Friday, 31 July 2009

Hari versus Roberts - the role of historians

Johan Hari investigates the fascist, racist and imperialist delusions of historian Andrew Roberts (1).

I find decadent historians quite fascinating. By decadent, I mean the sort of people who write glibly (and I'm holding up my own hand wright now) about stuff that they have little or no experience or direct knowledge of, and deliberately take outrageous positions to make themselves a name.

Roberts, according to Hari, is an obnoxious little cock, much given to being seen at fashionable events and generally living it up, on the back of his reputation as a iconoclastic historian.

Nothing, of course, could be less iconoclastic than a British historian taking a pro-Empire stance. They've been doing it for centuries and it's only recently that a few of them have had the courage to admit, that, golly, it really was a rather nasty thing, and more about money and power than taking up the white man's burden, and didn't we make a nasty bloody mess of it all?

A true iconoclast would be pushing the wet liberal consensus further back, and actually putting those unpleasant truths firmly where they belong - in the mainstream, confronting the public with not only the racism and bigotry of their forebears, but the ugly truth about how that bigotry has run, in an unbroken thread, through the centuries to the present day. How the feudal system has been extended to the point that we can all imagine ourselfs petty Earls, living a fine life on the sweat of our yellow skinned serfs, and a generous helping of credit.

A historian who doesn't voice a challenge to orthodoxy is basically a cheerleader. Less subtle oligarchs such as Stalin and Mao had plenty of these. But someone like Roberts is little different from one of Stalin's stodges, re-writing history on command to reflect the changes in the leader's mood. His history is the narrative desired by the stong and powerful.

So Roberts is really a reactionary. He provides a reassuring voice to the small minded chauvanists of the British establishment that they're the heirs of a great nation. Because unless you can say that your past is a glorious thing to be respected, you can't really live in a present buit on that past, without being a hypocrite on a monstrous scale. And the great and good of the British establishment abhor hypocrisy, or at least the public or privately acknowledged manifestation of it.

It's revolting to read about the blithe manner in which he writes off atrocities such as the Amritsar massacre as having been justified, in the long run by terrifying the population into submission.

But there's the heart of the problem - Roberts doesn't have the foggiest idea about what he's writing about. You can talk glibly about how it was a good thing, overall, that a mentally incompetent Blimp slaughter 379 peaceful demonstrators, as long as you say it quickly enough and don't stop for a moment to think about the true import of your words, or the reality of the events they describe.

Roberts's function isn't to provide new insight or knowledge, but an intellectual framework, through which both the past and the future can be understood in terms acceptable to the oligarchy of reactionaries and capitalists who think the Empire was a pretty fine thing, as it put them where they are today, and would like to mantain their privileged position.

Jackson's smug effrontry provides an intellectual - though not moral - justification for new imperialist atrocites. Every murder, rape or simple blunder in Iraq or Afghanistan can be justified - "well, if we didn't rape that girl, we'd have had to kill more further down the line." Essentially, Roberts is playing the role of a medieval priest, selling intellectual indulgences for the crimes of the past and the present, and the crimes to be committed in the future. Yes, we might be doing horrible things, but it is all for the best in the long run, ignore the screaming and the blood.

It's a sick mentality esposued by a vacuous self-promoter, blessed with a bit of flair, but who is only distingushed from David Irving by the fact that he actually carries a professional qualification as a historian (2).
1 - "The dark side of Andrew Roberts," by Johan Hari, published in The Independent, 31st of July, 2009. (
2 - This post was originally put up under a different title, rather insulting to Mr Roberts. I changed it because its vituperative nature would have distracted from what developed - unintentiaonally - into a rather lengthy musing on the role of historians. So it gets a nice, bland title.

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