Margaret MacMillan warns of what can happen when history is misappropriated.
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MacMillan has obvious zeal for the disabusing power of history. History well told, she writes, “should challenge and expose national myths” and teach “humility, skepticism, and awareness of ourselves.” This leaves her often in the position of saying no. Professional historians, in her view, are the adults at the party, the voices exposing what she calls “Lost Golden Ages” as pure chimera. (If MacMillan studied families instead of nations, she’d be the one to tell you your father was a cheat, but that you should love him anyway.)Skip to next paragraph
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Historians, according to MacMillan, ought to do for countries what psychologists do for individuals: help them see the past for what it is, and make that knowledge the basis for positive action going forward. It’s worth asking then what afflicts the United States today. MacMillan suggests several familiar diagnoses, including guilt (reparations for slavery) and the general malaise that attends lost greatness. (She cites the reverential way we remember World War II and the correspondingly negative light cast on our current conflicts.)
It can be disheartening to survey all the problems currently facing the country. We’ve got healthcare, energy, and two wars, all wrapped in an outsized recession and it is easy to feel that we’re not up to the task. In this climate it might fall to historians to remind us that we’ve met greater challenges in the past, but such reminders can be discouraging in their own way, too. When you feel you’ve lost a step, it hurts to look at old highlight reels.
I’ve often thought that as a country we might feel emboldened in the present if we had a clearer view of how bad, in some ways, the past really was. If you’re discouraged by urban poverty, read about 19th-century New York, with its open sewers, immigrant ghettos, and horse carcasses decomposing in the streets. Or if you think politicians are irredeemably on the take, consider Tammany Hall or the Grant administration, when things were a whole lot worse.
There is always the danger that such comparisons might engender complacency, but when complacency is less of a worry than cynicism, it might be helpful if historians did as MacMillan instructs, and descended from the ivory tower to administer to America on the street, reminding us not of how far we’ve fallen, but of how far we’ve come.
Kevin Hartnett is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.