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Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (Modern Library Chronicles) Paperback – 13 Jul 2010
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Reminds readers that history matters . . . This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the importance of correctly understanding the past. Publishers Weekly, starred review
"From the Hardcover edition.""
-Reminds readers that history matters . . . This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the importance of correctly understanding the past.---Publishers Weekly, starred review
From the Hardcover edition.
"Reminds readers that history matters . . . This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the importance of correctly understanding the past."--Publishers Weekly, starred review
About the Author
Margaret MacMillan is the author of Paris 1919, Nixon and Mao, and Women of the Raj. Paris 1919 won the Duff Cooper Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History, a Silver Medal for the Arthur Ross Book Award of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Governor-General's prize for nonfiction, and it was selected by the editors of The New York Times as one of the ten best books of the year. A past provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, MacMillan is the warden of St. Antony's College at Oxford University.From the Hardcover edition.
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Bundled together, however, Dangerous Games serves as a cautionary tale for the present. Originally published in 2008, one gets the sense that MacMillan was writing this in the waning days of the Bush Administration as progressive vindication on Bush Era flaws, while simultaneously maintaining that we need to learn from history in order to prepare for the future. Despite the forward-looking approach, it seems as though every chapter is peppered with disdainful overt and covert remarks about George W. Bush: when Bush compared himself to Winston Churchill; when Bush attempted to market himself as a cowboy of the freewheeling western frontier; when Bush, in a 2006 speech to the graduating class at West Point, compared himself to President Truman. Perhaps most of the disdain is due to MacMillan's citizenship: she's Canadian and she possesses a distinctly Canadian perspective on her country's neighbor (and that neighbor's leader) to the south.
Despite the bias and the agenda, MacMillan has some valuable points to make. And she does so with clarity and order. Chapter titles suggest main points, which then are carried to poignant conclusions. For example, Chapter 1 is entitled "The History Craze" in which she promptly rides roughshod over people (along with governments and institutions) who pose as historians without actually being professional historians, and the danger that causes when faux historians produce believable but inaccurate histories of important events. Perhaps the best example of this is Hollywood's penchant for writing out inconvenient aspects of, say, the Trojan War, Cleopatra's choices or Henry VIII's love life. Perhaps more insidious than simple inaccuracies are the stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood, which are believed by "middle" America in the absence of actual contact with Other. In either event, MacMillan would like to see professional historians not abdicate history to commercial and governmental interests just because mainstream society has a craze for it.
Chapter 2 earns the moniker "History for Comfort," as MacMillan explains "why history can be at once so reassuring and so appealing" (15). Her answer: because history "can offer simplicity when the present seems bewildering and chaotic" (15) and because history "can also be an escape from the present" (16). In short, people use history like they use wine or video games: because it tastes good and offers a respite from the daily grind. It is the 21st century's opiate for the masses. Along with acting like a medicant, history "help[s] us with our values at least in part because we no longer trust the authorities of today" (19). Don't trust President Obama? Then call on historical references to Hitler to prove your anti-Obama position.
But along with history as comfort, MacMillan suggests that history can also cause discomfort, when, for example, it "highlight[s] our mistakes by reminding us of those who, at other times, faced similar problems but who made different, perhaps better, decisions" (22). President Nixon in his overtures to Mao Zedong as a method for getting the United States out of Vietnam serves as a prime example, largely in contrast to President Bush, who refused to interact with his esteemed enemies on any level and for any reason. Hence the rhetorical question: "if Nixon were president today, would he be going to Tehran for help in getting the United States out of Iraq?" (22). Of course, the problem with using diplomatic successes by President Nixon is that he is generally viewed as a political phariah and no credibility is established by invoking his name. Thus the idea behind the question remains unanswered and rhetorical.
MacMillan returns to the problem of armchair historians in Chapter 3, entitled "Who Owns the Past?" when she claims that "much of the history that the public reads and enjoys is written by amateur historians" (36), who by logical extension don't write history well. Another way to say it is that amateur historians write bad history. And the problem with this is that "bad history tells only part of complex stories . . . [and] makes sweepting generalizations for which there is not adequate evidence and ignores awkward facts that do not fit" (36). The example MacMillan uses is contentious. Indeed, I know well respected colleagues who parade this history before unsuspecting college students: "that the Treaty of Versailles, made between the Allies and Germany at the end of World War I, was so foolish and vindictive that it led inevitably to World War II" (36). This, according to MacMillan, is bad history. Rather she asserts that this explanation of events "overlooked a few considerations. Germany had lost the war, and its treatment was never as severe as many Germans claimed and many British and Americans came to believe. Reparations were a burden but never as great as they seemed. Germany paid a fraction of the bill, and when Hitler came to power, he canceled it outright. If Germany in the 1920s had financial problems," MacMillan asserts, "it was largely due to the fiscal policies of the German government" (36-37).
