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Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The decline of history

Those of you have read a lot of my rants, ramblings and articles in recent times will notice a certain bent towards combatting pseudohistory. History, unlike science, doesn't have a straightforward testable system to establish "truth". However, it does have a fairly sound methods for researching, investigating and establishing facts. The historian acknowledges famously touted expressions such as the one found in the novel "Roots" that "The winners write history" and Napoleon's famous line that "History is a set of lies agreed upon", but he understands by the value of such methods as Occam's Razor, use of empirical evidence and the objective study of various primary source material that he can arrive closer to the truth than the speculator, the fantasist, the propaganda merchant, the conspiracist, the hyperdiffusionist, the extreme postmodernist and other examples of the pseudohistorian. Such opposition to this propagation of false history led me to read such excellent books as "In Defence of History", "Counterknowledge", "Real Enemies", "Reclaiming History" and "Denying History", which are brilliant guides for anyone who feels a little overwhelmed by the attitude that all accounts of the past are equal.

Nevertheless, as much at it vexes me to see another Dan Brown novel being promoted left, right and centre I need to acknowledge that there is perhaps a far larger problem happening. A good friend of mine once advised me to avoid "them versus us". It was a sound observation. I come from a minority culture - circus people - and a minority subculture - martial artists - and therefore I am no stranger to the feelings of having a siege-like mentality. Rather than just opposing pseudohistorians I need to understand what is happening in our society. Some of the above books provide excellent insights into the psychology of populist movements influencing the way we look at the past. However, perhaps there is something else behind the paranoia evoked by the Freedom of Information Act or the academia of postmodernism. Perhaps there it is simply a case, as Dominic Sandbrook muses in his fascinating article below, that as less and less history is being taught in schools in favour of vocational work, the demand outside continues to grow.

The big fight for those who believe in history is to keep history!

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Monday, 14 September 2009

There are more things in our beautiful garden...

Moa attacked by a Haast's EagleImage via Wikipedia

Because of the supernatural imagery and religious conventions used in Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” the quote “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” is often touted by those who want to believe in the supernatural. However, I think the quote can serve in a similar vein to the Douglas Adams’ one “Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” The current scientific discussions of a gigantic bird, Haast’s eagle, before now considered to have been only a scavenger but now described as a virtual lion from the skies. Even more incredible is that this bird was only made extinct 500 years ago. This brilliantly illustrates the point I am trying to make:

Don’t get me wrong, I love fantasy. I love fantasy for its wonderful useful allegories and powerful metaphors. However, both of these draw their strength from our love of fantasy for the sake of fantasy. There is nothing wrong with escapism. I don’t think there is anything especially wrong with sitting around the proverbial campfire to scare each other with thoughts of magic and impossible happenings, so long as the light of day in our minds returns us to rationality. I often think this is then spoiled by those who decide to persist with a pursuit of the irrational.

The other day I bought a lovely looking hard-backed short encyclopaedia of fantasy aimed at a young audience. It looked like one of the many books that I loved to read in our primary school library, full of beautiful illustrations and details of mythological creatures. Even the introduction looked promising. The writer gave a nice description of her interpretation of fantasy, which pretty much came down to the wonderful power of imagination. Sadly the book was then tarnished with logical fallacies and badly researched data on certain subjects in a weak attempt to convince the reader that “something might be out there”. For example, she explained reports of monstrously high waves used to be thought of as seafaring legends until satellite photography in the 20th century revealed their actual existence. Because of this discovery, she argues, it is not incredible to think that many of the sea monsters described by sailors exist. This is not a logical argument, it is and you will have to forgive the unfortunately appropriate pun, a Red Herring argument. Marco Polo came back with fantastical descriptions of the creatures he saw on his journeys; having never seen such animals before he immediately associated them with the creatures of myth such as the unicorn.

I am not quite sure about heaven, but there are certainly far more things on earth than we can imagine and often they are far more incredible. The sea is a good place to look considering the majority of its species have not been properly discovered. Like Douglas Adams there are also plenty of examples of fantasy and science fiction writers who make a healthy distinction between the realm of the imagination and the real world. Another common myth is to think those who are pragmatic, scientific or embrace rationalism lack imagination. Somehow the logical mind erases our ability to love the impossible. This is utter nonsense. Beatrix Potter, I believe, is a wonderful example of a person who could create wondrous and enchanting escapism and yet, at the same time, keep her head to break social conventions and help found a highly successful prize-winning farming dynasty. Beatrix Potter may have had her head in the clouds a lot of the time, but her pragmatic success demonstrates just how firmly our feet were planted on the ground.

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