Simon Schama: ten years ago, and now

Ten years ago I posted:

Simon Schama on history

29 June 2006

Thanks to the Arts & Letters Daily, I just read “The History Channeler” (sic) in the Washington Post.

In a 1991 New York Times piece headlined “Clio Has a Problem,” he savaged academic practices as stultifying, overspecialized and hopelessly biased against “dramatic immediacy.” And he satirized conventional historical argument in a passage that began:

“In 1968, Wendy F. Muggins published her seminal article on manorial social structure in 17th-century Fredonia. A decade later, this orthodoxy was substantially corrected by Cuthbert C. Buggins, based on a reading of Fredonian tax records. Unaccountably, neither Muggins nor Buggins consulted local manorial records . . .”

“Storytellers,” the storyteller lamented, had become “aggressively despised.”

History teaching that works, at school level anyway, is 90% story-telling at first, with a gradual increase in the critical and methodological emphasis — or should be. Once the story-telling element goes, so do most of the punters.

But “Empire of Good Intentions” is argument as well as story. It asks the question, Schama says, “about whether or not peoples other than yourself are better served by being run by you.” For the heartlessness of the ruling British, in the face of the potato famine, came in part from the imperial obsession with free trade.

“There was just one iron law: Let the market do its job,” the television Schama says. If the cost was a million dead, so be it.

It’s hard not to see lessons for the 21st century here, but the historian isn’t sanguine about them being heard. “In the halls of the energetic policymaker,” he says, history is viewed as “emasculating.” Thinking about the past, with all its unanticipated outcomes, is “such a bringer-down-to-earth exercise.” Abstract political theory is more attractive, because it frees you to act with optimism, to create “facts on the ground.”

But for Simon Schama, in the end, the lessons of history are not the point. The point is the continuous, interconnected drama of human lives.

The study of history is “a resistance against oblivion, against loss,” he says. “It tells you about what it was like to be a human being.”

Oh yes!

Just days ago on US NPR…

Robert Siegel talks with historian Simon Schama about what the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union means for both Britain and Europe.

SIEGEL: Culturally, there is a generation of educated young Europeans – and I include Brits in that – who think of themselves at some level as being European. Maybe it’s not their only identity. Do you think that goes away in Britain and does a different identity take shape, or do those people grow up and change in this country?

SCHAMA: No, I think they’re in distress. I mean, I’m sure you’ve said, it’s very striking that the 18 to 24s voted something like 75 percent to stay in. And I suppose it depends where you are in London. We have more immigrants than anywhere else, and we’re least bothered by it. And I think when the shock subsides a bit, the young may well fight to be at least as European as they’ve been led to believe they are. That’s my hope, actually.

SIEGEL: If you can imagine a historian 50 years hence writing the sentence that will sum up what happened on this day, what do you think it’ll be?

SCHAMA: The greatest act of unforced national self-harm yet known in modern history.

See also from the week before Britain’s choice next Thursday is between the past and the future, writes Simon Schama.

…Chauvinism and the most narrowly nativist definition of the nation are agitating popular furies in Russia, Austria, Hungary and France, where Marine Le Pen looks to be the next president. Surfing the moral sewer, the UK Independence party’s latest poster, smugly unveiled by its leader Nigel Farage, features the slogan “Breaking Point” next to a crowd of desperate refugees. It is an image of unforgettable malignancy which will make anyone with a heart immediately want to spend time in their, rather than his, company.

There is no deep mystery as to why all this is happening. Even as the world enjoys the benefits of globalisation: unprecedented free movement of goods, people and ideas; the unbounded cyber space of the internet, so it also recoils against those very same things on the realisation that they don’t guarantee prosperity or happiness. An immune reaction kicks in, in which psychological and physical defences are mobilised against people stigmatised as alien, dangerous, and unassimilable. It is easier to blame the thousand ills on migrants than to see them as the result of systemic changes in economy and society…

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I am indebted to veteran Australian commentator and former public servant John Menadue for that last link. See his latest post Brexit and a failure of leadership – a sad, sad day.

…Malcolm Turnbull is also pandering to the extremists in his party, from climate sceptics, opponents of same-sex marriage and those like Peter Dutton who are unsympathetic, even hostile to refugees. In all of this, Malcolm Turnbull has failed to lead on issues in which we thought he believed. David Cameron is a model which no future leader should try to follow.

There is also a lesson to be learnt from single-issue plebiscites, whether they be about the UK in Europe or same-sex marriage. Too often these single issue plebiscites reflect a failure to lead and govern. They give voice to extremists like Nigel Farage, who knew only too well that attacking foreigners is the easy way to mass appeal. This low road works almost every time. Yet Malcolm Turnbull is following Tony Abbott and promising us a plebiscite on same-sex marriage which will give voice to a very nasty public debate.

The UK will now turn its back on the lessons of its history and the big picture which has been so much part of its centuries-long development…

And now for something completely different

The Brexit demonstrates the clear voice of disenchanted ordinary people refusing to be intimidated and dismissed by politicians, corporations and the media, says John Pilger.

THE MAJORITY VOTE by Britons to leave the European Union (EU) was an act of raw democracy.

Millions of ordinary people refused to be bullied, intimidated and dismissed with open contempt by their presumed betters in the major parties, the leaders of the business and banking oligarchy and the media…

The millions who ignored Stoltenberg and Cameron, Osborne, Corbyn, Obama and the man who runs the Bank of England may, just may, have struck a blow for real peace and democracy in Europe.

If you say so, John… But this one grabs me more:

Jo Cox, Brexit & Haters – Oh My!

Posted on June 27, 2016

…At first, the threat of Brexit was seen as a farce.  No-one, not even most Brexiters thought it would happen.  I certainly didn’t, the British people are normally far too conservative to do anything revolutionary.  That coupled with the entire resources of the British State, EU, and banks, millionaires and others with vested interested made me convinced that generally the people would want to leave but be too timid to do so’.

I’m not sure why everyone though Remain would so easily in.  In the world of Social Media, everyone seemed to be making fun of the vote, but as the vote drew near, they began to realise that they were in a fight and then things turned nasty.  People who wanted to vote to leave were insulted in many ways.  Stupid, idiotic, moronic, narrow-minded, racist, bigoted, inward looking, xenophobic… the list goes on.

Yet in the real world, I knew only one person who wanted to stay in and even they were doing so with some reservation.  I only knew people who were thoroughly for leaving.  Old people, young people.  Rich people, poor people.  White born British and ethnic minorities….

And now we have Alan Jones on the Equal Marriage Plebiscite here in Oz….

Tony Jones inquired: “Is the Brexit vote a bit of a warning there? I’m wondering if you can draw some reasons why you should be wary of a plebiscite?”

Alan Jones: “I think David Cameron called the [Brexit] referendum because he thought he would win it easily. That was the point. It was an error of judgement. I think here you do have to try to avoid on major issues such as that the kind of divisiveness we saw over there. One final point, there are 23 million people in Australia. They can’t all sit in the federal parliament. We select 150 to sit in the House of Representatives to represent those 22 million people on critical issues such as this. I think we should do what Malcolm Turnbull originally said we should do, let the parliament decide.”

Tony Jones: “Briefly, it worries you?”

Alan Jones: “It certainly worries me. I think that a lot of the young people are worried. I get a stack of correspondence about this. They’re concerned about the direction this could take us and I think we can avoid, we can do without all of that.”

It is not the first time the 2GB broadcaster has come out against the the plebiscite, but it’s the first time the nation has heard him do it on such a big stage – and at such a big moment, in the dying days of an election campaign in which it is the one question guaranteed to inspire a prime ministerial frown….

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