The uses and abuses of history (Part 1)

Two new releases—both, I’m willing to venture, destined for bestsellerdom—offer in their own ways exquisite reminders of how history-conscious our culture used to be and how bereft we’ve become in that regard. That, in fact, is the theme of the the introduction Tony Judt appends to Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, a collection of his journalistic pieces from 1994 to 2006, covering topics from the fall of France in 1940 to “The Strange Death of Liberal America.” (The title of that article and that of the introducton, “The World We Have Lost,” pay gracious tribute to two of the most seminal history books of Judt’s forgotten century: presumably he thinks his audience still remembers them.)
Humans always forget the past, of course; we would probably be too paralysed to move forward if we didn’t. But Judt is convincing in his argument that the contemporary world—not just the part with which he has serious political issues (i.e. George Bush’s Washington)—is virtually dedicated to the idea “the past has nothing of interest to teach us.” The Bushites may be particularly open about their belief they can create a new reality as and when they like, but society as a whole has turned recent history into what Judt calls commemoration: a series of acts and events “good” (defeating Hitler, say) and “bad” (our racist, sexist, imperialist pasts). What’s been lost in in the process is beyond mere nuance, more like any sense of the fiendish complexity of human affairs, of how the interaction of the better and worse angels of our nature brought us from there to here. And, just maybe, how to tell good history from bad.
Even if I didn’t agree with most of what Judt writes—which may be a minority position, given the angry responses he provokes with everything he pens about the history and likely future trajectory of Israel—Reappraisals has virtues that sadly seem to need championing now. Judt plays by the rules: he may enrage Israel supporters, but he has reason and evidence he cites. When he makes definitive judgments, like his lapidary dismissal of prominent British historian E.P. Thompson (no one “will ever take Thompson seriously again”), he has arguments he lays out. And Judt doesn’t torque facts into unrecognizable states. That might seem faint praise indeed for a historian, but it’s more than can be said for Gavin Menzies, whose 1434—a kind of epitomy of the age of commemoration—will soon join Reappraisals on the bestseller lists.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.