Dangerous games The uses and abuses of history

Margaret MacMillan, 1943-

Book - 2009

Explores the ways in which history has been used to influence people and government, focusing on how reportage of past events has been manipulated to justify religious movements and political campaigns.

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New York : Modern Library 2009, c2008.
Main Author
Margaret MacMillan, 1943- (-)
1st U.S. ed
Item Description
Originally published as: The uses and abuses of history. Toronto : Viking Canada, 2008.
Based on the Joanne Goodman lecture series of the University of Western Ontario.
Physical Description
xi, 188 p. ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • The history craze
  • History for comfort
  • Who owns the past?
  • History and identity
  • History and nationalism
  • Presenting history's bill
  • History wars
  • History as a guide.
Review by New York Times Review

WE all live in history. Some of us make it, others are made - or broken - by it. Many of us read it. A few of us write it. Most of us try, at least fitfully, to make use of it, usually by ransacking the past for analogies to explain the present and to predict the future. And more than a few of us, in Margaret MacMillan's amply documented opinion, routinely botch it. MacMillan, the Canadian-reared warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford, is an accomplished historian who has written about the British Raj, the Paris peace settlement of 1919 and Richard Nixon's relations with China. "Dangerous Games" is a frequently mordant and consistently provocative indictment of the myriad ways in which history as a way of understanding the world is too often distorted, politicized and badly mishandled. MacMillan lays about with rhetorical broadsword and with fearless abandon. She inveighs against the eclipse of "professional historians" by "amateurs." She blasts the fall from fashion of political history in favor of sociology and cultural studies. She denounces identity studies of all sorts, particularly when they descend into what she calls the "unseemly competition for victimhood." (She singles out certain Afrocentric histories for special scorn, as having "the same relationship to the past as "The Da Vinci Code" does to Christian theology.") But she directs her most cogent criticism at the particular kind of historically constructed identity that is nationalism. MacMillan reminds us that history itself has a history - a subject known in the academy as historiography. Paradoxically, those professional historians whom she so admires grew up with the modern nationstate of which she is so wary. The formal, university-based study of the past, governed by its own scholarly protocols and supported by an impressive apparatus of state-supported institutions like Britain's Public Record Office, the Archives de France and the United States National Archives and Records Administration (not to mention required courses in national history and officially sanctioned textbooks) emerged only in the 19th century. So did the mass societies fostered by newly robust central governments ruling over dispersed, disparate populations whose members had somehow to be convinced that they owed their principal loyalty not to parish, village or province, but to what the scholar Benedict Anderson has called the "imagined community" of a distinct and coherent people: the nation. Meiji Japan, Bismarck's Germany, Cavour's Italy and Lincoln's re-United States were all products of the nation-building surge that swept much of the Western world in the mid-19th century and spawned models for the rest of the world in the 20th century, usually under the banner of "self-determination." But "for all the talk about eternal nations," MacMillan notes, "they are created not by fate or God but by the activities of human beings, and not least by historians." In our secular age, MacMillan adds, history has also displaced religion as a means of "setting moral standards and transmitting values." So we now expect the "judgment of history" to be not merely objective and fair - the professional historian's usual criteria - but identity-affirming, nation-making, virtue-inculcating and generation-binding as well. Small wonder that history has become such a hotly contested battleground, or that otherwise unbellicose professors are so often pressed into front-line service in the culture wars. IT is among the many virtues of MacMillan's succinct yet substantial book that she demonstrates how every country struggles with history in its own way. The peoples of the Balkans, Winston Churchill once observed, "produce more history than they can consume," and the weight of their past lies oppressively on their present. Something similar might be said of post-World War II Germany, which continues to be haunted by the shameful memories of Nazism and the Holocaust. The opposite has been alleged about Japan - that it remembers too little of its own offensive behavior in the World War II era, to the chronic discomfort of its neighbors, especially China. Australia wrestles with what an exasperated former prime minister, John Howard, once called the "black armband" view of his countrymen's treatment of the Aborigines. France and Germany are experimenting with a "joint history" textbook to soothe past animosities and foster attachment to the new supranational project of the European Union. A similar effort to devise a "continental narrative" integrating the histories of the three Nafta partners, Canada, Mexico and the United States, has been stalled for more than a decade, and looks most likely never to come to pass. Of Americans it might be said that they have too little history to be able to shed any of it - or to stop arguing about it. MacMillan revisits the tempest set off by the release of the National History Standards in 1994. Designed to bring elementary and secondary school teaching into line with a generation's worth of innovative historical scholarship, including rich work on slavery, immigration, women and Native Americans, the standards were denounced by Rush Limbaugh as an attempt to teach that "our country is inherently evil." Senator Bob Dole called them "worse than external enemies." MacMillan also offers a refreshingly frank discussion of the flap over the Smithsonian Institution's attempt to use an exhibit of the Enola Gay- the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945 - to raise questions about weapons of mass destruction and the nature of modern warfare. Veterans' organizations erupted in wrath. They believed, MacMillan writes, "that the National Air and Space Museum existed not to encourage public debate, but to commemorate the glories of flight and of airpower and to reinforce Americans' patriotism" She suggests that the veterans' opinion was but a special case of a more general phenomenon: the belief that "those who actually took part in great events or lived through particular times have a superior understanding to those who come later." All to the contrary, she says elsewhere, quoting the British writer John Carey, "one of history's most useful tasks is to bring home to us how keenly, honestly and painfully, past generations pursued aims that now seem to us wrong or disgraceful." And what, we might well ask, will be the judgment of history on our own time? MacMillan ends by asking whether we would be worse off not knowing any history at all. After pages of unsparing commentary on the misdeeds of so many historians, professional and amateur alike, it comes as a surprise to read her rather meek opinion that "I think the answer would probably be yes," a sentence that is unlikely to serve as the historians' manifesto. But that sentiment is consistent with another of MacMillan's conclusions: that history's ultimate utility does not lie in its predictive or even its explanatory value, but in its ability to teach humility, to nurture an appreciation of the limits on our capacity to see the past clearly or to know fully the historical determinants of our own brief passage in time. "If the study of history does nothing more than teach us humility, skepticism and awareness of ourselves, then it has done something useful," she writes. A knowledge of history, as the great historian of the Renaissance Jacob Burckhardt once wrote, will not make us clever for the next time, but wise forever. In our secular age, MacMillan says, history has replaced religion as a means of transmitting values. David M. Kennedy, a historian at Stanford University, is working on a book about the historical determinants of the American national character.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 27, 2009]
Review by Booklist Review

