Ideas matter. Perceptions, expectations and beliefs, however detached they may be from reality, matter. This is clear enough from the events of the last year, with the votes in the UK and the USA; and, for all that the ‘Thucydides Trap’ (currently enjoying another burst of publicity) presents global events as the predictable outcome of impersonal dynamics in the relationship between objectively-defined established and rising powers, it’s clear from Thucydides’ account. The events of the Peloponnesian War were shaped above all by the desires, fears, assumptions and misconceptions of individuals – with disastrous consequences.
Thucydides’ complaint that most people take no trouble to enquire properly into the truth but simply accept the first story they hear (especially if it’s from Herodotus) is often read as a statement of smug, elitist superiority – the epitome of the ivory-tower expert, trashing the sincerely-held beliefs of ordinary folk. We might better see it as a cry of anguish: this is the ultimate cause of all the miseries that the Greeks inflicted on themselves, this is the problem that his entire work is devoted to addressing.
History can seem trivial, a matter of mere entertainment – a source of jokes about the king of Spain’s beard – but of course one of the reasons that Brexit negotiations have gone wrong so quickly is the dominance of myths and misconceptions about the past among too many politicians and ordinary Britons, fuelled by a media that probably does know better but doesn’t care (see the excellent history syllabus proposed by Onni Gust: http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/the-brexit-syllabus-british-history-for-brexiteers/).
It feels even more pressing in other regions of Europe; in Lithuania, for example, where they fear the gradual rewriting of the past in order to cast doubt on the state’s legitimacy and the integrity of its border (see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/03/lithuania-fears-russian-propaganda-is-prelude-to-eventual-invasion?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other). The idea that Lithuania’s claim to parts of its current territory is undermined by the fact that they were once incorporated into other kingdoms is scarcely more persuasive than the idea that parts of Russia and Ukraine, to say nothing of Belarus, should be handed over because they were once part of the Grand Duchy. But it’s enough to muddy the waters, to create doubt and the impression of a debate, to discourage anyone else from getting involved in what could be presented as an intractable, both-sides-as-bad-as-each-other local squabble. Just as in Crimea.
Truth matters. If we don’t make the effort to try to find it, we will be lost. The problem with ‘fake news’ is not that it’s something new, but that we seem to find it harder to make the effort to enquire into the truth…