Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dangerous Games

Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (Margaret MacMillan, 2009) is adapted from a series of lectures the author gave at a Canadian university. Because of its origin, it's a short book that doesn't go into tremendous, footnoted detail on any of its examples. On the other hand, it's a quick, accessible overview of an important subject.

Basically, MacMillan's thesis is that history is very useful for us in the present, but only if we're willing to view it both broadly and realistically. We get in trouble with nationalistic histories designed to show how brave and just and chosen by God our nation is, or with cherry-picking our historical analogies (Chamberlain at Munich being a popular choice with which to smear one's opponents).

All that, on the face of it, seems too obvious to bother with. But that doesn't keep us from making the same mistakes again and again. I know that the more I learn about the past, the less surprised I am to learn that the assumptions I walked in with are false. This applies to everything from the relatively trivial (clan tartans in Scotland were the product of 19th century marketing rather than ancient tradition, the Duke of Wellington never said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton) to the deadly serious--just from MacMillan's book I learned that everything I'd always heard and assumed to be true about WWII being caused in large part by the punitive reparations placed on Germany after WWI isn't quite as straightforward as that, and that a lot of the Soviet rhetoric of the Cold War was just a cloak for the same Russian nationalism and strategic self-interest that existed before the Communist takeover.

It's a good book, and one that questions the assumptions of all sides of the political spectrum.

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