MacMillan, a professor of history at Oxford University and the University of Toronto, views the study and utilization of history as a double-edged sword. History, of course, can show us where we have been; it can also provide a sense of shared culture that binds otherwise diverse populations and forms the basis of the nation-state. For many, the study of history is plain fun, filled with colorful characters and real-life drama. But the abuse of history often provokes tragic consequences. Tyrants, including Stalin and Hitler, wrapped themselves in the mantle of national icons to enhance their personal power. Karl Marx saw history as a process leading inexorably to a classless society, which allowed his adherents to justify mass murder. The refusal to let go of some aspects of the past has prolonged a sense of grievance, hatred, and entitlement among numerous groups across the globe. For both historians and lay readers, this thoughtful and provocative work will be enlightening and useful.--Freeman, Jay Copyright 2009 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

MacMillan, author of the acclaimed Paris 1919, reminds readers that history matters: "It is particularly unfortunate that just as history is becoming more important in our public discussions, professional historians have largely been abandoning the field to amateurs." According to MacMillan, this is a grave mistake. Governments and leaders use history to invent tradition and subvert the past. In a world hungry for heroes, badly researched historical biographies fly off bookstore shelves. In this highly readable and polished book, readers learn of the dangers of not properly tending to the past, of distorting it and ignoring inconvenient facts. If done correctly, history helps unlock the past in useful ways. The author explores the ways history has present meaning-not always constructively: in providing a sense of identity for groups, as a basis of nationalism or national pride, as a tool for redress of past wrongs and as an ideological tool. In this important work, we learn that history is more than presenting facts, it is about framing the past. This is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the importance of correctly understanding the past. (July 7) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

