The History Manifesto: “academically interesting yet problematic”

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“Historians of the world, unite! There is a world to win – before it’s too late!”

Somewhere in a dusty old library, an elderly gentleman has tutted at the unnecessary exclamatory sentence mood (A Level English there).

A Radio 4 listener has been rudely awoken by the sudden bastardisation of his beloved humanities.

A college tutor leaps with joy because someone has finally asked him: “So what do you really think about this?”

I don’t know about you but historians are usually the ones who report on the call to arms, not those who are commanding it. It was Pope Urban II who called for Christians to take the cross for the First Crusade, and ended up naked as they ran out of material to make the cruxes – so his garments was the second best thing. He was a central figure in Christendom, and the chroniclers were in the background snickering whilst they were scribbling down the events that occurred after the Council of Clermont.

When Anne Boleyn gave an impassioned speech to the crowd before her execution, a Tudor was trying to jot down the quote in the 16th Century version of shorthand.

Churchill’s infamous “We will fight them on the beaches” speech was by a politician, but broadcast by the modern day equivalent of a chronicler: a journalist.

Historians are the chroniclers, not the subject of the chronicles.

However, this is being tipped on its head by an Anglo-American collaboration, The History Manifesto. This new “special relationship” is a result of historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage. Together, they are calling historians to take on the mantel as economists, politicians, sociologists and journalists.

And therein lies the problem.

The arguments are eloquently constructed, their points are articulate and valid, and their expertise is undisputed. However, to politicise history is a slippery slope. History books, trusted accounts by trusted academics, can soon turn into propaganda; which is just another name for PR adopted by vested interests.

Armitage argues that by offering their expertise, historians can help resolve economic inequality and climate change issues. I, not for one moment, doubt his sincerity. Whilst ordinary folk see, historians observe. The selfless role of the observer is to present data and information for the reader to gather their own conclusions, not to make it for them already.

Armitage and Guldi are not radical in every hypothesis they present. They call for the return of “long-term narratives in historical scholarship” using the theory of longue durée – “going forward by looking back”, as they name their first chapter. They also use a quote from Winston Churchill: “The longer you can look back the further you can look forward”. They call him a mid-twentieth master of political power who was also a prolific historian. They fail to mention that Churchill was notorious for suppressing news publications during WW2, with some going out of print thanks to the Prime Minister’s efforts.

The History Manifesto laments on how society is haunted by “the spectre of the short term” – their unfortunate use of the noun conjures up the image of the villainous organisation from the James Bond films.

They are quite right, though.

They argue that the shortage in long-term thinking has resulted in disasters such as the 2008 Financial Crisis and Global Warming. Thought processes now operate in five-year cycles as a result of election cycles and five-year business plans. Gloomily, they add:

“No one, it seems, from bureaucrats to board members, or voters or recipients of international aid, can escape the ever-present threat of short-termism.”

Armitage and Guldi propose that historical narratives instead concentrate on decades and centuries rather than months and years to inform society on alternative futures.

For pub quiz and QI lovers, this is going to be a terrible shame. To adopt this macro-history approach, you will lose micro-history gems like the First King of Jersualem’s death was caused by falling from a balcony where a dwarf then attempted to him – both were killed.

Or during William the Conqueror’s funeral, his body had become so bloated in later life when they tried to close the lid on his coffin, the cadaver exploded.

The gist of The History Manifesto is that historians should take on a more responsible role in society. Armitage and Guldi provide an eloquent and informed argument, but historians need to carry as observers and not enactors. Their view on macro-history is respectable, but must be provided to the society to come up with their own conclusions.

 

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