Simon Schama: “when you’re a historian, you really oughtn’t to be knocking on the doors of power; your job is to keep the powerful awake at night.”
Prospect, August 21, 2013
I am not the stuff of which rule is made. The nearest I ever got to supreme power was when I was Vice President of the American branch of Pen, the writers’ organisation, and I was asked whether I’d think about becoming President. The truth is that President Schama didn’t strike me as anything to be taken seriously.
There is a sense in which, when you’re a historian, you really oughtn’t to be knocking on the doors of power; your job is to keep the powerful awake at night, to turn them into insomniacs. Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of Jewish history and traditionally there has been a fierce debate about what “power” can mean in the Jewish tradition. Moses, for example, is not a ruler; he’s not a king. As soon as kings do show up there are problems with them—David, Solomon and Saul. The debate becomes really fierce at the time of the Hasmonean dynasty. There was a rebellion against the Greeks in the middle of the 2nd century BC and it set up an autonomous Jewish kingdom, which immediately went “conqueror” and started to expand the territories. All the Pharisees would say, “this kingship has only ended up making us like the Greeks.” There’s something ill-fitting about the Jewish tradition and acts of power, so it’s difficult for me to think in ruling terms.
Having said that, there are certain things that I would instantly, dictatorially apply. I would love it to be the case that when you speak too loudly on a mobile phone a small but painful electric charge goes straight into you, to make you stop. I hate people shouting on trains: “Are you there? Oh good, I’m here. When will you be here? I’m here but I’m going to be there.” It’s unbearable.
There are also certain words I’d like to ban—I’m like the George Carlin School of Grumpy Word Abolition. I’d abolish “whatever” and “dude,” and I’m not crazy about “cool” because we used to say that when we were about 15 years old and I slightly resent it coming back. As George Carlin said, I hate people “relating” to each other unless they are actually related. And I would make it completely illegal for flight attendants to presume to tell people how to fasten a seatbelt. Is there anybody in the entire world who doesn’t know how to fasten a seatbelt? It’s so insulting.
I’d love to make it compulsory for people to study history until they’re 16. I would set a minimum of two hours a week, instead of one. I don’t think you can raise questions or tell stories adequately in the pathetic hour of history that kids get at school. The less time they have, the more the lesson will simply become a list of things to learn, and of course they get bored. It was GM Trevelyan who said that “the poetry of history” is that it is about people who in many ways are just like us, but also couldn’t be more different. That’s naturally strange in a bewitching way for the young.
It’s important for children to learn history because if you don’t know where we’ve come from, you don’t have much of an anchorage for the present. For example, once upon a time, Britain was a compulsively, ferociously Christian country. We fought the Civil War over religion and our religious wars didn’t stop until the 18th century. Because of that, we should be in a position to understand when religion, for better or worse, becomes political, as it is in a large part of the world. If I ruled the world, I would make it impossible to make “sin” a crime. I would make it a matter of international human rights that nobody should ever be prosecuted, much less punished, for blasphemy. Jefferson argued for that in 1770 but it doesn’t seem to have come about.
I’m not an atheist, but I do think that everybody should be allowed with absolute impunity to profess whatever religion they have, or none. If you feel that you’re getting instructions from your own particular monopoly of wisdom, your own particular deity, you feel entitled to do horrendous things to people who don’t happen to share that view. If you speak to people of my generation, historians in particular, I think the thing that took us all by surprise was the return of state religion. I spoke to Eric Hobsbawm about this before he died, and he said it had been an extraordinary surprise.
But I’m a perpetual vice president; I’m not good at grand policy decisions. My considered wisdom on monetary policy would fit on a postage stamp. The historian in me, the sceptic, the grandchild of Orwell, always hears the inflation of rhetoric in it. History is a tragic muse. One of its great founding moments is the Peloponnesian War and the whole majestic, terrifying drama of that builds up to the expedition against Syracuse that sees Athens sailing into massive hubris. That is good, honest, western history. It should never be self-congratulation; it should keep people awake at night.
Simon Schama is University Professor of History and History of Art at Columbia. His forthcoming book is “The Story of the Jews” (Bodley Head) and the accompanying BBC documentary begins in September.
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