MacMillan (History/Oxford Univ.; Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, 2007, etc.) explores the nuances, manipulations and extortions of history. For centuries, the recording of past events has been distorted for a wide variety of reasonsto induce nationalism, lay claim to land, protect reputations or strengthen a political argument. In this lucid text, MacMillan deftly maneuvers through time, citing conflicts of identity and belonging in the Middle Eastwhere "ideologies call on historybut in their hands the past becomes a prophecy"alongside analysis of China's Mao and his attempts to rewrite his country's past, destroying "all memories and all artifacts that, by reminding the Chinese people of the past, might prevent him from remodeling them" into his Communist regime. The author also disputes memory of or participation in an event as "proof" of a historical account, writing that many major eventsthe days leading up to Pearl Harbor, the fall of Napoleon, the Cuban Missile Crisiscontain narratives colored by unreliable spectators. Psychologists point out that memoryeven of something recentis hardly concrete. This fallibility, combined with the opportunity for control, has resulted in myriad written texts that are of questionable accuracy. "The past," writes the author, "can be used for almost anything you want to do in the present." Political and religious leaders are also loathe to record their histories as marred by "evil," and instead highlight often selective, exaggerated positive perspectives of violent historic eventssuch as Bastille Day or Columbus Dayto draw tourists and increase national pride. MacMillan is careful to defend history and its objective chroniclers as a necessary, and often precise, science. However, when power and control are introduced, the truth is often left wanting and "bad histories" emerge, which "belong to morality plays but do not help us to consider the past in all its complexity." Examining history honestly is also crucial to the pursuit of peace and, the author sagely notes, the only way to teach "humility, skepticism, and awareness of ourselves." A wide-ranging and provocative testament to transparency as the best historical education. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter One The History Craze History, and not necessarily the sort that professional historians are doing, is widely popular these days, even in North America, where we have tended to look toward the future rather than the past. It can be partly explained by market forces. People are better educated and, particularly in the mature economies, have more leisure time and are retiring from work earlier. Not everyone wants to retire to a compound in the sun and ride adult tricycles for amusement. History can be helpful in making sense of the world we live in. It can also be fascinating, even fun. How can even the best novelist or playwright invent someone like Augustus Caesar or Catherine the Great, Galileo or Florence Nightingale? How can screenwriters create better action stories or human dramas than exist, thousand upon thousand, throughout the many centuries of recorded history? There is a thirst out there both for knowledge and to be entertained, and the market has responded with enthusiasm. Museums and art galleries mount huge shows around historical characters like Peter the Great or on specific periods in history. Around the world, new museums open every year to commemorate moments, often grim ones, from the past. China has museums devoted to Japanese atrocities committed during World War II. Washington, Jerusalem, and Montreal have Holocaust museums. Television has channels devoted entirely to history (often, it must be said, showing a past that seems to be made up largely of battles and the biographies of generals); historic sites are wilting under the tramp of tourists; history movies--think of all the recent ones on Queen Elizabeth I alone--are making money; and the proliferation of popular histories shows that publishers have a good idea of where profits are to be made. Ken Burns's documentaries, from the classic Civil War series to his one on World War II, are aired repeatedly. In Canada, Mark Starowicz's People's History drew millions of viewers. The Historica Minutes produced by the private foundation Historica, devoted to promoting Canadian history, are so popular among Canadian teenagers that they often do school projects where they make their own minutes. In the United Kingdom, David Starkey's series on British monarchs have made him rich and as famous as the kings and queens themselves. Many governments now have special departments devoted to commemorating the past--or, as it is often grandly designated, "heritage." In Canada, the Department of Canadian Heritage exhorts Canadians to learn about Canada's history, culture, and land: "Heritage is our collective treasure, given to us and ours to bequeath to our children." The term can encompass virtually anything: language, folk dances, recipes, antiques, paintings, customs, buildings. There are societies to celebrate antique cars or guns, baseball cards or matchboxes. In England, a young architect has founded the Chimneypot Preservation and Protection Society to save, as its mission decrees, "the Sentinels of Time." France, which has had a particularly active Ministry of Culture for decades, declared 1980 the Année du Patrimoine. Locals dressed up to reenact the great moments of their history. In the following years, the number of heritage sites and monuments on the official list doubled. Scores of new museums--devoted to the wooden shoe, for example, or the chestnut forest--appeared. At the end of the decade, the government set up a special commission to oversee the commemoration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution in 1989. In France there has been an explosion of reenactments of the past, festivals, and special months, weeks, and days. The possibilities, of course, are endless: the starts and ends of wars, the births and deaths of famous people, the first publication of a book or the first perf Excerpted from Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.