Monthly Archives: October 2014

Lies, damned lies and history

Do you know what my favourite television programme of all time is? It’s The Simpsons, and whilst the show has declined in quality as of late, in its prime it was by far and away the best thing on T.V. It was witty, subversive, and mixed humour and drama in a way that could make you laugh, cry and smile within the same minute (anyone who can watch the ending of ‘And Maggie Makes Three’ without getting slightly dewy-eyed is more machine than human). One of my favourite episodes from those golden years is ‘Lisa the Iconoclast’, as not only does it make some pointed observations about how small towns commemorate their local history, it also raises an important question: can a historical lie ever be justified?

First, a brief plot summary for those of you who haven’t seen the episode. After discovering that the founder of Springfield, Jebediah Springfield, was not the honourable man the townsfolk believe him to be, but a pirate called Hans Sprungfeld who once tried to kill George Washington, Lisa makes it her mission to convince Springfield of the truth. However, after seeing the unity the false memory of Jebediah has brought the town she decides the truth would do more harm than good, and gives up her crusade.

The conclusion of ‘Lisa the Iconoclast’ highlights one of the main arguments put forward by those who argue that a traditional historical narrative should remain unchallenged, even if there is proof they are a total falsehood, namely that it is an important source of cultural and social identity. I do kind of understand this argument. To use a real-world example, think about how much of our post-war cultural identity is based on our shared view of Churchill as the Prime Minister who wouldn’t surrender even though the odds were against him. Now imagine someone discovered a series of letters which showed Churchill had been planning to surrender to Hitler during the Battle of Britain. It’d have a pretty drastic impact, wouldn’t it?

(At this point, I should probably cover my own arse and make it clear that I don’t actually think these letters exist: they are  a hypothetical and purely fictional example.)

That said, I can’t really buy into the “shared source of unity” argument, since it makes the assumption there is a “unity” to begin with. Admittedly, there is usually a degree of consensus about any group or individual’s legacy, but this is far outweighed by disagreement. To use Churchill as an example again, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who thought he did a bad job as Prime Minister during World War Two, but at the same time a lot of people will remember him more for his anti-union tendencies than for his wartime speeches.

Let’s assume, however, that there is an unchallenged national consensus. Even then, I would still disagree with this argument, simply due to the fact that it’s so bloody patronising, as it assumes we base so much of our own personal identities on someone or something else that we would literally be unable to function if we discovered our idols could be anything other than perfect. It’s the historiographical equivalent of saying “you want the truth? You can’t handle the truth”, and it ascribes to us the emotional maturity of a child.

Indeed, whilst it may seem counter-intuitive, if you really want to protect a person or organisation’s legacy, it’s better to present them warts and all. Generally speaking, I think we should always be critical of those things we value most, not just because history has shown that clinging to an idealised image of a person or organisation rarely turns out well, but also because acknowledging someone’s flaws means we can have a positive discussion about whether their negatives were outweighed by their positives, which can often result in people changing their minds. Blindly defending someone’s legacy against any and all criticism, however, is unlikely to change anyone’s minds, and instead serves only to give their detractors an easy way to undermine them, as presenting someone as infallible means even the most minor of flaws appears to be a damning condemnation of their character.

It’s at this point that I’d originally planned to argue that there may be some circumstances in which challenging an established narrative could have legitimately negative consequences, such as if the narrative is the basis of laws or institutions, as it could be argued challenging the validity of the narrative challenges the legitimacy of the law.  However, since a full and proper consideration of the topic goes into some morally and ethically complicated areas, I get the feeling it needs its own post rather than being tacked on to the end of this one, and so I’ll leave it for another day. For now, I will conclude simply by saying that silencing dissent for the sake of an imagined national unity is unjustifiable, and whilst refusing to acknowledge someone’s flaws seems the best way to preserve their legacy, it actually runs counter to it, as by hoisting them up on a pedestal, you are making them far more vulnerable to criticism.

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The world that could have been

A few weeks ago I finished reading Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a novel which is set in an alternate reality in which the Allies lost World War Two. If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it, not just because it’s a cracking read, but because it’s also a shining example of the lessons alternative history can teach academic history, as whilst many historians dismiss alternative history as little more than an amusing distraction, I think we should be more open minded, and start treating alternative history as a genre as valid as any other.