"Bad history" such as the previous example, "ignores such nuances in favor of tales that belong to morality plays but do not help us to consider the past in all its complexity. The lessons such [bad] history teaches are too simple or simply wrong" (37). This, then, becomes the crux of the chapter: historians "must do [their] best to raise the public awareness of the past in all its richness and complexity" (37). Furthermore, by invoking the ideas of British historian Michael Howard, MacMillan claims that "the proper role for historians . . . is to challenge and even explode national myths" (39) by not shying away from "blunt histories" (41). Such histories challenge our ideas about great leaders and the swirl of events in which those leaders were caught up. President Kennedy took drugs for a little-known illness. Does this suggest that knowing Kennedy's drug use causes his great decisions to become a little less great and his poor decisions to become a little less poor? No. Rather the "blunt history" is a "complex picture [which] is more satisfying for adults than a simplistic one" (43). And recognizing that "we can still have heroes . . . but we have to accept that in history, as in our own lives, very little is absolutely black or absolutely white" (43). It's the lack of clear lines, the absence of clean demarcations between good and bad, right and wrong that make some folks uncomfortable. Yet, that's just what the historian is called upon to do: shake peoples' beliefs and thereby shake their identities.
In Chapter 4, MacMillan takes up the issue of history and its relationship with identity when she asserts that "for those who do not have power or who feel that they do not have enough [power], history can be a way of protesting against their marginalization, or against trends or ideas they do not like" (53). This is where the power of myth becomes insidious. The stories school children are taught about Columbus' voyages or Paul Revere's famous ride are well known, and are beginning to be addressed in mainstream society. The undercurrents for these myths, however, are less well understood. These undercurrents, what MacMillan identifies as "the imagined community" (58), serve as host to nationalists, among other marginalized groups. And imagined communities seem to lead in a straight line toward ideologies. The groups who maintain ideologies work to show how "past, present and future all become comprehensible" (63) through neatly packaged stories known as "closed systems": about origins, about present circumstances of marginalization, and about future consequences of that marginalization. According to MacMillan, "logic and reason do not enter into closed systems of viewing the world" (64). Just as birthers today reject reasonable attempts to validate President Obama's birth in Hawaii (two different newspapers printed birth announcements in August 1961, for example), people with an ideological closed system mindset refuse to accept empirical evidence if that evidence refutes their worldview. In many regards, a closed system view allows an individual or a collection of individuals to escape responsibility for past choices and actions. It's convenient, easy, simple. Yet, history and its uses is more resilient than this. "History that challenges comfortable assumptions about a group is painful, but it is, as Michael Howard said, a mark of maturity" (71). In short, history is necessary for a democracy like ours as it lumbers into middle age.
MacMillan goes on about the relationships between history and nationalism, history and war, and history and its costs, and along the way one gets the impression that MacMillan is simultaneously captivated by and horrified by the ways in which history has been used. Yet she always returns to the idea that history is important, needs professionals to tend it like a garden, and is a primary mechanism for a society's knowledge of itself. She argues in her conclusion that "a citizenry that cannot begin to put the present into context, that has so little knowledge of the past, can too easily be fed stories by those who claim to speak with the knowledge of history and its lessons" (165). That those who don't know history are exploited by those who choose to abuse it. Simple answers about current situations are never truly packaged in neat little closed system boxes. Indeed, if someone peddles events in that context, it should serve as a warning rather than foster a reality. Instead, MacMillan encourages the reader to consider history from the long view: "History does not produce definitive answers for all time. It is a process" (167). This, then, is how the story cycles back to the beginning, not in a closed system but in a process of concentric rings of revelation about past events. Rather than take the long view of events, President Bush abused history and the historical amnesia of the American people by railroading them into a costly, tragic and unnecessary war in Iraq. Poignantly, this is the dangerous game for our generation.
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