Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther sparked a movement of Reformation that would leave indelible marks on European history. While some have used this anniversary as an opportunity for reflection, and others a chance to heal old wounds, 2017 finds us in an age of intense historical myopia. Breathless news cycles and furious outrage are shrinking our horizons just as they need to widen. Public debate barely remembers the world of last year, “old news”, let alone that of a decade or few ago.
History’s expertise, and most dangerously its perspective, are being lost in our inability to look beyond the here and now. We stumble into crises of finance and inequality with ignorance of economic history, and forget even the recent background to our current politics. We fail to think in the long term and miss a growing environmental catastrophe. We refuse help to millions of refugees by turning away from our own history. As technology and globalisation bring the world closer together, we have narrowed rather than broadened our perspective. With challenges on many fronts, history needs to be at the heart of how we think about our ever-changing world.
Instead, history’s prominence in Britain is too often reduced to a seemingly endless parade of Tudors, Victorians and the second world war. When history does appear in public debate, it is generally in the form of facile analogies, from all manner of centenary comparisons to the first world war to the Reformation, as “the first Brexit” or “this generation’s Dunkirk”. Such lazy attempts to equate the present and the past are actively misleading, a pointless parlour game that crowds out the vital role of history in understanding current affairs. Instead of examining the historical trends in American economy and culture that have produced Trump, we ask if he is “the new Hitler”.
The renaissance of populist nationalism embodied by Trump has been built on mythic history, the lie that “the good old days” have been lost. Brexit springs from a nation where most still see centuries of rapacious and oppressive empire as “a good thing”, its complicated histories and harsh realities actively ignored. Just this week, Cambridge historian Mary Beard has received vitriolic abuse for defending the historical consensus that there was diversity in Roman Britain, while teaching the long history of migration to Britain was branded “disturbing” and “dangerous” by rightwing commentators. Glorious ignorance is the ideology of the nation’s drift to isolation.
Such pernicious politicisation of history also underpins the rise of autocracy. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan legitimise their autocracy with historical myths, and their imitators follow: Viktor Orbán is recasting Hungary’s history as a struggle against western domination and Islamic invasion, while Poland’s increasingly autocratic government has prosecuted historians and taken over a major museum in its campaign against “anti-Polish” history. Erasing the past has been a foundation of Chinese totalitarianism, while Japanese schools have received hate mail for using a textbook (Human history we learn together) that includes details of Japanese war crimes.
Historical research and analysis is a seditious rejection of those who seek to control the past in order to shape the future, and a vital antidote to a world without a perspective to match its challenges. History is too important to be antiquarian window-dressing, nationalist mythology or populist propaganda. We need a reformation of our relationship with the past, a radical shift to place understanding history at the heart of how we think about our world.
This change must take place across our culture and society. In the media, those with influence must resist the slide to the immediate and fight for the importance of perspective. History should not appear only on screen or in print for antiquarian appeal or provocation, but to inform wider debates. Like economics and science, historical expertise has a place in the analysis of current affairs, and indeed in the assessment of politics and policy. Historians must also take it upon ourselves to increase our engagement with broader audiences, spreading awareness of the content, diversity and importance of our work. This change must extend, too, to the education of the next generation: in schools, history should sit alongside languages, science and maths as core subjects for every child.
Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s right-hand man and perhaps the Reformation’s most effective spokesman, was a revolutionary educational reformer, father of one of the movement’s many lasting legacies. Without knowledge of history, he wrote, we are condemned to perpetual childhood, endless darkness, collective blindness. There are none so blind as those who will not look at history, and it is time to open our eyes to the past, in order to face the future.
Christopher Kissane is a historian at the London School of Economics & Political Science and a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker.
Fonte: The Guardian