Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Ukraine: A Point about Perspective.

Ukraine continues to worry me. I can’t help the nagging fear that there’s a real, albeit very slim, chance that it could lead to WWIII. Hopefully not. Hopefully, even a man like Putin, for all his huffing and posturing (‘Don’t mess with us, we’re backed by nuclear weapons’ and ‘I could take Kiev in two weeks if I wanted to’), will back off before the brink is breached. Khrushchev did it half a century ago, but then I always thought of Khrushchev as a man of sound common sense, whereas I don’t get the same feeling about Putin. Time will tell.

And that brings me to another point. In years to come the Ukraine Crisis will be the stuff of history, and all the emphasis will be academic. The talk will be of politics, diplomacy and strategy. Any mention of displaced people, abused minorities, a few thousand deaths and a few thousand bereaved families will be made only in passing. That’s because when we view situations from a distance, be it temporal or spatial, it’s the twin issues of power and control which we consider important and find interesting, not the suffering of people. And that’s because issues of power and control have a much longer legacy than the suffering of people.

To me, that seems sadly the wrong way round. The whole point of studying history is supposed to be about the learning of lessons, and the suffering of people should, therefore, be paramount.


Della said...

Last spring when I helped my daughter revise for her IB History exams, I was struck by a similar feeling. The class focused on the 20th century, which amounted to looking at the First and Second World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War. You would think nothing else happened in the 20th century to comprise 'history' and all the smaller, individual human stories had just gone by with the wind. As you say the focus was on political strategy and in this case, the various perspectives on the political and economic causes and acceleration of strife. It was all very distant and academic and I found it difficult not to be rather critical of the material. Your words as usual J.J., hit the nail on the head and I couldn't agree with you more. Hope you are doing okay...will read some more here. All the best.

JJ Beazley said...

Yes, I think the operative word has to be 'academic.' It seems to me that when people study history, the primary motive is to store knowledge. They take an interest in history because the machinations and long term consequences are interesting. They do it because they enjoy it, not because they want to make the future better.

When I hear 'Vietnam' the first image that comes to mind is that iconic one of the naked little girl running screaming from the napalm. And when I think about the Norman Conquest in 1066, it isn't the Battle of Hastings that most moves me - interesting though the long term consequences were - but the subsequent Harrying of the North in which thousands died from cold and starvation.

And that's why I think history should focus first and foremost on humanity.

It's always very good to see you, Della. Thanks for keeping in touch.