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Jonathan Yardley…provocative…Dangerous Games should be read by anyone concerned with making the public dialogue as open and honest as possible.
—The Washington Post
Acclaimed historian Margaret MacMillan explores here the many ways in which history affects us all. She shows how a deeper engagement with history, both as individuals and in the sphere of public debate, can help us understand ourselves and the world better. But she also warns that history can be misused and lead to misunderstanding. History is used to justify religious movements and political campaigns alike. Dictators may suppress history because it undermines their ideas, agendas, or claims to absolute ...
Acclaimed historian Margaret MacMillan explores here the many ways in which history affects us all. She shows how a deeper engagement with history, both as individuals and in the sphere of public debate, can help us understand ourselves and the world better. But she also warns that history can be misused and lead to misunderstanding. History is used to justify religious movements and political campaigns alike. Dictators may suppress history because it undermines their ideas, agendas, or claims to absolute authority. Nationalists may tell false, one-sided, or misleading stories about the past. Political leaders might mobilize their people by telling lies. It is imperative that we have an understanding of the past and avoid these and other common traps in thinking to which many fall prey. This brilliantly reasoned work, alive with incident and figures both great and infamous, will compel us to examine history anew-and skillfully illuminates why it is important to treat the past with care.
MacMillan, author of the acclaimed Paris 1919, reminds readers that history matters: "It is particularly unfortunate that just as history is becoming more important in our public discussions, professional historians have largely been abandoning the field to amateurs." According to MacMillan, this is a grave mistake. Governments and leaders use history to invent tradition and subvert the past. In a world hungry for heroes, badly researched historical biographies fly off bookstore shelves. In this highly readable and polished book, readers learn of the dangers of not properly tending to the past, of distorting it and ignoring inconvenient facts. If done correctly, history helps unlock the past in useful ways. The author explores the ways history has present meaning-not always constructively: in providing a sense of identity for groups, as a basis of nationalism or national pride, as a tool for redress of past wrongs and as an ideological tool. In this important work, we learn that history is more than presenting facts, it is about framing the past. This is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the importance of correctly understanding the past. (July 7)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Why such furor over a throwaway comment in a scholarly monograph? Because, argues Margaret MacMillan in Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, we use history to stake claims about the present. The outrage over the Laine book occurred during an election year, and politicians used it to stoke nationalist sentiment. The prime minister of the Hindu nationalist party said "foreign writers must learn that they could not offend Indian pride," and a tidbit about a 17th-century king influenced the outcome of a 21st-century election.
The Laine controversy is but one example of hundreds MacMillan presents to undergird her thesis: history matters. At first, the premise seems terribly obvious. Do we need a book to tell us the past is important, that many global conflicts hinge on historical claims? After all, MacMillan opens her first chapter, "The History Craze," by ceding this point: "History, and not necessarily the sort that professional historians are doing, is widely popular they days, even in North America, where we have tended to look toward the future rather than the past." Evidence is easy to cite: The Night at the Museum movies attract flocks of kids, the History Channel recaps World War II battles 24/7, and new museums, such as the Holocaust Museums in Washington, D.C., and Montreal, open to large crowds.
History may be popular, but professional histories, as MacMillian notes, are not. Her own book belongs to Modern Library's Chronicles series, in which well-known scholars write short histories in accessible prose, aimed at general audiences. Other Chronicle titles take on particular periods or states: Nazi Germany, the Hellenistic Age, the American Revolution. In her entry, MacMillan, a professor of history at Oxford University and the University of Toronto, author of Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World and Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, tackles the idea of history itself.
We need this series of breezy histories, including MacMillan's overview approach, because academic historians have become a coterie, writing mainly to each other, absorbed by intra-disciplinary concerns, and relying on obscure language and abstruse prose to make their points. Abandoning the general public, these historians have allowed amateurs take up the slack, and simplistic accounts of the past are left to slake our thirst for history. Younger historians are attracted to women's history, Asian-American history, and other new fields, often narrowing their subjects into tiny slices. As MacMillan wryly points out, "While it is instructive, informative, and indeed fun to study such subjects as the carnivals in the French Revolution, the image of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages, the role of the doughnut in the Canadian psyche..., or the hamburger in American life, we ought not forget the aspect of history that the great nineteenth-century German historian Leopold van Ranke summed up as 'what really happened.' "
When we forget to tell the story of causality and sequence, of who did what and what ensued, others swoop in, and play dangerous games. MacMillan's subtitle riffs on Nietzsche's On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, in which he cautions against history becoming "the gravedigger of the present." Of the history written today, MacMillan writes, "Some of it is very good, but much is not. Bad history tells only part of complex stories." "Bad history" is the book's raison d'être, and we have it in spades. MacMillan gives us example after example in a monotonous yet lulling rhythm. Golly, we realize as the pages turn quickly, there sure is a lot of violence, atrocity, and destructive logic done in the name of history. MacMillan never delves too far into particularities, as her method works by accretion. Trotsky was written out of Soviet history by Stalin. Mao tried to expunge most of Chinese history during the Cultural Revolution. A looming figure such as Churchill is remembered as the perfect, unassailable hero of World War II, "not the author of the disastrous Gallipoli landings in World War I or the ailing prime minister who stayed too long in office." We create "lost golden ages," like that recalled by Deaf activists who vaunt a moment in the 18th century when sign language was invented. We traffic in victimhood: Irish schoolchildren were once reared on a diet of simplistic, anti-British tales. Et cetera.
MacMillan can come across as a tease. She prompts us to question the meaningfulness of apologies for the past (Australia apologizes to the aborigines on National Sorry Day, the United States apologizes for slavery) and demonstrates the archaeological uncertainty underlying age-old claims of both Arabs and Israelis to the same plot of land. But she offers few conclusions. After we are convinced of the need for professionals to lead us through the morass of the past, it is easy to want them to continue and make up our minds for us. Should African Americans get the $5-10 trillion they would be owed if we paid restitution for slavery, or not? Should Israel withdraw from Gaza? MacMillan will not comply; instead, she goes on to summarize another historical quagmire. On whether we should "never forget" the past, she goes this far: "Dwelling on past horrors such as the Holocaust or slavery can leave people without the resources to deal with problems in the here and now."
Aware of the violence that histories, even obscure ones like Laine's, can cause, and well versed in her field, MacMillan is right to eschew truth claims. The historian's role is to complicate, to smudge blacks and whites into all manner of grays. It is humbling, this good history. The best we can do, it seems, is understand, empathize, learn all sides, and, sometimes, weep. --Anne Trubek
Anne Trubek is associate professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College. Her website is annetrubek.com.
Excerpted from Dangerous Games by Margaret MacMillan Copyright © 2009 by Margaret MacMillan. Excerpted by permission.
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1 The History Craze 1
2 History for Comfort 13
3 Who Owns the Past? 33
4 History and Identity 51
5 History and Nationalism 79
6 Presenting History's Bill 91
7 History Wars 111
8 History as a Guide 139
Further Reading 173
Posted December 8, 2010
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