December 12, 2007

History's Judgement

Political leaders and Journalists always make me laugh when they talk about history. (For a fine recent article which provoked this outburst see here.) Perpetually leaders talk about the judgements that history will deliver upon them, how for instance a Nixonian reputation for corruption will in the end turn into a Nixonian reputation for foresighted peace making (it is ironic that they don't understand the two judgements can be true of the same person). American historians unfortunately reinforce such hubris but compiling lists of great Presidents- evaluating Washington against Reagen (as though it were possible to compare a ruler of a small agrarion republic to the ruler of a vast multicultural complex state). One of the reasons that politicians make me laugh is that they claim that their reputations will be assessed by history- and that they will pass some grand examination in the future at which dons, sitting like schoolmasters, will award passes and fails.

Actually there never will be such an examination. People tend to presume that there will be because they tend to presume that historians will know in the future things that we don't know now. We can now see that Harry Truman's policy of containment was a successful strategy to combat Soviet Russia, we can now see that Neville Chamberlaine's policy of appeasement was a failure in combatting Hitler's Germany. Neither of those judgements were so obvious at the time. But equally there is much that historians are ignorant of, that those close to events or even those contemporary with events do know. Most importantly because historians do know what happened, they don't know what it was like to be there- to take the decision. Even I have a better idea of what Tony Blair thought in 2003, because I was there and had to think about what I would have done. A historian can't do that, his art lies in imagining himself into that position but he can never be there. Furthermore so much of life happens casually. Think about it this way, imagine you died tommorrow and all memory of you was purged from the world- all we would have of you would be the documentary traces you left. We wouldn't know what you were like- we would only know what others thought you were like, and even then only what they would commit to paper or film about what you were like. Uncertainty is the lot of the politician, it is also the lot of the historian.

And that uncertainty leads to another factor- its seldom that those stentorian dons are ever in accord. You can hold a poll and get a result- but that's like an election and historical fashions change. Since the 1960s the English Levellers have gone in the history of the civil war from being close to Karl Marx to being close to Billy Graham. Since the 18th Century, empires have waxed and waned but so have their reputations- for Gibbon's contemporaries empire caused corruption, for Kipling's it represented a civilising mission, for ours it seems brutal and constraining and we all use Rome as an example. Putting your trust in the judgement of history is like putting your faith in fashion remaining unchanging. Yes its difficult to imagine for instance that anyone sane will ever think Adolf Hitler was a good thing, and equally that anyone sane will think Winston Churchill was a bad thing- but the majority of politicians don't start genocides or fight brave lonely conflicts. The majority of politicians make mistakes and misjudgements, and have good intentions- and the balance between their error and their success is a fine one. Clement Attlee's reputation in England depends on where you stand politically, as does FDR's in the US. Its a very odd politician that is everyone's hero or everyone's villain.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't judge politicians- but we should remember that we judge them not against the standerds of some abstract historical tradition, but against our own moral sense. History will render no judgement on Blair, Bush or Nixon- the discipline of history allows us to evaluate different versions of what happened and why against the evidence, its then for us to come up with the moral judgements. Historians are not Gods but human beings. As there is no view from nowhere- and politics is all about balancing competing moral needs- a historian judges, just like anyone else, by his moral compass the ethics of a politician's behaviour. He might know more facts: but his moral judgement is just the same as any one else's.

Cross posted at liberal conspiracy.


mutleythedog said...

I expect to go down in history myself for some notable reason or another... I have just realised that if I were to die today my history would be based on my blog - oh dear!!