Saturday, February 11, 2023

The use and abuse of history

Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning has been published. The controversy associated with its publication is very like the issues roiling the teaching of history in the United States. Zoe Strimpel in The Telegraph (UK):
.... The central pillar of this perverse worldview is that history isn’t really a study of the past, but a weapon with which to beat the present, and more specifically, the West. History apparently has no use beyond this; and there is no statute of limitations. ....

The people who would have Britain’s history, and that of the West, limited to vengeful tales of murder, theft and slavery, are already exerting enormous influence. Most new jobs advertised in modern history in UK universities now relate to crimes of the past, and connect back, in some way, to our supposed endemic racism.

But if we let the influential activists who are busy “decolonising” curricula and universities have their way, we will, ultimately, be left with precisely nothing of a historical record at all – bar a list of crimes, taken out of context.

Less than a hundred years ago, Britain had an empire. However horrified we might be today, slavery was widely practised across the world (as, indeed, it still is in some places today). Everyone was sexist, racist, homophobic by our current standards. Are we to bin all elements of the past – namely everything until about the 1990s – that are tainted by these things? If so, we lose the good stuff as well. We lose knowledge of Britain’s world-leading and committed abolitionism, and of the foundations of culture, from the Greeks to the Vatican to Shakespeare and John Donne. We become nihilists and narcissists.

So the arrival of Biggar’s book is a corrective, a small but important one, against the desire to use and abuse history not to learn what was true, and how complex the past is, but to self-immolate and punish in the present.
Zoe Strimpel, "The woke war on history aims to abolish the West itself," The Telegraph, Feb. 11, 2023.

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