One of the few complaints I would make about my school is that they tried to ram history down my throat and did so in such an appallingly inept fashon that for the first 40 years of my life I had the same aversion to history that my mother managed to give me towards boiled cabbage. (I've still got that one)
Apparently it's "History Matters" day (in the UK at least) and they're trying to encourage us all to take part in a glorious blog. I've posted a short contribution to that but I'd prefer to expand it on my own territory.
Simon Schama and people like him began to undo my pavlovian aversion in the mid 90s and, although it's still not my favourite area of study, in more recent years I have exposed myself to a fair dose. To the extent that not only can I now understand what they were trying to teach me in school but I can also see how badly they taught it and how biassed and narrow they were in their approach. No wonder I couldn't stand it.
I've mentioned on previous blogs that I've been wading through Carroll Quigley's masterwork "Tragedy And Hope". I've finished it since and it is by far the most impressive scholarly work I've ever read and has greatly broadened my understanding of the century from around 1860-1960. For the first time, for example, I feel I have a clear understanding of the causes of the First World War and it's not nearly as incomprehensible as everyone keeps saying it is! Don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with the detail.
Quigley is not the only history I've read since discovering that it can be more interesting than the filleted dry version you get in school, but it is by far the most influential and relevant to today's state of permanent conflict.
I will give two examples, and they don't make for comfortable reading.
Quigley explains how a major step change took place - in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century - in the relationship between governments and "We The People". It's all to do with weapons.
Up to and including the American Civil War, the most important military weapon was the rifle and nearly every able bodied man had one. Put criminally briefly, if a government, in such circumstances, wanted to oppress its people, it faced the obstacle of opposition with potentially as much firepower as itself. That's how the Americans won their independence from the Crown in the first place and why their Civil War was so prolonged, evenly matched and bloody.
Since then, however, weapons have evolved much more rapidly than our decision making process. In quick succession we've seen Machine Guns, grenades, tanks, poison gas, zeppelins, biplanes, jet fighters, heavy bombers and nuclear bombs. All (bar, perhaps, the machine guns and grenades) out of the reach of the normal citizen. Only governments could afford them and governments were not slow to recognise the additional power this gave them over their own people.
The Second Amendment to America's constitution ("A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.") reflects the far sighted vision of its authors in this context. As I quote here
"What, sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty" (Con Gerry: The Congressional Register, 17 August 1789 - one of many similar contributions to the debate at the time)
The overbearing arrogance of the modern State, based on their vastly superior firepower, particularly as reflected in what I am now comfortable to call the Police State of America could hardly be more illustrative of that warning.
But this raises some incredibly awkward questions. If the imbalance of power, between State and citizenry has allowed the growth of the Police State, then the last thing we should be talking about (in the American context) is gun control. That widespread availability of lethal weapons might be the last bastion against true totalitarianism. Yet, simultaneously, that same availability is undoubtedly killing vastly more Americans every year than Terrorists could ever manage.
Similarly, it implies that if we're going to regain some semblance of democratic control in other nations we may need to insist on re-arming the citizens to close the power gap.
Time and again, Quigley points out how governments with monopoly military control can and do ignore their people. In this he is echoing Mao Zedong ("Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun") and perhaps making no more than a statement of the bleeding obvious. But what are we going to do about it?
The American gun ownership model doesn't offer much hope. Yet, strangely, the Swiss model does. Michael Moore's best film to date ("Bowling for Columbine") asked - but never answered - the question: Why does the high level of gun ownership in America produce a disaster area with amongst the highest levels of homicide and the highest level of imprisonment in the world; whilst comparable levels of gun ownership in Switzerland co-exist with one of the most peaceful and law abiding countries in the world?
The key could well be the level of Democratic participation built in to the Swiss system - which is by far the world's most advanced form of national popular control and, alone in the world, almost merits the description "true democracy".
I'll expand on that some other time.
Meanwhile the other important lesson I've learned from Quigley et al, is that the incompetence we see in modern political leadership is nothing new. If I were to sum up my objection to how my school presented History it would be that it tried to portray it as a succession of achievements and progress resulting from the efforts of a few great men. In fact the truth is almost exactly the opposite.
True History is the tale of the struggle of humanity to survive the crass stupidity, arrogance and despicable authoritarianism of an almost unbroken chain of bumbling imbeciles. Today's leaders are almost enlightened by comparison. Yes there are great men and women dotted amongst them, but they have had far less effect on the overall course of events than their barbaric self-seeking peers.
Human Progress has most often arisen not as the result of a sequence of carefully thought out plans for social and economic development but almost always in the form of measures required to correct the awful and often lethal mistakes made by predecessors.
This is why History Matters so much to us today.
You need Science, not History, to explain the state of things as they are and what may be done to repair the damage. Nor do we need History to explain that the current crop of dictators - elected and unelected - who continue to make decisions on our behalf are (still) mostly incompetent self-serving fools.
What we need History for is to explain how on earth we got into such a mess, how the incompetent fools came to hold their authority and why it is vitally important that we stop pretending to trust them and imperative that We The People wrest that authority from them and begin to take control of our own world.
Footnote: I sent a very very short version of this to the BBC's "You And Yours" Radio 4 phone in show earlier today (17 Oct not 18th as it says on the blog banner). It was a feature about the importance of History. You can hear what they broadcast here (30 second mp3). Note how they introduce it and the snide comment it invokes.
This, however, is what I actually sent. You will note that they completely omitted the rather important 3rd paragraph and thus, deliberately, reversed my meaning:
"You need Science, not History, to explain the state of things as they are and what may be done to repair the damage.
Nor do we need History to explain that the people who make decisions on our behalf are incompetent self-serving fools.
What we need History for is to explain how on earth we got into such a mess, how the incompetent fools came to hold their authority and why it is vitally important that We The People wrest that authority from them and begin to take control of our own lives."
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
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