JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to welcome our members and guests and thank you all for joining us for this afternoon's discussion with David Cannadine.
Professor Cannadine will be discussing his latest work, entitled The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences. This book is an expanded and rewritten version of the Trevelyan Lecture, which he delivered at Cambridge in 2007.
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers and scholars have all struggled to find answers to the question of who we are and who we are not. Although this may sound like a simple exercise, as with all narratives, the reality isn't so simple. The danger lies in that if we classify ourselves under a specific rubric, such as race or religion, we script our lives too narrowly and run the risk that injustice or even violence can occur, as has been witnessed in past decades.
In The Undivided Past, one of our most acclaimed historians provides a wise and provocative call to reexamine the way we look at history. He asks us to see the past not merely as a story of incessant conflict between groups, as historians have so often done, but of human solidarity throughout the ages. Professor Cannadine is not only interested in the way history gets written in the way it is made, but it is a dissonance between the two that seems to most capture his interest.
Accordingly, he investigates six of the most salient forms of identity, whether it be religion, nation, class, gender, race, or civilization, to see how determinative each of these groups have been in dividing people throughout the ages. In doing so, he helps us to reject the unquestioned assumption that from ancient times this conflict-based mode of thought is not as dramatically pervasive or divisive as some would have us believe. In fact, for most of recorded time, these identities have been quite fluid.
It isn't often that a work of history emerges that not only fundamentally refashions our understanding of the past but enables us to reassess the present and, with some luck, influence our future. The Undivided Past is one such example. While this book may not bring about world peace, Professor Cannadine exhorts us to overcome our differences, concentrate on exploring what brings us together, which in the end could give rise to a new era of global understanding.
Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest today. Sir David, thank you for joining us.
SIR DAVID CANNADINE: Joanne, thank you so much for that immensely kind and generous introduction, which has actually told everybody what is in this book, so I'm not sure that I have much left to say, really, since you've said it all so well.
Can I begin, if I may, with a quotation that exemplifies the way of looking at the world that I am very strongly arguing against in this book? Here it is, and you may not have difficulty guessing, on the basis of its rather idiosyncratic syntax, who the author of this quotation is: "When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who 'they' were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who 'them' was. Today we're not so sure who 'them' are, but we know they're still here." That's a quotation from President George W. Bush. [Laughter]
In the interest of even-handedness, I shall produce another quotation from another president later in this talk.
I quote that because its meaning, despite the tortured syntax, is actually plain. Here is a view of the world that assumes it to be binary, polarized, Manichean; built around single simple, collective identities that are coherent, unified, homogenous, and always, either latently or actually, in conflict. The presumption is that humanity is divided across a kind of unbridgeable divide of fear and hostility and antagonism.
That vision and version of a humanity simply sundered like this is offered by many political leaders and public figures—for example, George W. Bush—by many clerics and religious leaders, by many pundits and commentators, by academics, some academics in many disciplines, and by an increasingly strident media—the presumption that the world is understood in terms of us and them, the good guys versus the bad guys, a presumption that involves the talking up of identities and confrontations to make that picture of the world seem right.
It also assumes that the world must be understood on the basis of one single identity and one single conflict, either latent or actual; and that that single identity and that single conflict is more important than any or all others in understanding the world and the people who inhabit it; and that underlying such a view is a constructive narrative of any such collective solidarity that offers a kind of historical pedigree and antecedent for it.
It seems to me that it is important to point out that such a view of the world is based almost always on great rhetorical irresponsibility and excess and on serious factual and historical inaccuracy, because rarely in fact has human history worked like that. But it's an easy and lazy and irresponsible claim that it has and that it does, and it is also, of course, deeply pessimistic, if not indeed paranoid.
One of the greatest works of history, which I read a long time ago and was blown away by, was that wonderful essay by Richard Hofstadter called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." It is one of those rare works of history that has become more and more true as it has become more and more distant from the time when it was written. Pessimism and paranoia seem to me to be the besetting sins, along with polarization, of our public discourse, and that's a kind of alliterative combination that I think is deeply regrettable and against which I am trying to argue in this book of mine.
