Thursday, November 09, 2023

Mind the Gap

Let me first preface this post with the standard "I know you all think I would say that..." disclaimer.

In my experience of educated people who have never studied history as a specialist subject beyond the age of around 15 or 16, they all tend to use up to a maximum of half a dozen distinct events or periods as ways of understanding the modern world, or at least at those moments when some sort of 'argument from history is required'. 

This is why it doesn't matter that Assad and the Russians killed more Syrians, or that the Saudis killed more in Yemen than Israel has slaughtered with its own air-strikes in Gaza and elsewhere, because the conflict in the Levant is the conflict which, sine qua non, has to be coated in arguments from history: Romans, Crusades, Colonialism. Lawrence of Arabia, the bloody Bible, it's all there. How much Syrian or Yemeni history does anybody actually know or care about?

I understand the apprehension that the relentless focus on Israel to the exclusion of all parallels, somehow has to be about anti-Semitism, but there is more to this odd salience than just that.

Anyway, the trouble with this sort of thinking is kind of us historians. 

Firstly, these standard-received gobbets of received historical insight tend to be logged against a limited subset of past events: wars, revolutions in the main but also big ticket phenomena like capitalism, slavery, 'Hitler' and so on. 

And then the problem is that people that don't read history, consume it in the main via fictional narratives, with Hollywood being the big player. This kind of historical understanding comes pre-intwined into one of the seven basic plot structures in human storytelling. 

Yesterday a friend mentioned to me the possibility that the whole problem in the Middle East might actually be the fault of the British and the French for the way they divided up territories on the map in the latter stages of their colonial administrations there. And this made me wonder how Hollywood would handle that notion. I can just imagine the short scene and all the caricatured military and diplomatic personnel doing the relevant bits of map carving. 

This tendency to simplify, often adding elements of burlesque and moral tutorial is important, for when history first emerged as a separate discipline, its earliest exponents like Thucydides and Herodotus did not sing around crowded campfires like the poets had done, they sat down and wrote long, often rather boring books. 

By the end of this year a load of Guatemalans will surely emerge from cinemas having watched Ridley Scott's Napoleon and think they understand a certain period of French history and its chief protagonist. Be that as it may, they will possibly understand it a little better than they do their own history, which most chapines seem to pick up from their banknotes.

The problem is that poets, novelists and cine-auteurs have largely bypassed the history of this region, and the academic texts one encounters are large and tedious even by the standards set by the ancient Greeks.

Citizens of developed world nations, by comparison, seem to feel that popular culture has largely filled in all the significant blanks for them, but in fact they are deluding themselves. It is no coincidence at all that the gaps remain significant and that it is in these very interstices between the familiar narratives that one is most likely to encounter significant historical insight.

Sometimes the 'gaps' are almost concurrent with the familiar stuff, as if in hiding beneath the mountain of treatments which abstained from addressing them. 

Here's one example. In the middle of the 19th century there were two major wars, both of which can lay a claim to being the first properly modern war. One of them, the American Civil War, has been a Hollywood mainstay since D.W. Griffith. The other, the Crimean War, is known on the silver screen in the main for The Charge of the Light Brigade, a fairly stupid and ultimately minor incident during the conflict, but one that immediately appealed to dramatisers. 

Very few westerners, even outside of the USA, will have any sense that the latter conflict is quite possibly one with the deeper legacy for our own, currently very troubled, world.

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