Thursday, 9 January 2014

Viewing the past through a prism

As targets for a political attack go, one of the most popular comedy series in recent decades doesn’t seem to me to be the wisest choice for any politician to make.  That little consideration didn’t deter the UK Education Minister, Michael Gove, from making a direct criticism of the way in which “Blackadder Goes Forth” portrayed the events of 1914 to 1918.
Leaving aside the wisdom of the way in which he tried to make his point, he does have a point, of sorts, in suggesting that a comedy programme might not have been the most accurate portrayal of the nature of the First World War - but then it never set out to be.  If I wanted an accurate portrayal of history, I wouldn’t go to a comedy writer.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t go to a politician either.
Gove’s point that the way in which events have been shown owes not a little to the political and philosophical outlook of the writers is entirely valid – the problem is his own inability to accept that his own view may be similarly skewed.  He seems to start with an assumption that there is a single “correct” way of interpreting and recounting the events of that sad period in human history; whilst he can see possible subjective bias in others, he struggles to perceive any in himself.
All history is, ultimately, a matter of selecting the ‘important’ facts and ‘interpreting’ them; and all history is necessarily provisional – subject always to the emergence of new information or alternative interpretations.  Without interpretation, history is meaningless.  Even the endless sequence of dates and events which it seems that Gove would like us all to be able to recite will have to be selected by someone.
Gove is, of course, as entitled to his opinion about the interpretation of a particular series of events from a century ago as I am to mine, but I find the idea that any politician should define the “correct” interpretation for the rest of us to be particularly worrying.  It smacks a little of Russia under the totalitarian regime, where it used to be said that “only the future is certain; the past is always changing”, reflecting the way in which those at the top regularly rewrote history to ‘big up’ the role of new leaders, or delete all reference to the disgraced, even to the extent of doctoring photographs to confirm the ‘truth’ of the new version.
Blackadder and “Oh What a Lovely War” may not be to Gove’s liking, but the fact that they are not the whole truth doesn’t mean that they don’t contain some element of truth, and a perspective worthy of consideration.  There’s more than one way of seeing the ‘war to end all wars’; we shouldn’t allow the politicians who want to spend the next four years ‘celebrating’ the events of 1914 to 1918 hide the alternatives for their own purposes.

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