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Posts Tagged ‘history’

I’ve just had a review published on War On The Rocks (a reliably interesting website for analysis of foreign policy and strategy, from a viewpoint that is predominantly US-focused and frequently Realist), on the new book by Hal Brands and Charles Edel, The Lessons of Tragedy: statecraft and world order (Yale UP, 2019). As you can probably gather from the review, I found this rather an odd experience; indeed, half-way through the book I became increasingly convinced that I was a completely unsuitable reviewer, as after the first couple of chapters the ‘tragedy’ element largely disappeared, and B & E’s conclusion is not that US strategy people all need to start reading tragedy (that might be fun…), but that they need to review more recent history in the alleged spirit of tragic sensibility, which largely boils down to an assumption that bad things will continue to happen. (more…)

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It’s been one of those years… As far as the blog is concerned, I’ve managed to keep up a reasonably steady routine of posts – it does help that the WiFi on South Western trains is pretty reliable, so I can get things written on the commute down to Exeter – and the viewing figures have been pretty steady (no weird public controversies, and I managed to resist the temptation to launch unprovoked attacks on any prominent media figures during the slow weeks). I have at various points wondered whether it’s worth it; on the one hand, this remains a great opportunity to write about things that would never make for a proper academic article (or which perhaps might count as groundwork for something more substantial in due course – I am committed to giving a paper about Thucydides on Twitter in February), but on the other hand it is a time commitment, and in a year when it feels like I’ve lacked both time and energy even for the regular work stuff, sometimes it’s felt like that ‘one more bloody thing’ which could turn out to be that one thing too much. (more…)

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Ah, history. To quote Catherine Morland, “I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.” The reasons are familiar: not just a tendency to focus on content rather than form, as if the two can be separated, but also a determination to deny or obscure its invented nature by being as dull as possible. And even as some professional historiography has become more interesting and adventurous in its techniques of representation, history written for students or for a general audience defaults time and again to good old-fashioned naive realism, with predictable results. (more…)

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Holiday Snaps

In clinching proof that I am incapable of switching off the academic brain even when surrounded by beautiful countryside, unfeasible numbers of storks, fine food and excellent beer, I have been getting cross with an innocuous History of Croatia. The first 80% of the first chapter is more or less okay – the account of the Romans is unnecessarily confused by the fact that the author knows Octavian and Augustus are the same person but clearly isn’t sure why and certainly doesn’t see any need to explain it to the reader – but then we come to the arrival of the Croats. They came with other Slavs. Or not. Their language is Slavic, but other characteristics point to a different origin, according to some theories. They were a distinct group. Or perhaps they weren’t. Maybe they actually came from Iran. But we don’t actually have any evidence. It’s all a mystery. (more…)

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992 Arguments

How do we teach our students to argue, in an appropriate academic manner? At least one of the key elements is to help them to recognise, and criticise, different sorts of arguments in the secondary literature – and then to encourage them to turn this critical sense on their own work, to question every statement that they make and probe every possible weakness. But this needs to be critical criticism, so to speak; criticism that’s tempered by a sense of realism, of what is actually possible in historical studies – and by an awareness that there is rarely a single straightforward answer to anything, or a single correct approach. For example, identifying every source, ancient and modern, as ‘biased’ may be true, and better than total credulousness, but it’s generally unhelpful; at best it’s a first step rather than a conclusion, given the impossibility of finding a source that doesn’t have its own perspective, concealed or unconscious or otherwise. And if I thought it would help, I’d spend a lot of time citing Matthew 7.1-5… (more…)

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Expert Opinions

As I’ve remarked before, I am never going to become a popular writer of history: my books will never be sold in railway stations or airports, or reviewed in proper newspapers or included in celebrities’ Books of the Year choices; they won’t ever have embossed gold writing on the cover; I won’t ever be invited to the Hay Festival or the Chalke Valley History Festival or the like, and as for television… Partly this is the result of wilful refusal to submit to mainstream tastes (no, Lord Bragg, I won’t talk about bloody Spartacus…), and partly sheer inability to think or write in the right sort of terms even if I wanted to – I mean, my idea of an accessible work for a general audience was a polemical account of modern theories of imperialism and the reception of the Roman Empire… (more…)

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Reading David Andress’ thought-provoking new book Cultural Dementia*, on the ways that the anger and resentment of much contemporary politics in the UK, France and USA are founded in confused, self-serving and largely imaginary ideas of national pasts, I’m inevitably reminded of Thucydides, and his denunciation of the Athenians’ unwillingness to make any effort to enquire into the truth of the past but simply to accept the first story the hear – especially, we may surmise, if it flatters their sense of themselves and their place in the world, like the story of the tyrannicides that served as a foundation myth of democracy. The duty of the historian – the theme that I’m lecturing on in Toronto this week, as it happens – is to struggle to uncover the truth of things, to treat everything critically, to make no compromises for the sake of personal loyalties or entertainment, to acknowledge ambiguity and complexity, and try to help others to come to terms with it. (more…)

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