Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Margaret MacMillan's Dangerous Games (2009)

I read Margaret MacMillan's Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, which I found both thought provoking and unsatisfying. That is because she offers nuggets of interesting analysis, particularly when she compares the use of history in specific contexts (e.g. the Israeli/Palestinian conflict) but she has no overall argument, other than not to abuse history (she keeps zeroing in on unnamed "amateur" historians). But then she sidesteps the question even of how to identify such abuse. Or whether everyone is guilty of it.

"History comforts us, even though, paradoxically, we know less and less about it" (p. 20). This is so true for U.S. policy toward Latin America, which viewed the Cold War as as an external problem, conveniently ignoring local realities. Since those local realities--poverty, injustice, and exclusion--remained, policy makers now view their re-emergence in Honduras as a surprise, and therefore frame them entirely in ideological terms. Or am I simply interpreting history incorrectly? Therein lies the analytical rub. Is there an objective way to consider such things? She refers to "professional historians" but of course they disagree, sometimes vehemently. Indeed, that disagreement is a necessary part of examining history. It is what professional historians do.

To be fair, she does assert that the proper role of historians is "to challenge and even explode national myths" (p. 39). The funny thing, though, is most historians believe they are doing so because no one can agree about what is a "myth." I recently reviewed a book seeking to dispel myths about the U.S. role in the Chilean coup, and my review centered largely on the fact that the "myths" were not myths at all because historians and political scientists had been dispelling it for years. It was only a myth if you had not done the reading.

Nonetheless, there is a lot to think about, regarding the use of past defeats to vilify current enemies, the suppression of contrary evidence, the use of history to promote national purity, and the casting of new symbols and ceremonies as connected to ancient rituals as a way to provide them legitimacy.

This would be a good book for an undergraduate class to chew on. It raises many questions without providing much framework for answering them, but the questions themselves are important.

1 comments:

Vicente Duque 6:38 AM  

Mr Weeks

History comforts us, consoles us, and is a balsam for the soul.

When looking at today's problems, the interpretation according to History is usually and generally one of the best.

I am amazed at how many people give opinions about World Problems, like Latin America or the Middle East, but ignore the facts of how these areas have evolved in say the last 40 years.

There is an arrow of History, there are trends, tendencies or purposes in what is going on.

It is very noble to substitute passion and emotion for a rational assessment of those trends.

When I study Roman History, I immediately see the World of Today.

Thanks for this review and your thoughts

Vicente Duque

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