Before I begin, I should make it clear that when I talk about alternative history, I am also referring to counterfactual history. Technically there is a difference, but in my opinion it is one of degrees, and as such I think my points are valid for both. That said, I know some will disagree, so I thought I’d get my 50p in before everyone else pointed out that they are, strictly speaking, not the same thing.

Anyway, back to my main point. As the name suggests, alternative history is starts from a pretty simple question: how would the world have turned out if X had/hadn’t have happened? Often this is a pretty broad question, and admittedly sometimes this proves to be alternative history’s downfall, in that it attempts to answer questions so broad and/or historically remote that they are almost unanswerable. For example, not even the best alternative historians could answer the question “What would have happened if the Spanish Empire had never existed?”, or “how would the twenty first century have turned out if the Romans hadn’t invaded Britain?” with anything approaching a coherent and insightful analysis, although I’d applaud them for trying.

Nonetheless, if both the event and the timescale are kept fairly specific (for example, The Man in High Castle is set fifteen years after the end of World War Two), alternative history is an incredibly useful discipline for examining historical cause and effect. Admittedly, this describes pretty much all history, since we have to consider which historical factors were the most important. However, alternative history takes this process one step further, as making us think about how things would have changed makes us consider not just whether a person, event or decision was important but why we believe a it to be so, and as such leads to a more thorough reflection on cause and effect.

However, alternative history’s main benefit is that it teaches us how to enter a frame of mind different from our own. Whilst I think it’s impossible to truly empathise with anyone from the past, much less “see it as they did”, I do think it’s important that historians at least try to understand the frame of mind of the people they’re studying, as to do otherwise leads to an inaccurate representation of the past.

Obviously, the fact alternative history is based around entering an entirely fictional mind-set is something of an issue. That said alternative history is still, in my opinion, the best means for teaching historians how to avoid anachronism. Not only is the historian forced to enter a mind-set different from their own and figure out how the characters would perceive the alternate history the historian has created, but the fact that this new mind-set is partly based on their own means that the historian can directly compare the two, see how one had influenced the other, and as a result begin to better understand how people from different periods of history interpret the same concepts and ideas in different ways.

In a nutshell, alternative history is a useful mental exercise for any historian, as it makes us reflect more closely on the issue of cause and effect, and on how we can avoid misrepresenting the past by using anachronistic terms. Admittedly, alternative history is a pretty esoteric discussion, and there’s much, much more to be said about its role within the discipline of history.

To pay, or not to pay?

Financially speaking, museums are going through a bit of a rough patch at the moment. Caught between the rock of government spending cuts and the hard place that is a general public whose budgets are squeezed to the point of breaking, at times being a museum curator or director must be as appealing as working as a lion tamer, or Jeremy Clarkson’s PR officer. Finding a solution to this problem is tricky: for example, if a museum cuts its opening hours it saves money, but if it’s closed more than it’s open it may as well not be there. However, whenever the issue of how to fund museums arises, inevitably some commentators ask the question, “why not simply raise entrance fees?”, a solution which is less simple than it first seems, but which is not without its merits.

The main argument against raising entrance fees, or even having them in the first place, is fairly straight forward: it makes heritage inaccessible to lower income families and individuals. Hell, it’s not just low income families any more. Those who used to qualify as “middle income” are also having to cut back on non-essential spending like days out at museums or galleries, and until the day we live in a socialist utopia where banks, utilities companies and supermarkets will accept “I meant to pay you but we went to the British Museum instead” as an excuse for non-payment, raising entrance fees will continue to price a significant chunk of the public out of the market, a decision which makes no sense from a business or philanthropic point of view.

Just as there is one argument that makes it hard to argue for charging entry to museums and galleries, there are two arguments that never cease to get on my nerves: that charging people entry would mean people appreciate the experience more, and that charging entrance fees would stop people coming in “for the sake of it”. The first argument is just patently wrong. If paying for something was a pre-requisite to enjoying it, no one would ever complain about a bad meal at a restaurant, every book on the Amazon store would have a five star review, and I would relish every opportunity to get on board a Northern Rail train.