So let me suggest an alternative view and invoke another American president in support of the alternative view that I wish to offer. "The world often seems to be awash in divisions rooted in the human compulsion to believe our differences are more important than our common humanity. But in fact our common humanity is much more important than our interesting differences." That is not President George W. Bush, that is President Bill Clinton. I am bound to say, not just for any reason of partisan political loyalty, the book is written in part to bear out and illustrate and justify that much more optimistic and hopeful view of the human condition as it seems to me.
So what I am trying to argue here is that we are all in fact creatures of many varied and multiple identities, not one single, simple collective identity; and it is the variety of identities, in a curious way, that is the one thing all humanity most has in common. I think the claims that one single identity is more important than all others or any others is a deeply misleading and oversimplifying way of understanding the human condition; and these single identities, such as they are, are in any case, in practice, when looked at and investigated in any detail, at best incoherent and often impossible to define.
Moreover, there has always been, and there is now, another story to tell, which is that people have got on across time with many conversations taking place across these allegedly impermeable boundaries of identity, in the name, whether they know it or not, of the sense of common humanity and neighborliness, which is in fact a far more important story of the human past and present, and I hope future, than it is often given credit for.
Insofar as this book has inspiration—that is to say ideas from other people that I could run with myself in a slightly different way from how they were using them—it draws on the work, for example, of that wonderful historian of the present, Timothy Garton Ash; of Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, who sees in the British Museum a museum that is devoted to the conversations and interconnections between different cultures across time. It draws on the works of philosophers such as Amartya Sen and Anthony Appiah, who have worked very much on these issues of identities and the easy way in which they can be misconceived. And it also draws very much on the work of Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Amongst a rather heavy diet of academic authorities, here is Maya Angelou: "I note the obvious differences between each form and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike"—a very deft riposte, as it seems to me, to the words of George Bush.
It seems to me that the real job of academics, some of whom have helped to create the narratives of these identities, single identities, often latently or actually in conflict, the real job of academics is not so much to reinforce these identifies as to question them and undermine them and suggest that the world hasn't worked like that, and politicians shouldn't conduct the affairs of their countries on the assumption it works like that now.
Here are some words of Sir Michael Howard, formerly Regius Professor of Modern History in Oxford: "History that challenges the comfortable assumptions and providential narratives of shared group identity may be painful, but it is also a sign of maturity and wisdom."
Well, I don't offer myself tonight as a sage full of maturity and wisdom. That would be pushing things perhaps a little far. Nevertheless, my book is in a sense a plea that that's the way we ought to try to understand how the world has worked, how identities have worked, where we are, and where we are going. In the course of this book, I have tried to do that by examining what seem to me to be the six most resonant forms of collective human identity around which many people believe individuals understand themselves and which form often the basis for very severe conflict.
They are religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization. I am only going to talk briefly about two of them, religion and civilization. Otherwise we would be here all evening.
When I was at elementary school, I remember reading a lesson at a church service that I've never forgotten. It came from the Gospel According to St. Matthew. It began with the words, "And He shall set the sheep on his right hand and the goats on the left." It was an account in Matthew's gospel of what was going to happen when the Day of Judgment came, and the whole of humanity was going to be simply divided between the sheep, as it were, who were fine, and the goats, who were not fine.
The sheep were going to head to heaven and the goats were going to head to hell and perdition. It was a very simple Manichean division of the world, which terrified me, as a boy of eight or nine or ten, as I then was. I could not understand what possible basis there could be for dividing human nature that way, that definitely, with ghastly prospects for those who got on the wrong side of this divide. I dare to say that, many years later, I am still rather taken with the view that I formed at that age.
"He that is not with me is against me," is another version of exactly that view, that the world is very simply and starkly divided, and the Bible offers evidence for those who wish to take that view of the world, the evidence being that which I've just provided, of which there is plenty more, that there is a very simple division in the world between those who are good and Christian and those who are wicked and non-Christian. The first lot are the privileged people who will head to heaven, and the second lot are the damned who will head to hell. And that's the way to understand the world. "He that is not with me is against me."
