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November 30, 2006

The March of History

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black considers the contemporary habit of seeking validation in the arms of Clio.

History is full of examples where People who had right on their side fought against tremendous odds and were victorious. And it is also full of examples of people passively hoping to wait it out, only to get swallowed up by a horror beyond what they ever imagined. The future is unwritten.
The advertisement for The World Can't Wait movement's 5th October march published in USA Today on 20th September 2006 is certainly instructive for historians because it offers yet another instance of the commonplace tendency to seek validation in the arms of Clio. Rather than suggesting that politicians and others have an interesting life, this is a reference to the muse of history.

This search for validation and quest for justification in the past is of particular note at the present. It joins such unlikely bedfellows as Tony Blair and Osama bin Laden, and is widespread across the political spectrum and around the world.

The significance of this tendency is less clear. It can be seen as a product of a lack of confidence in the future, and one that contrasts markedly with the situation in the 1960s, or of a construction of the future in terms of a continuity with the past. The latter can be linked to the marked assertion of religious identities, for the religions in question, Christianity, and, even more, Islam, tend to be heavily historicist in character.

The new-found emphasis on the past creates serious problems for historians, as their quizzical and critical stance is not suited to the assertiveness about the past that is central to these identities. This will doubtless cause problems at the individual level, with committed and intolerant students complaining about being asked to read or listen to different views. More serious is the extent to which competing views of the past will also make any public account of its necessarily divisive. If this is true of the international level, it also threatens to undermine culturally federative schemes such as the European Union. The challenge there is far greater than that posed in the USA by competing interpretations of the American Civil War.

British politicians are under steady pressure, both domestic and international, to apologise. Aside from the questionable character of this activity, it simply feeds empowerment through grievance and the divisiveness of the past. For the Conservatives, this is a particular challenge as they have traditionally claimed a role as guardian of national identity, not least as an aspect of their stress on patriotism and continuity. Expect to be ambushed by interviewers about historical questions that may seem irrelevant but that will be overly-important to sections of the electorate.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else he is the author of the forthcoming The Slave Trade, (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).

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