it was easy for the Russians to fall back into their totalitarian ways.

    1. Precisely. Churchill summed it up. ‘History shall remember me as a great man, for I shall write that history.’ He did, too, in both senses. I have a book in my collection about how he slanted his ‘History of the Second World War’ to that purpose. A common enough vice when writing the stuff.

  4. Matthew, regarding the peculiar animosity of the military history establishment in NZ, does any of it have to do with your attackers possibly partaking of the mythologizing approach to events like Gallipoli that you mention in your post? So that you have touched on a very sore point? Or does it not really concern your content, just their perception that you are invading their territory?

    1. It is purely an outcome of their perception that their territory is exclusive. Their public denials have been wholly oriented around denials of my competence and what they imagine my character to be. I did manage to curb these outbursts by having the most egregious read for content by a solicitor and offering to sue the government department whose employee had made the allegations. But I have never been welcomed into their circles and the key miscreants can’t even be civil to me in the street. There is no chance of discussing the historiography!

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