Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Does Historical Analysis Have A Great Deal to Offer the Democratic Culture of British Society: A Response to John Tosh

This short essay is going to be discussing the principal argument laid out by John Tosh in his book Why History Matters, focusing on the chapters Other Worlds and Parallels in the Past. The argument that shall be discussed is: ‘Historical scholarship has a great deal to offer the democratic culture of British society.’ Tosh introduces his main argument that studying the past can be of use to the present, bringing up the cases of policing and state welfare as examples. In the case of policing, history shows that from the 1830s up until 1964, local elected watch committees controlled the British police. This would challenge the popular belief that an effective police force needs to be centralised. In the case of Welfare, Tosh points out how even the limited reference points utilised in discussions on welfare can be useful to contemporary debate. I find this to be very true in contemporary society. All too often ignorance of history can lead to costly mistakes. For example, people in the EU pursue socialist policies without realising how badly socialism has affected the European economy. People bring up WWII in order to support the idea that going to war can preserve freedom, without realising that the world was freer prior to the two World Wars.

Tosh, however, goes onto argue that the past is “another world”, one separated from the present by an “ever widening gulf.” This may seem like an odd line of argument for Tosh to pursue, yet, in a clever way, Tosh uses this argument as a qualifier for his main argument. Tosh’s examples here are Thatcher’s evocation of Victorian cultural values, and the propensity of older generations to hearken back to “the good old days.” In the case of Thatcher, she tried to implement Victorian cultural/moral values in an attempt to improve Britain’s economy, yet, the political, economic and social values of Victorian times were much different than those of Thatcher’s Britain, thus preventing the desired results from coming into actualisation. The past is therefore different than the present. However, in the second scenario, people are hearkening back to a golden age (the “good old days” so to speak), whereby they maintain that the past was different than the present. Yet, as Tosh explains, they are wrong. The same kind of hooliganism older people complain about in the present existed in the past also. Whilst this might strike one as contradictory, it is again a clever way of reinforcing the main point. It is by respecting and taking into consideration the similarities and differences that we can successfully use the past to inform our present actions and decisions. In other words, by using history.

He states that incorrect historical analysis can lead to equally egregious errors as simply neglecting history can. In other words, in order for history to be of use, people need a correct understanding of it. Tosh gives a number of examples of how historical analysis can fail if not used correctly. This is the main focus of his chapter Parallels in the Past. Bringing up the WWII example again, opposition of dictatorship was used to justify the Vietnam War, with Vietnam being compared to Nazi Germany. It was believed that the communist governments being set up in Indochina, including but not limited to Vietnam, were part of an expansion campaign being directed by Soviet Russia. Yet, Vietnam was not Nazi Germany, and was not even similar to the communist take over of Korea. The tendency to compare someone to Hitler and the Nazis is a cultural phenomenon known as ‘Godwin’s Law’, and but one of many examples of faulty historical analysis. What would a valid historical analogy look like then? A valid historical analogy, Tosh argues, is one with minimal emotional investment, one that does not view things in terms of black and white. More importantly, a historical analogy that highlights and focuses on differences and juxtaposes them with similarities in order to provide a variety of plausible solutions to a number of present day matters. It is by being mindful of the differences of the past that historical analysis comes into usefulness.

Tosh has already given examples of how historical analysis can benefit the democratic culture of British society. Namely, how history can contribute to the debates over the organisation of the British police force and state welfare. Whilst I personally find Tosh’s arguments to be very convincing, there are two issues that I think he has left out. The first is that in order for valid historical analysis to take place, those participating in this need to be well acquainted with history. The problem here is that the lay public are not, and the government rarely if ever employ the advice of actual historians in discussing political issues. So, whilst historical analysis certainly has a lot to offer, it is rarely used correctly in contemporary society. The second issue is whether or not we can know with any great amount of certainty things that have occurred in the past. Whilst I generally agree that we can, Tosh’s arguments seem to assume this premise right away. Still, Tosh’s arguments are very persuasive, and are a good argument why politicians should hire or at least consult historians.

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