Admittedly, I can kind of get where they’re coming from. When you pay for entry to a museum, you do want to get the most out of it, and you do try and look at as much stuff as you can. But that said, is it a good thing that people are only looking at everything out a weird sense of duress, rather than that they want to? I would argue that looking at something because you feel financially obliged to, is a more shallow and superficial experience than studying at one exhibit closely and in great detail before walking out without seeing anything else, and as such raising entrance fees is arguably the worst thing museums can do to encourage visitors to interact with and reflect on their exhibits.

That said, it is the second argument which really makes me want to scream into a paper bag. Ignoring the fact that, as I’ve already discussed, some people do want to go but can’t afford it, it’s an argument based on the false assumption that we all instinctively know what we will and won’t enjoy. Yes, sometimes you see people in a museum who clearly don’t want to be there, but at the same time I’m pretty sure there are lots of people who went there on the off chance they’d like it and did, or who were coerced into going and found they enjoyed it more than they expected.

And even if you were the only person in the museum who was enjoying it, so what? Does it affect you? No, it doesn’t. Unless they’re doing something to actively ruin the experience, like tearing down the exhibit you were looking at or repeatedly prodding you in the back, someone else’s lack of enjoyment has absolutely no effect on your experience whatsoever, and if you are the sort of person who gets legitimately annoyed by people texting or browsing the internet or some other unobtrusive activity that has absolutely no effect on your enjoyment of the museum, that’s your problem to deal with, and not a justification to raise prices so as to exclude them.

That said, there are some legitimate arguments for raising entrance fees, one of which is that it (hopefully) might make museums and heritage sites look more like museums and heritage sites, and less like shopping centres. Obviously I’m not saying museums shouldn’t have a shop and somewhere to get something to eat and drink. That would be silly. But in some places the shops are so large, and the cafés so extravagant, that the heritage element almost comes across as an afterthought, and that rather than using the shop to sell the heritage site (for example by selling books related to it or stationary with its logo on it) they’re using the heritage site to sell the shop.

Indeed, sometimes the commercial element of a heritage site runs completely counter to its core message. The best example I can think of to demonstrate this is St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna which, I kid you not, has a shop inside it. INSIDE IT! I’m not particularly religious, but even to me that’s taking the piss. One can only imagine what would have happened if it had been the Archbishop of Vienna rather than Jesus who was clearing the Temple: he probably would have congratulated the stall holders on providing the temple with several important revenue streams, before throwing out Jesus and his disciples for being anti-business.

On a slightly more serious note, however, I believe it is important that museums and similar institutions are as financially independent as possible, and if raising entrance fees mean they are less reliant on government or corporate funding, that is only a good thing. As the past four years have shown, state funding is notoriously unreliable; and whilst I’m not opposed to private funding from trusts, foundations or other similar organisations, sponsorship from commercial corporations always carries the risk that the funding comes with strings attached. This is not to say that all businesses which invest in libraries, museums or galleries do so to promote their agenda, a lot of them do so purely out of altruism, but the fact remains that companies have used their patronage to influence museums’ interpretive strategy, and it is a problem we must be wary of.

So there you go. Raising entrance fees is neither a catch all solution, nor an unmitigated evil, as whilst it runs the risk of alienating a significant proportion of the general public, it can also help to keep a check on the commercialisation of our heritage, and help heritage institutions become more financially independent. It’s not an easy issue, and I wish people on both sides of the argument would stop talking about it like it is.

On The Long Shadow, ‘Remembering and Understanding’

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post about the World War One debate and the sort of programming I wanted to see on television as part of the one hundredth anniversary of that conflict. In it I said there were three main issues I hoped would not be overlooked, and with retrospect I should have included a fourth category, programmes which challenge our commonly held perceptions of the War itself. Whilst I missed the opportunity to wax lyrical about the issue the first time round, luckily for me two weeks ago I recorded the first episode of The Long Shadow, a series presented by David Reynolds and whose first episode explicitly challenged out modern World War narratives about World War One; and so this week, I’m going to take the bull by the horns and talk about what it did right, and where I feel it could be improved.