Well, that seems to me, I'm bound to say, to be a deeply oversimplified view of the complexities of the human condition, even if one signs up for the Christian religion. Of course, what is also interesting is that's not the only way in which humankind is advised to behave in the pages of the gospel. There is also the notion of kindness of strangers. There is the notion of loving thy neighbor. There is the notion of turning the other cheek. There is the sense that we do owe it to others to do unto them as we would wish they did unto us. It's rather interesting that the New Testament is shot through with that tension as to how one should behave on the basis of signing up for Christian belief.
Of course, for my purposes it is hugely interesting because it's my contention that it's very easy to argue that the world is divided on the basis of antagonistic religious identities, whereas it seems to me that, on the contrary, in practice it's the other way of thinking about religion that has often been more important, although perhaps it has had less attention.
So in the course of the chapter on religion, which opens with a rather better-turned account of the Gospel According to St. Matthew than that which I have just given, what I've tried to examine is three examples of religious identities apparently locked in conflict. These would appear to bear out at first glance that description in St. Matthew's gospel, the Manichean view of the world, "He that is not with me is against me."
The first of those is pagans and Christians, the famous antithesis that Edward Gibbon develops and explores in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that Christianity is one of the two things—I'll come to the other later—that undermines Rome, and that simple polarity between Christianity and pagans is a well-worked-out example. So we might want to think of faiths in conflict.
But actually, if one reads Gibbon with some care, it isn't that simple. Gibbon was much more nuanced about the nature of paganism and about the nature of Christianity and, indeed, about the nature of the relationship between these religions than that very simple reading of him would suggest.
Moreover, it is absolutely clear, on the basis of the work that historians have more recently done, that the world of late antiquity is a far more complicated one in which very often, in places such as large parts of North Africa or cities such as Antioch, Christians and pagans coexisted and got on and lived and conversed, literally and metaphorically, across these allegedly impermeable boundaries of religious identity. Christianity, from this perspective, was not inimical to Rome; it was in fact part of the Roman legacy at a medieval era.
Or, in the light of last week, something that we're back with again, Christianity versus Islam. Again, it is in Gibbon because Gibbon takes his fall of the Roman Empire all the way through to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. And it is certainly true, nobody could deny, that part of the history of Europe from AD 700 or thereabouts through to AD 1700 or thereabouts involves confrontations between Islam and Christianity, from the Battle of Poitiers to the Battle of Lepanto and beyond.
But, then as now, that's not the whole story, and it never was the whole story. The Mediterranean may on occasions have been the setting for set-piece battles between these two allegedly clashing religions. But the history of the Mediterranean also is a history of constant collaboration and interconnection and interaction on the basis of trade and on the basis of culture. After all, it's in the eighth and the ninth centuries that ancient Greek authors were translated first into Arabic and then into Latin, and it is via that route that most of Western Europe later on learned about Ancient Greece.
Even in the period of the Crusades, relations between Christianity and Islam and between Christian leaders and Islamic leaders were exceptionally complicated. All the way around the Mediterranean, in cities such as Alexandria, Aleppo, Jaffa, Beirut, Smyrna, Salonika, and Istanbul, Jews and Muslims and Christians constantly got on, did business, talked to each other. Again, we want to be very careful about talking about an eternal, perpetual conflict between Christianity and Islam, which seems to me deeply and fundamentally to misrepresent what has on the whole been the general nature of that relationship.
The third example here is, of course, Catholics and Protestants in early modern Europe—religious wars. There is no third way one forgets that at this point. It is once again God versus the devil, "He that is not with me is against me," and in the words of the great historian Keith Thomas, reviewing some books on this period, this way of seeing things offers a salutary warning of the tragic consequences that follow when the world is envisaged as a cosmic battleground on which opposed forces of good and evil contend for supremacy.
Even in this period of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in the early modern period, there is ample evidence of a whole other way of thinking about religion, thinking about humanity, and of people conducting their own lives. Transylvania and Poland-Lithuania both had constitutions that were religiously tolerant during this period. Protestants and Catholics often found themselves in alliance, depending on how the politics of warfare in this period worked out. People did live with their neighbors, even if they were of different religions. They even shared the same church on occasions.
In any case, then as now and then as before, religion has never been the only single identity that people have embraced that determines all their behavior and how they live all their lives.
