History as a Means for Prejudice
As I come to the conclusion of What Is History? by E. H. Carr, I must highly recommend it as required reading for anyone interested in history in any sense of the word. An understanding of earlier thinkers, such as Marx, Hegel, Acton, etc. would be useful but is not necessary; I knew some of the references made, but Carr explains enough so as to not convolute his point with obscure names and ideas. For this piece, I lean back on an assertion made in the first piece and tie it with a topic Carr talks about in the final lecture of the book. This is that history is viewed by the historian (an individual) through the lens of the society he is a product of. This has positive and negative elements, but the isolation of subgroups of humanity (be it geographic, racial, etc.) is a negative that takes form when history is distorted through a prejudicial lens.
One of Carr’s concerns in the final lecture is that of professors of history – he uses his own university, Cambridge, as an example – in the Western world, seeing world history through the lens of British society. When considering what was established earlier regarding interpretations of history, it is not wrong of these people to view the world in this way, but the results, when taken out of an objectively historical perspective, lead to what Carr referred to as a “parochial” view. The British Empire at this time (1960) was in decline, with their influence across the world over the last few decades falling in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. In contrast, the populations of those regions were experiencing, on the whole, a remarkable amount of progress as they began to catch up to their former European controllers in social and technological advances.
Carr had this to say: “But relative decline [of Western European influence] is not absolute decline [of global progress]; and what disturbs and alarms me is not the march of progress in Asia or Africa, but the tendency of dominant groups in this country – and perhaps elsewhere – to turn a blind or uncomprehending eye on these developments, to adopt towards them an attitude oscillating between mistrustful disdain and affable condescension, and to sink back into a paralysing nostalgia for the past.”
Further on he says: “The history of the English speaking world in the last 400 years has beyond question been a great period of history. But to treat it as the centrepiece of universal history, and everything else as peripheral to it, is an unhappy distortion of perspective.”
This, I feel, is not an error made solely by historians but by anyone susceptible to a biased and self-pitying approach to the changes taking place on a global scale. My example of the Christian missionary and the Arab historian in part one showed how different interpretations of history are more likely to be adopted by those who belonged to the same society. In light of what Carr states above, the Western interpretation of history is one of “relative decline” as the world moves forward and away from this singular perspective. Those who continue to embrace this idea that the Western (English speaking) world is on the decline then proceed to take issue with the forces that are responsible for this shift in power dynamic.
To use a timely and relevant example from here in Australia, the racially driven rally in St Kilda over the weekend is a product of this distorted perspective of history. It may be too gracious to assume those in attendance had much, if any, great historical knowledge to try and back up or justify their motives, but the general concept applies. These people have congregated in the belief that their society is being undermined by the ever changing and elusive “other”, and, whether through propaganda or unsavoury ideological convictions, have fallen victim to the notion that our “relative decline” (I would also add perceived decline, as a great deal of the claims made tend to be unfounded) is the fault of this “other” entity.
In the specific case of this rally, the perceived decline of our nation is the direct result of the violent “African gangs” and “extremist Muslims” that have immigrated here. When you consider the populations of these two demographics statistically, the entire argument just collapses in on itself as a cause with minimal or zero effect on our national wellbeing. Here, such perceptions and interpretations of history are based on prejudice, and it is those in government (namely, the Coalition, One Nation, and other wretched individuals like Anning who went to the rally – and incidentally is charging the taxpayer for the trip despite it having absolutely no relation to his role as Senator) and media (A Current Affair and Sky News spring to mind as culprits) that set off this powder keg of distorted views on history and society. It’s particularly loathsome that Scott Morrison dares to even mildly condemn the rally when it is his Party that has, since their rise to power in 2013, propagated this very rhetoric to whip up votes with fearmongering.
Similar instances are rampant across the world. Brexit in the UK, the election of Donald Trump in the US, and a wave of what has been labelled “far right” populism throughout Europe are all products of this perception of “relative decline”. When the reality behind the peoples’ suffering (economic policies that favour corporate greed over public welfare) is too inconvenient for the elite in power, a prejudiced perception of history works well as a scapegoat to rile up those who feel they have been wronged. The irony of this obviously being that in voting or advocating for those who implement this scapegoat practice, they inadvertently end up empowering and bolstering the forces that are actually behind their decline.
History is a powerful tool, and while interpretation and theme are not inherently bad aspects of history when it is wielded by the historian or, more so these days, the politician, one must always be observant as to what the purpose behind a particular historic claim is before judging whether or not it is indeed true and sound, or whether it is dishonest and misleading. We will see in the months leading up to the election in May just what our leaders will try and use to sway us. Do not be fooled by statements made at face value, but instead move to analyse them and dissect the purpose behind the words. Maybe one day we will get over this delusion of “relative” or perceived decline and focus on global societal progress, but I do not have high hopes for such a drastic change to take place any time soon.
Previous piece: Can We Judge History Through a Moral Lens?