As you would expect from an episode with the title ‘Remembering and Understanding’, the focus of the first episode of The Long Shadow is on the cultural impact World War One had in Britain and Germany during the Interwar Years and in the twenty or so years after World War Two, and overall the first episode was a damn good one. As I said in the introduction, the show challenged the commonly held belief that, even in the Interwar years, World War One was a futile and pointless war. However, whilst most commentators who have made this point (such as Michael Gove) begin and end with, “this was an opinion formed in the 1960s, based on a narrow selection of poetry”, Reynolds took this argument further, demonstrating how this conclusion was influenced by the anti-war sentiment generated by the Vietnam War, as well as showing how poets such as Wilfred Own have been misrepresented by this interpretation of history.

The other highlight of the episode was the section on the League of Nations, an organisation which history has not been particularly kind to. Whilst the traditional narrative argues that the League was an organisation which was doomed to fail, Reynolds highlighted two important points: firstly, that a large percentage of the Interwar British population believed that the League of Nations could succeed; and furthermore that in some cases the League actually did, such as its role in resolving the Corfu incident of 1923. The section on the Peace Ballot of 1934-5 expanded on this issue, and whilst Reynolds did not fully consider the question of whether the questions were loaded, or designed to provoke a particular answer, it was still an interesting segment, in that it highlighted the fact that the majority of the British population saw war as a last resort, and that even then Britain should not act unilaterally, a fact which makes the policy of appeasement more understandable, even if it does not excuse it.

That said, the programme did have some issues, most notably the fact that it felt like two shows crammed into one. On paper contrasting Britain and Germany’s experiences works pretty well, since they were almost polar opposites. For example, in Interwar Britain the horrors of World War One convinced the population of the need for diplomatic resolutions to global conflicts, whereas in Germany the widespread discontent at both the nature of her surrender and the terms of the Versailles Treaty created an environment in which an aggressively nationalistic and expansionist party like the Nazis could prosper.

However, whilst this juxtaposition worked pretty well it was clear that there was so much more to be said about the cultural legacy of World War One in both countries, and worse than this it sometimes felt like the German perspective had been included simply to act as a counterpoint, rather than as something worth exploring in its own right. This was particularly noticeable during Reynolds’ analysis of how British cultural attitudes to World War One changed after World War Two, and as such I can’t help but feel it would have been better to give each country its own episode, rather than try to fit them into one. It would have also been interesting to see how countries like Italy, France and Russia ‘remember and understand’ World War One, although since this is only the first episode it’s too early to tell how these countries will be covered.

I also felt that the show could have benefited from being less presenter-focused, as with the exception of some archive documentary footage (including some harrowing films of prisoners in Buchenwald concentration camp) there are no voices except Reynolds’. For the most part, this was fine. Reynolds’ is an engaging on-screen presence, and I never felt like I was being talked down to or that he was using excessive and unnecessary jargon. However, there were times when I definitely would have preferred the programme to focus on someone other than Reynolds.

This is particularly true of those occasions when Reynolds tries his hand at acting, the first of which is a re-enactment of a speech by Hitler, the second a piece from Oh, What a Lovely War!. They’re cringe worthy in the extreme, and whoever decided it would be a good idea to include them in the final programme should be put in the stocks so we can all throw rotten fruit at them.

These eye gougingly awkward moments aside, there were some sections which could have been noticeably improved by having Reynolds interview another expert, such as the section discussing the burial of soldiers after World War One. To me, this presented the perfect opportunity to have Reynolds talk to a representative from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission explain the controversy surrounding issues such as the design of the tombstones, and explain why the Commission refused to repatriate the remains of any soldiers buried on the Western front. Having someone other than Reynolds talk would have allowed the show to explore an issue from multiple perspectives in a way that ensured Reynolds’ central narrative remained coherent, and could also have been used to give it a more personal dimension, in that Reynolds could have asked the CWGC about a soldier’s story or epitaph which they found particularly moving or poignant, and whilst the fact the show focuses almost exclusively on Reynolds is not a massive problem, it does lose out by not including more voices.

Admittedly, these are pretty minor flaws in what was otherwise a great programme, and I can only hope the next two episodes are as good as the first. For all of the words I have spent criticising it, I wish more BBC1/2 documentaries had the balls to do what The Long Shadow has done and challenge some of our most ingrained national myths and narratives, and for that reason alone I think everyone should watch it.