Simon Schama said last weekend, in his call to teachers to reject Gove’s proposed History curriculum, “History is meant to keep the powerful awake at night and keep them honest.” He’s calling for a revolution of teachers to push for a (mildly) revolutionary form of History.
The study of History seems to me to have two main drivers, and it swings unsafely between them. One is to understand how the powerful can abide and one is to understand how the weak can overcome. This isn’t the dynamic of History I want to see (I’d rather see a more complex ecological approach) but it is what I observe.
Gove’s conceit, of course, is to propose that with his version of History education the weak can overcome by imitating the ways that the powerful can abide. All the time, he is desperate to ensure that we learn to praise and obey the powerful. He is surely aware of the conundrum that with (true) education comes critical awareness of power and inequality. This explains why there is so much anxiety around this subject in particular. Heritage can be used both as a hegemonic tool and as enlightenment. For an example of heritage hegemony, Erdogan’s plans for the contested Gezi Park include reconstructing a historic barracks building to celebrate Turkey’s imperial Ottoman past. However, there’s inadequate evidence to base their designs on so it will just be a pastiche. He doesn’t think that matters.
History isn’t just the cosy subject of lovely BBC costume dramas, where we relax in our slippers and enjoy the exotica of a different time combined with the familiarity of human emotions. History happens and matters now. Learning in and through History, in ways that are comprehensive and critical, matters greatly because now is an absolutely critical time in human history. So, the revolution I call for is for History and heritage to be rethought as tools for building a more diverse, sustainable and peaceful future.
I like Theodore Zeldin’s idea of the purpose of History: “The past is what provides us with the building blocks. Our job today is to create new buildings out of them.”
History begins the minute we, through media, start reflecting on significant events. ‘Big media’ seems to get more exercised about mass protests and riots than it does about actions of the powerful. Where these channels are not so censored that they can’t question at all, they seek for single meanings and tug at root causes of protest. While the BBC wrings its hands in discussion about the Woolwich murder and aggressive threats by the EDL and BNP (although spending less time on EDL attacks on mosques than they do on the problem of Islamist conversion), they are neglecting properly to report on a much broader scenario of ferment across Europe and the Middle East.
Why do they seek meanings around focal issues so attentively?
- Is it to help the powerful (who are assumed to be supported by the many) suppress the radical or miscreant few?
- Is it to help the many understand the radical few so that they can decide on their position in relation to them?
- Is it to give voice to the few, who may actually through their protests, represent and aggregate into the many?
It seems increasingly to be the first, and certainly not the last.
A few days ago, 1000s of protestors in Istanbul were interviewed about their reasons for protesting. 91.3 % were influenced to protest by the police’s disproportionate response. The police violence, though it made people angry and triggered them to take to the streets, was a top layer over diverse frustrations at years of rushed and authoritarian change. Actually, the protestors themselves are doing well through social media (and Al Jazeera) to explain this complexity, whereas big media elsewhere fails.
Big media formats are not suited to making sense of complexity – as they tend to set up binary debates, keep repeating bites of news rather than deepening accounts over time and so on. News is the starter yeast of history but it is mostly hungry for the sugar of fast-changing stories and it neglects the slower and more nutritious and complex unfolding of history.
You could see History as existing in three time dimensions:
- The political dimension is fast and is mainly about change through macro-scale and decisive action, and revolution through strategic conflict.
- The social dimension is fairly slow and is mainly about change effected by demotic labour and leisure, and revolution through mass action upwards.
- The (barely studied) ecological dimension is slow and is mainly about complex change through interactions between and amongst different human and non-human agents, and revolution through evolution.
Revolution is usually seen as faster than usual change effected by more people than usual. However, when people conclude that everything needs to change, overwhelmed by evidence of everything getting worse, it is much harder to define exact levers for change and to make clear demands. There might be an appearance of radical changes happening in response to protest but oppression and exploitation keeps rolling on. Revolution is harder to effect in more complex situations of globalised national and corporate interests. Demands lose momentum and people become exhausted (or they get annihilated or they divert their energies elsewhere e.g. in gardening.)
The powerful, however, can effect massive change very quickly. When neo-liberal Governments implement policy very fast, affecting large swathes of geographical and social life, it feels like change through forceful anarchy. See also, Shock Doctrine. Such rapid and far-reaching change cannot possibly be implemented with full participatory democracy. It can even be implemented by stirring up protest (see, police violence in Turkey), punishing the protesters and then saying that people have had their say.
Protesting people become defined as ‘ones who say no’ or who say ‘down with that sort of thing’ rather than understood as having specific demands. Some people who suffer from disadvantages, discouraged for too long, become disengaged from any empathetic relationship with society or ecology. Some of them, who may be provoked and influenced, can become the ones who plan violence or get sucked into it. The powerful pretend that these violent few are the leaders.
This is like authorities labelling children as defiant who resist their captivity in schools or abusive homes. The powerful have perfected a trick of misdiagnosing all justified protestors as extremists, as essentially angry and already damaged by it. Because in an authoritarian country, there is so much to reject, protestors are portrayed as just resisting everything and anything at will. In Turkey, Erdogan has dismissed the protesting part of the population as radical extremists running wild.
Why should running wild be seen as a bad thing? Why do free people and parks need to be bulldozed and blasted with water cannon? Why do we allow the powerful to destroy and cage our wildness for the profit of those few?
Wildness is possibly one route to revolution. Out of our protection and understanding of ecological and cultural heritage, we now need to take radical action to adapt to natural disasters and growing inequality. As George Monbiot said in a talk at the RSA on his book Feral, which promotes the prospect of rewilding, conservation is about preserving natural sites as they were inherited at a particular time in the past, whereas rewilding is about letting nature create its own future.
The picture here shows people replanting the bulldozed area of Gezi Park with some flowers. It may be a token gesture and nothing like radical rewilding but in times when only gestures are possible, the right ones must be made so that we can learn from them and build on them.