Don't blame historians for racist views of the past

When Ziauddin Sardar ("History as a Banana Republic accessory", 1 May) grows up, he should enrol for a history degree, during which he will be taught how to present logically developed arguments based on the citation of evidence, and using words in a precise way. Sardar opens with the sentence: "History has become all things to all people." A little later we have the paragraph: "Proper remembrance should teach us that the abuses of history are merely the flip side of its normal usages. History is always selective, constantly manipulated, customarily prone to mistranslation and uniformly written with an ideological bias frequently with racial undertones."

Further on comes: "If revisionism worked to redress the imbalances, then the hackneyed idea that history is made by western civilisation would have been consigned to the dustbin of history." From this wobbly rhetoric, it is difficult to derive any meaning at all. What is clear is that Sardar uses the word "history" in a confusing variety of different ways, within single paragraphs, and even within single sentences. For a start, he should pause to reflect upon the fundamental distinction between "the past" and "history".

In his second paragraph, he attacks (probably rightly) "international politics", and in his fourth he condemns the law courts in the respective countries for failing to bring justice to Australian abo-rigines and native Americans; but historians are responsible neither for international politics nor for courts of law. If Sardar cares to look before he burps, he will find that today's university textbooks on Australian and American history do indeed go into great detail about the vicious policies practised against the native peoples.

In a curious, upside-down way, Sardar does make the case for professional history, which, rigorously taught, exposes myths and propaganda. Sardar speaks powerfully of the need societies have for "a sense of continuity and confidence in their history": this is exactly the justification we professional historians give for doing history. Where does Sardar get his knowledge of Aborigines and native Americans, Hitler's death camps, and Captain Cook from? From professional historians, of course: society can't do without them. Sardar pontificates about "the shame of history as a profession". The only shame he demonstrates is that of a pitifully naive article being published in what is supposed to be a top intellectual journal.

Arthur Marwick
Professor of history, The History Department, Open University

This article first appeared in The tiny group that controls us all

2000-05-08