Friday, September 19, 2008

Revising History

In general, ‘revisionist’ is an insult when one historian uses it of another. The reason for this is partly that most attempts to radically rewrite history are based on sloppy research and are ultimately wrong (taking David Rohl as a pretty good example). The other reason is that ‘revisionist’ has come to mean ‘right wing imperialist bastard’ (as typified by this Guardian article). This is because the historical consensus of today tends to be against the British Empire, the importance of kings in shaping events and European uniqueness in general. If you think that Western civilisation has, on balance, been a good thing and that the lives of peasants had little impact on the course of events, then you are a revisionist (as well as, I suppose, a right wing imperialist bastard). You might say that whether or not you are a revisionist is really just a historical accident. If you were writing thirty years earlier or later you could find yourself boringly mainstream.

Dawkinistas call my work on science in the Middle Ages revisionist (intended as an insult) because it upsets their view of history as a battle between superstition and reason. Finding that the medieval clerics were extremely rational and into logic like we are into celebrity gossip is to bigger shock than some Dawkinistas to handle.

So it was fun to see the boot briefly being pulled onto the other foot in the last few days. Marie Stopes is the founder of the main UK network of family planning clinics and she campaigned for abortion and birth control. Sadly for her fans, it appears the main reason she was in favour of the working classes having abortions was that she was not in favour of the working classes. Worse, she wrote poetry in praise of Hitler (at least in the mid-1930s) and had views on race and disability that one might euphemistically describe as politically incorrect. Given she is a heroine of the political left, all this historical baggage has turned into something of an embarrassment.

Thus, it is amusing to see the left deploying exactly the same arguments that conservative historians have used to defend Pius XII (aka Hitler’s Pope) and Cecil Rhodes (an arch-colonial adventurer) against the critics of Mrs Stopes. In her article in the Guardian, Kathryn Hughes says:
What is new about this revisionism, however, is its poisonously self-righteous tone. It's as if we've started handing out gold stars to historical figures whose attitudes appear to chime with our own, while hissing everyone else off the stage. This is dangerous, because sooner or later some new bit of information will come along to disrupt those lovely moral certainties.
Hear hear! Except this revisionism it isn’t new at all. It’s just pointing towards the left and, unsurprisingly, they don’t like it.

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