From one of our most acclaimed historians, a wise and provocative call to re-examine the way we look at the past: not merely as the story of incessant conflict between groups but also of human solidarity throughout the ages.
Investigating the six most salient categories of human identity, difference, and confrontation—religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization—David Cannadine questions just how determinative each of them has really been. For while each has motivated people dramatically at particular moments, they have rarely been as pervasive, as divisive, or as important as is suggested by such simplified polarities as “us versus them,” “black versus white,” or “the clash of civilizations.” For most of recorded time, these identities have been more fluid and these differences less unbridgeable than political leaders, media commentators—and some historians—would have us believe. Throughout history, in fact, fruitful conversations have continually taken place across these allegedly impermeable boundaries of identity: the world, as Cannadine shows, has never been simply and starkly divided between any two adversarial solidarities but always an interplay of overlapping constituencies.
Yet our public discourse is polarized more than ever around the same simplistic divisions, and Manichean narrative has become the default mode to explain everything that is happening in the world today. With wide-ranging erudition, David Cannadine compellingly argues against the pervasive and pernicious idea that conflict is the inevitable state of human affairs. The Undivided Past is an urgently needed work of history, one that is also about the present—and the future.
Excerpted from The Undivided Past by David Cannadine. Copyright © 2013 by David Cannadine. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
David Cannadine was born in Birmingham in 1950 and educated at the Cambridge, Oxford, and Princeton. He is the editor and author of many acclaimed books, including The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, which won the Lionel Trilling Prize and the Governors' Award; Aspects of Aristocracy; G. M. Trevelyan; The Pleasures of the Past; History in Our Time; and Class in Britain. He has taught at Cambridge and Columbia and is now the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Professor of British History at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.
Q: You write that historians have done much to contribute to the divisive way that we view humanity’s past. Do you believe that changing the way we present history can in turn change human behavior?
A: Historians write about human behavior in the past: and how they write about that, and the aspects of it which they chose to write about, can certainly influence our behavior and our perceptions in the present. Some historians have certainly seen their task as being to contribute to the creation of collective identities, be they based on religion, nation, class, gender, race or civilization; and the work of many historians has been cited by those who are concerned to build up and promote such adversarial identities. But many other historians, with whom I am much more in sympathy, have been concerned to undermine the claims made as to the superiority, unity, coherence, and homogeneity of such identities. As Ernst Renan observed, “being a nation means getting your history wrong”, and that is probably true in the case of all six of the collective identities I have examined. The job of the historian, as I see it, is to try to get the history right, which invariably means taking a less credulous view of the claims made on behalf of collective identities.
Q: The Undivided Past focuses on six categories of identity that have been used to define—and divide—humanity: religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization. Did you find one to be most significant, historically? Or one that historians and politicians have claimed is most significant?
A: Nowadays, most politicians, most of the time, would probably claim the nation to be most significant. But not everyone would agree with that, and this would certainly not have been the view throughout most of human history. One of the main points of the book was to investigate these six identities, as it were, side by side, which I don't think anyone had ever done before. And one of the most interesting conclusions that emerged from that exercise was that at different times, proponents of all six of these identities have claimed that theirs was the most important. They can't all be right, and I'm not sure for the most part that any of them are right. Most of us, in reality, live with multiple identities all the time, and great harm is often done by insisting on the primacy of one identity at the price of disregarding all others.
Q: In which category do you feel that humanity has made the largest strides in terms of bridging the divide?
A: There have been fewer wars between nations and empires since 1945, and we must hope this trend continues. That certainly seems to be the current pattern, and Europe has been more peaceful (even allowing for the horrors of the Balkans) in recent decades than during the first half of the twentieth century. For all its earlier divisiveness, the Christian churches have been a major force against racism during the twentieth century, insisting that all human beings are equal in the sight of God. And the work of the human genome project has fundamentally undermined any claims made that races are biologically different and separate and can be ranked from the most superior to the most inferior. There is still much work to do to live out more fully the consequences of that discovery, but at least a start has been made.
Q: Do you feel that divisiveness is in fact encouraged in academic discourse? Why would this be the case and what are the consequences for public life?
