Sunday, 7 April 2013

Show me the Mani.....

            An Undivided Past: History Beyond our Differences by David Cannadine
            Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books), London, 2013   

David Cannadine's 'The Undivided Past' is a tour de force attacking the simplification of arguments over the millennia into Manichean 'us versus them' debates. Perhaps ironically in attempting to makes this argument accessible to all, he also simplifies it but then all great books leave us wanting to know more, and encourage us to go and look for ourselves. To quote a series of well-known adverts on television, 'it does what it says on the tin,' as it explores its themes, but concludes that in fact our past is undivided, and we are more united than many would have us believe.

Cannadine's sees his task as to prove to us that this simple black and white view is not only incorrect, but in fact never has been. Indeed he seems to quite lose patience with those who read into actions or words what they want to, without looking at the subtleties within, or even the words and actions of those that are being quoted.

A good example is occurs in the chapter on 'Civilisation' when Cannadine explains how the American neoconservative and New Labour, specifically, used Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilisations to justify their views that led to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but ignore the man's statements that he did not support the actions.

In the introduction he even has a dig at his own, academic, community:

Most academics are trained to look for divergences and disparities rather than for similarities and affinities,but this relentless urge to draw distinctions often results in important connections and resemblances being overlooked.

This seems an odd claim, as it is counter to what we would teach in school, in which students are encouraged to look for and identify themes of difference, but also of similarity as we seek to help them understand that history is not a simple exercise, but one that needs careful contemplation and an urge to understand the motivations and actions of others.

What Cannadine is really doing here is demonstrating how Manichean thinking has permeated the intellectual world, and that he believes this is a simplistic approach which runs counter to the evidence of the ages.

At the beginning of the book Cannadine uses quotes from the last two American Presidents before Obama, when he shows how George W. Bush said that as he grew up the view was that it was 'us versus them,' even though you weren't certain who 'they were.'

He contrasts this with his predecessor Bill Clinton who said conversely that although the world was often ruled by the belief that our differences were more important than our 'common humanity,' he actually believed, 'our common humanity is more important than our interesting and inevitable differences.'

It is apparent very early that it is Clinton's view that Cannadine has most sympathy with opening with:

This book sets out to explore and investigate the most resonant forms of human solidarity as they have been invented and created, established and sustained, questioned and denied, fissured and broken across the centuries and around the world, and as they have defined the lives, engaged the emotions, and influenced the fates of countless millions of individuals.

Cannadine does this by exploring what he considers to be the six 'most compelling and commonplace forms of such identities,' which are religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilisation. The scope of each argument is really quite astounding as he delves into the human condition over the millennia.

He demonstrates that Newton's third law applies to human interaction as well as the world of physics, 'every collective solidarity simultaneously creates an actual or potential antagonist out of the group or groups it excludes.'

In exploring his six themes, Cannadine draws upon scholarship from many sources but particular works play more prominent roles. Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History being often quoted because they encompass so much of what he want s to say, and argue against.

But it is important to note that each chapter sweeps across time in a connected and clear way, as Cannadine looks at the arguments which demonstrates those Manichean themes, and yet shows us how wrong it is to see these arguments so simply, and that they are really excuses to explain our prejudices.

In the chapter on 'Gender,' as an example, he does indeed point out how women have been excluded from much of civil society by men over time, and how many writers such as Germaine Greer sought, at least in her early writings, to emphasise the differences in which women were fighting against men, in a Manichean, us versus them, struggle, whilst he counters that with Betty Freidan who saw it in more inclusive enterprise in which men and women fought together in a joint enterprise.

In looking at this debate across the centuries, Cannadine argues it would be simple to see it as an age old battle by women against the beliefs that women were incapable of being equal due to strength, intellect etc. yet in  The Republic Plato writes that a woman's destiny was not decided by her biology, but by the cultural impositions of men, and that women should be included fully in political social and cultural life and that it was very possible they could become philosopher rulers.

This is the general trait of each chapter, as Cannadine exposes the paucity of, as Cannadine believes, the Manichean thinkers, and demonstrates time and again that there have always existed, and been prominent those who have sought to argue that our differences are indeed merely 'skin deep,' and that what unites across these great themes is greater than what divides us.  

Cannadine's view is basically an optimistic one, in which he, like Clinton, sees that whilst we accept there are differences, it is the similarities that overall show that they 'embody and express a broader sense of humanity that goes beyond our dis-similarities.' In his conclusion he quotes William H. McNeill's biography of Toynbee:

Humanity entire possesses a commonality which historians may hope to understand just as firmly as they can comprehend what unites any lesser group. Instead of enhancing intelligible world history might be expected to diminish the lethality of group encounters by cultivating a sense of individual identification with the triumphs and tribulations of humanity as a whole.

What makes this book great, Hugh Brogan suggested it might become Cannadine's masterpiece, is that it lays it all out in an easy to read and fast-paced style that doesn't seek to speak only to those who make the study of history, and the consequences of ignoring it, their lives, but to all who are motivated by understanding more about what makes the world what it is, the good and the bad.

Perhaps the most appropriate way to finish this review is to quote Maya Angelou's 'I shall not be moved' which Cannadine did right at the beginning of the book:

I note the obvious differences
Between each sort and type,
But we are more alike, my friends,
Than we are unalike.

Professor Sir David Cannadine is currently at Princeton University, having previously been at the University of London from 1998-2003 working at the Institute of Historical Research.

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