My friend Louis recently posted a blog which featured a ‘guest post‘ by his friend Peter. It concerned the death of Margaret Thatcher, and contended that this was a person who at least measured themselves against high ideals.
I do not propose to take issue with the main content of that post. I am not about to argue politics – I come from Northern Ireland, and I have a deep-seated aversion to stepping into that particular world of potential hurts – but Peter says something at the beginning of his remarks that strikes me as foolhardy. What he says is this:
“I struggle to understand the staunch hatred of some in their 20′s who cannot possibly have a recollection of her time of leadership. It also seems clear that even fewer can remember the country as it existed before her time in office.”
The problem here is that Peter, perhaps through nothing more than semantic imprecision (though I suspect not), has conflated the process of ‘recollection’ with the process of ‘understanding’. You do not have to have experienced something at first hand to be aware of its merits or faults. I have never starved but I know that to be in the midst of famine is catastrophic. I have never been subject to the exercise of merciless power but I know that totalitarianism is a brutalist form of government.
The problem goes deeper than this. By making the conflation Peter attacks the foundation of History (as a subject worthy of study) itself. His perspective is that of the Vietnam veteran of countless cliched renditions: “You don’t know, man! You weren’t there!”
Not being there is vital if one hopes to achieve a form of record that is anything other than hopelessly partisan. Not being there confers realistic potential to the aspiration to objectivity. A man who survives a battlefield may write memoirs of exceptional vividness but his appreciation of the battle itself is likely to be so coloured by personal experience that its objective understanding of the complexities of the event is sorely lacking. The prime example of this, at least recently, is Winston Churchill’s ‘History of the Second World War’. “History will be kind to me,” he declared, “because I intend to write it.” He did, and it was.
If Peter does not understand how people who did not directly experience events can form conclusions on them – particularly if those people are, like me, in their twenties – then I suggest he takes a look in his nearest bookshop, and see how many books there are on topics on which no one can possibly have any recollection. And I advise that he consider how many of them grew out of Masters or PhD theses written by people, like me, under thirty.