Monday, February 17, 2014

The trouble with history

I have just come across an essay (published last November in the New York Review) by Mark Lilla on Hannah Arendt and how Margarethe von Trotta's recent film about her gets Arendt all wrong – by ignoring the fact that, as subsequent research has revealed, Arendt got Eichmann all wrong.

Von Trotta's films tend to based around strong and visionary female characters. And Hannah Arendt is presented as just such a powerful visionary.

One can see more clearly why the author of Eichmann in Jerusalem appeared to fit the bill when one considers certain aspects of the filmmaker's cultural and ideological background.

Lilla writes:

"When left-wing radicalism was at its violent peak in the 1970s, the following false syllogism became common wisdom: Nazi crimes were made possible by blind obedience to orders and social convention; therefore anyone who still obeys rules and follows convention is complicit with Nazism, while anyone who rebels against them strikes a retrospective blow against Hitler. For the left in that period, the Holocaust was not fundamentally about the Jews and hatred of Jews (in fact anti-Semitism was common on the radical left). It was, narcissistically, about the Germans' relation to themselves and their unwillingness, in the extreme case, to think for themselves."

Apart from the reference to narcissism, this seems true to me.

But I would also make the more general point (also made, if slightly more equivocally, by Lilla) that writers and filmmakers almost inevitably frame their works on controversial historical and political subjects in terms of simplistic ideologies and flawed logic.

If it didn't conjure up images of book-burning or the Index librorum prohibitorum, I would be tempted to indulge a small fantasy of mine and flesh out the notion of a world in which there would be no popular history books or films, biographical or otherwise – just easy access to a wide range of primary sources, and the minimal framework of scholarship required to authenticate, maintain and present this material to a wider public.

What would happen, of course, if one banned popular histories is that – as has happened so often in the past – enterprising writers would produce allegorical fictions which would make the same sorts of political and ideological points that popular histories would have made more directly (but not necessarily more effectively).

But, leaving aside questions about the desirability or effectiveness of censorship, there is no denying that reading letters and diaries and other documents from past eras (including literary works) is a powerful means of counteracting the myths that historians deliberately or unwittingly promote (even as they try, in many cases, to debunk other myths).

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The secret of their success

In her latest Financial Times column, Lucy Kellaway reports a casual but interesting observation on the apparently rather unspectacular careers of typical Etonians, and then – in gloriously unscientific and anecdotal terms – tries to explain this purported phenomenon.

A few weeks ago her husband attended an Eton College reunion for leavers of 1974.

"About 150 men crowded into the 15th-century chapel to belt out a quick 'Praise my Soul the King of Heaven' before settling down to eat, drink and reminiscence about schoolboy pranks while quietly trying to work out who had done best in the 40 years since then."

Kellaway's husband made two observations: one, how good they all looked; two, how relatively undistinguished their careers had turned out to be ("apart from one senior politician and one former newspaper editor"). They were all well-off but generally unremarkable, professionally speaking, which seemed surprising given their start in life.

But what about the inconvenient fact that the current UK Prime Minister, the Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury are all Etonians?

"I have never met David Cameron," writes Kellaway. "But I know Archbishop Justin Welby and Mayor Boris Johnson well enough to guess that neither is a stranger to insecurity. Both, too, have the capacity to work like dogs."

Kellaway references here The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld which purports to show why certain groups (specifically Jews, Mormons and Chinese) do so much better than other groups in the US. The secret of their success, apparently, is a combination of a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control.

The trouble with most Etonians is that they lack a sense of insecurity, it seems.

For good measure, Kellaway dismisses the effectiveness of passion, optimism, networking, resilience and life-long learning, and remarks on the "surprising success" of bereaved dyslexics.

Comfortingly, however, she notes that successful people are rarely (as she puts it) good eggs.

"Superior people are alienating; insecure people are exhausting. People who are both are doubly unbearable, especially when you take into account all the dissembling they usually do to mask both traits."

This is getting complicated, but let me put in my own two pennies' worth, my own speculative hypothesis: that English men and woman who attended élite schools (like Boris Johnson and, presumably, Lucy Kellaway) are more likely to set a higher priority on masking their sense of superiority than on masking their sense of insecurity (if they have one).

Regarding successful Americans, I have no strong intuitions and will resist the temptation to make any generalizations.