Historical myopia is to blame for the attacks on Mary Beard

Historians in the News
tags: mary beard, Trump, Brexit



Christopher Kissane is a historian at the London School of Economics & Political Science and a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker.

... The renaissance of populist nationalism embodied by Trump has been built on mythic history, the lie that “the good old days” have been lost. Brexit springs from a nation where most still see centuries of rapacious and oppressive empire as “a good thing”, its complicated histories and harsh realities actively ignored. Just this week, Cambridge historian Mary Beard has received vitriolic abuse for defending the historical consensus that there was diversity in Roman Britain, while teaching the long history of migration to Britain was branded “disturbing” and “dangerous” by rightwing commentators. Glorious ignorance is the ideology of the nation’s drift to isolation.

Such pernicious politicisation of history also underpins the rise of autocracy. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan legitimise their autocracy with historical myths, and their imitators follow: Viktor Orbán is recasting Hungary’s history as a struggle against western domination and Islamic invasion, while Poland’s increasingly autocratic government has prosecuted historians and taken over a major museum in its campaign against “anti-Polish” history. Erasing the past has been a foundation of Chinese totalitarianism, while Japanese schools have received hate mail for using a textbook (Human history we learn together) that includes details of Japanese war crimes.

Historical research and analysis is a seditious rejection of those who seek to control the past in order to shape the future, and a vital antidote to a world without a perspective to match its challenges. History is too important to be antiquarian window-dressing, nationalist mythology or populist propaganda. We need a reformation of our relationship with the past, a radical shift to place understanding history at the heart of how we think about our world.

This change must take place across our culture and society. In the media, those with influence must resist the slide to the immediate and fight for the importance of perspective. History should not appear only on screen or in print for antiquarian appeal or provocation, but to inform wider debates. ...





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