1990s >> 1998 >> no-1127-july-1998

History as mystery

That’s what our rulers want because while we remain ignorant of our past they remain unchallenged. While we remain indifferent to history they reign supreme

The interruption of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon on Easter Sunday by gay rights activists caused a flurry of media attention that would normally have been absent from such a pointless event. In the ensuing babble about the Church’s hostile attitude to gay sex the content of the original sermon was more or less overlooked. Dr Carey’s scholarly and sophisticated contribution to the Millennium Agenda was that we have all forgotten our historical Christian values, and that is why the world’s in a mess. His view is that we should “remember history”.

Funny that the Italians and the French have the same word for “history” as for “story”, implying perhaps that both are made up. What the Arch Cant means by history is of course the official Christian revised and approved version, with nasty bits removed or blamed on someone else, and plenty of selfless martyrdom and soft-focus heroic imagery. History as a religious, spiritual and moral work of art, an aesthetic template to guide our actions in the future, an edifying edition of the highlights of past.

But the past didn’t start as “Once upon a time . . .” and end with “happily ever after”. It hasn’t ended, for one thing. For another, facts always get in the way of storybook fiction. Christian history, like everyone else’s, was bloody, not nice. Christians slaughtered and burned and pillaged and tortured for the faith. The first crusades were against other Christians in Ireland and France. Dissent was ruthlessly suppressed for over a thousand years, while Jesus and the Blessed Virgin climbed into bed with every baron, prince and dictator with money to hire them, with the result that peasants like us spent centuries robbed blind by the kings and scared shitless by the priests. A very handy arrangement for them, but not for 95 percent of the population. Dr Carey seems to want us to “remember” what his Christians said on Sundays, but not what they did the rest of the week.

Who Cares, Carey?

Most people aren’t interested in history. It’s boring. It’s irrelevant. It’s just dates and more dates. On the other hand, if you were betting a large sum on a horse, you’d look up its past form, and if you were buying a car, you’d want to know its service record, and if buying a house, you’d be very interested indeed in certain mediaeval by-laws allowing common access through your front room. When buying into an entire social system, however, we seem willing to forgo any such caution or curiosity.

History is certainly boring and irrelevant in schools. This is not accidental. If you were in charge of a prison and you had to choose videos for the inmates to watch, you’d be unlikely to pick Colditz or The Great Escape. Similarly, when the owning class, represented in Britain by the CBI, exercises its considerable control over the national school curriculum, it is not keen to emphasise the historical struggles that have continually taken place between owners and the vast majority of the dispossessed. Instead it emphasises the historical struggles that have taken place between owners and other owners, a subject not nearly as relevant to most of us. Thus, people leave school baffled and bored by history, and the owning class gets its workers cut-price and docile.

I didn’t grow up a socialist because I didn’t know the idea of socialism existed. I distinctly remember being taught the Franco-Prussian War in school, but no mention of the Paris Commune, and the Crimean War, but nothing about Chartists. Marx was some hairy German yob who wanted us all to wear uniforms and shoot each other. The nineteenth century may have been boiling with revolution right across Europe but to me it was drawing rooms, cucumber sandwiches and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Even where the history syllabus could have been potentially worthwhile, the dreary school culture would always manage to rob it of any significance, and the bored, passionless delivery of the time-serving teachers was enough to convince us that knowledge of any sort wasn’t worth having, except for job purposes.

What we call our history is mostly false but we do everything that we do because of it. Our state-approved history is the reason we get up and go to work all day, pay bills, buy holidays, vote the usual way and generally follow in our parents’ footsteps . . . all the way to the grave. And a fake sense of past has bequeathed a fake sense of present. With the contempt of long familiarity, we don’t really look at the present as what it is, an unique passing moment, but as a wallpaper for our individual habitat. Big things don’t change in this bland continuum we decorate our private worlds with wisdom. Banks don’t crash. Princesses don’t have fatal accidents. Revolutions don’t change society.

No Industrial Revelations

If the present in all its technological sophistication was sprung upon us suddenly, as if for the first time, like a revelation, perhaps we would see the exciting possibilities in it, but history, or the popular sense of it, has inoculated us against any sense of this potential. History disguises the present moment as a veil disguises a face. We can shout and protest with the passing anger of the moment, but we cannot presume to pit our puny voices against history’s relentless vast yawn.

If, instead of being the motive power of revolution, history has become the pale and feeble provider of excuses for the status quo, if instead of a springboard it is a tether that keeps the future out of reach, maybe we should just forget it altogether. If the little is not enough, maybe nothing is better.

School-kids wouldn’t complain. No dates, no stupid kings and queens with numbers for surnames, no essays marked C-minus “Must try harder”. The only losers would be historical theme parks, quiz compilers and all those keen to escape the present through books but unable to get on with science fiction.

Amnesia is Easier?

A human memory only one-day-old would annul long-lasting conflicts, old scores, disputes, campaigns, epic struggles and endless fiascos and tragedies. The wars of the world would be called off through lack of interest. Capitalism would collapse as people forgot who owned what and why it mattered anyway. Jew and Arab would tell each other jokes in the sun. Catholic and Protestant would share their Guinness and wonder what all the silly Parade outfits were for. Soldiers would forget how to shoot, prison guards wouldn’t bother to lock up, policemen would wander off and pick wild flowers . . .

Oh dear. A pinch of salt is called for I fear. In truth it is impossible to forget what once you have learned. Even if it were possible to be more ignorant of history than we already are, it would simply mean that the owning class would treat us worse than they do. They have it their own way as it is. While we remain ignorant of our past, they remain unchallenged. While we remain indifferent to history, they reign supreme. While we watch football instead, they laugh at us.

But there is room in our culture for a better understanding of history (and football too, if you insist). What they school out of us, we can bring back again. What they don’t tell us, we can find out. What they ignore, we can discuss. It is not just that we would have a stronger sense of ourselves in time and place. It is also a revolutionary process, because it means overturning old ideas and beliefs in a ceaseless effort to reinvent our present, and design our future.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s idea of history may exclude the venerable and well documented history of homosexuality, but it also excludes the venerable and even better documented history of class struggle. Dr Carey just doesn’t want you to know about those embarrassing bits. The owning class too would like to cover certain things up, or at least gloss over them. That’s why, for a revolutionary, it is always important to be curious. If we are to succeed as a class in emancipating ourselves, we must know the history and tactics of those who are against us. That way, when next they attack us, we will not be unprepared.


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