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Saturday, November 04, 2006

The History Wars and the Future Wars

Looking back on it, it's hard to think of a time in which the use of historical analogy as a mode of political attack has been so used and abused. Labor's financial management will be poor because they were in government during the recession of the 1990s. Menzies was a poor wartime leader. Curtin was a poor wartime leader. Iraq is the new Vietnam - and so on. This is the basis of the so-called `history wars' - an attempt to rewrite history through the lense of ideology.

Reinterpreting history for political reasons isn't new. Most popular perceptions of England's medieval monarchs, for example, are derived from Shakespeare, who was obliged to portray those belonging to the bloodline of the current monarch as noble, and those of other bloodlines as bloodthirsty or idiotic. Both Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare realised the power of historical analogy during the Essex Rebellion of 1601, in which a group of conspirators who planned to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I paid Shakespeare's company to perform Richard II, a play in which the monarch is assassinated, to create public support for their intended crime.

I recently read a paper by political scientist Richard Patrick Houghton, who theorised that historical analogy is particularly common at times of crisis and uncertainty, a state every Western government now puts a lot of energy into assurring us we're in. We rely on analogy as a way of comprehending an uncertain world through past patterns and outcomes. The history is seen as concrete; the future is obviously not, and historical analogy is one way in which we attempt to exercise some power and direction over the unknown.

This principle is what makes the `History Wars' so pernicious, and so different to mere historical analogy - the active abuse of history to control the present and future. History is never concrete. All history is subject to interpretation. Instead, there appears to be an unprecedented and concerted attempt to entrench a `definitive' version of history which justifies current policies or even allows another side to `win' in retrospect. This goes beyond such things as accusations of a `black armband' view of history and into the airbrushing out of anyone who ever wore a black armband, so to speak. Modern history is dotted, perhaps for the first time, not with reinterpretations of history, but outright denials. The Holocaust did not occur, and nor did the Stolen Generations - not because facts suggest it, but because the ideology of the interpreter does. We must never see an Australia in which one history is `wrong' and another is `right' - and furthermore, such a method of intepretation does not belong in politics. Alexander Downer's disgraceful demolition of John Curtin earlier this year was an unprecedented attempt not only to incorporate ideological interpretation into the canon of history, but to wield this interpretation as a political tool. I know us pollie-watchers are fond of making comparisons to Orwell's `1984', but I'll do a bit of analogising myself in noting that its plot revolved around a man whose job was to continually alter recorded history to reflect the principles of the current government.

Tony Stephens describes the effects more eloquently than I in his review of the landmark book `The History Wars'. The Sydney Morning Herald also has an archive of articles on the topic which is terrific and thought provoking reading; not the least the article in which John Howard (in 2003) declares the History Wars `over' and his intepretation now accepted reality.

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