A: It is widely believed that controversy and disagreement are part of the life-blood of academia, especially in the humanities, and we can probably all name some famous professorial feuds. And there are, of course, different ways of approaching the past, and also of explaining aspects of it, about which there is ample scope for debate and disagreement. But often these turn out on closer inspection to be people talking past each other, or just disliking each other personally. And very few such controversies are resolved by there being an unequivocal winner: more usually, exhaustion sets in, and people move on to different issues. I'm not sure that such disagreements make much impact on public life more broadly: many people think quarrels between academics are merely demeaning and ridiculous, and few of them spill over into the newspapers or on to television. On the other hand, as public life seems to get more polarized, driven by an ever more strident and partisan media, I think historians have an obligation to reply to those many pundits (and politicians) who insist that the world is very simple that, on the contrary, the world is very complicated, and that we ignore those complexities at our peril.
Q: Looking at the continual and intense conflicts throughout history, don't they tell us much more about the greater reality of the past? Aren't the episodes of harmony that you find just outliers, exceptions that prove the rule?
A: No one can deny, and I certainly don't in my book, that conflict and destruction are a major part of history; but since humanity has been around for a very long time, and since it is still very much here, there is clearly another story to tell—or, perhaps more accurately, there are many stories to tell, of the complexity and diversity of humanity, of the inter-connectedness of its manifold identities, and of the many conversations that occur across the boundaries of these allegedly adversarial and impermeable identities. I think people working in other disciplines, such as philosophy, psychology and sociology are doing important work on studying humanity from this perspective, and one of the points of my book is to urge historians that we need to catch up and engage with what these people are doing and saying.
Q: Why do you believe that humanity has been so drawn to the binary constructs of “us vs. them” or “good vs. evil”?
A: Because politicians and the media very often want to tell us that the world is very simple (e.g. clash of civilizations) whereas in fact the world is very complicated, and we ignore that complexity at our peril (e.g. clash of civilizations). And while I think we are all too often invited to see the world this way (and this has been equally true in the past), I don't think most of us now, or our predecessors in the past, have actually lived our lives on this basis.
Q: It seems that even groups seeking justice and equality have used “us vs. them” in their fight for change. What are some examples of leaders who have overcome this tendency to focus instead on human solidarity?
A: It's certainly true that some leaders have sought to talk up differences between groups, and to urge conflict and confrontation. But there have been many examples to the contrary. In the twentieth century, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela were all for the most part concerned with humanity as a whole: Gandhi's quarrels with the British were about imperial control, but he always recognized a shared sense of humanity; MLK's 'I have a dream' speech urged that blacks and whites should sit down together and make their lives together; and Mandela wanted South Africa to be a nation of which all humanity might be proud, and where all peoples might live together.
Q: You write, “Despite constant urgings to the contrary, the world has not been, is not now, and should not be best or solely understood in terms of simple, unified homogeneous collectivities locked in perpetual confrontation and conflict across a great chasm of hatred and an unbridgeable divide of fear.” It’s easy to feel from watching the news that conflict, hatred, and fear are the norm, whether it’s conflict in the Middle East or in our own Congress. Is the media as much to blame as historians for perpetuating this narrative?
A: Yes! Indeed, more so! The media constantly invites us to believe that the world is very simply constructed, on the basis of 'us vs. them', or 'the good guys vs. the bad guys', but in practice it is very rarely that simple, and it is the task of historians to insist that the world is more complex.
Q: Yet, throughout the book you remain hopeful. What stood out to you as some of the most poignant evidence against this negative world view, and for one of shared humanity?
A: The multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-faith communities that for so long flourished around the Mediterranean: Constantinople, Alexandria, Jaffa, Beruit, and so on. All sadly now gone. But I live in hope that we may get beyond the excesses of ethno-linguistic nationalism and ethnic cleansing, which have done such harm. History may be about the crimes and follies of mankind, as Gibbon said, but it is also about peace and achievement and the triumph of the human spirit. That certainly gives me hope, and I would like to think that this book may give others hope, too.