I could make the same case about the nation. If one thinks of "I Vow to Thee, My Country," the hymn that was sung at Margaret Thatcher's funeral only a week ago, the claim that one's national identity is more important than any other—well, maybe sometimes, but most of the time I suspect not. Against that one might put a quotation from the French historian Ernst Renan, "Being a nation means getting your history wrong," by which he meant that the process of being a nation means constructing a historical narrative that is bound to be deeply selective.
Or take class. The history of all hitherto-existing society is the history of class struggles, according to Karl Marx. Well, it can't be that if it's about nations or if it's about religion. They can't all be right. Very few people today I think would now agree with Marx's claim that the history of all hitherto-existing society is, as I would want to put it, the history of class identities and class struggles.
Here is Gareth Stedman Jones, himself once a Marxist but no more. "Much of what was first put forward in The Communist Manifesto and later accepted as a common sense understanding of the making of the modern world and patterns of human behavior belongs more to the realm of mythology than of fact."
Or take gender. Germaine Greer: "Before you are of any race, nationality, religion, party, or family, you are a woman." Well, it's not for me to say, but I'm quoting her saying that.
But is that right? Well, here is an Oxford University Press publication called Feminism: A Very Short Introduction, which has this quotation: "Contrary to the best interests of sisterhood, not all women share identical interests." [Laughter]
But in support, as it were, oddly, of Germaine Greer, I could cite John Gray: "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus." Now there's a binary, dichotomized view of the world, if ever there was one. Is that a sensible way of thinking about the world? I don't think it is.
Here is Bernice Reagon with a rather different view: "Every time you see a woman, you are looking at a human being who is like you in only one respect but may be totally different from you in three or four or several others."
Or take race. Here is Robert Knox in the 1840s, "That race is in human affairs everything is simply a fact, the most remarkable, the most comprehensive, which philosophy has announced," and in case his meaning wasn't plain, he went on to say, "Race is everything."
Well, can that be true if class is everything, or if gender is everything, or if nation is everything, or religion is everything? It's hard to see how that's kind of going to work.
Here is Jacques Barzun in a wonderfully prescient observation in 1937: "Race," he said, "on the contrary, is a superstition on a par with horoscopes. A satisfactory definition of race is simply not to be had." A brilliant and prescient observation in the light of more recent work on the Human Genome Project, which has pointed out that 99.9 percent of the genes of a so-called black person are the same as the genes of a white person.
A bit more fully then to civilization, the last of my six categories, the most capacious of all antitheses and identities, civilization versus barbarism or civilization versus civilization, and back in a kind of convenient way to where I started with Edward Gibbon. Of course, on a superficial reading, the second great antithesis around which The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is organized, in addition to Christians versus pagans, is civilization versus barbarism. As Gibbon sees it, it is barbarism that produces disaster and catastrophe and brings to an end the most highly civilized society that, up until that point, the world had ever seen.
But again, Gibbon is, of course, in practice, notwithstanding the beguilingly beautiful prose, much more nuanced than that simple reading would suggest. Gibbon never actually thought that Imperial Rome was wholly civilized; he thought it had become in fact degenerate and was suffering from the excesses of immoderate greatness.
He also, of course, conceded that the barbarians were far too varied and diverse to be reduced to one single, simple, coherent, monolithic identity. There were Vandals, Ostrogoths, Huns, Franks, Persians, Arabs, and Turks. It is certainly true again that modern historians have corroborated Gibbon's much more nuanced account of the fall of the Roman Empire, rather than the simplistic one—not two monolithic groups slugging it out for the future but in fact diversity and variety and accommodation and assimilation.
The Gibbonian paradigm has largely vanished from the period to which, perhaps superficially, it was first applied, so we probably shouldn't apply it anywhere else either.
And so, of course, to Samuel Huntington and The Clash of Civilizations. His book again is perhaps a little bit more nuanced than some of his friends or enemies give it credit for. Nevertheless, it is clear that the argument in his book was that the fault lines between civilizations would be the battle lines of the future—the West, Islam, and China. That notion of the clash of civilizations was instantly appropriated to give apparently the explanation for the events of 9/11.
But it has to be said that Huntington's book provides a grotesquely simplified and irresponsible version of reality. For example, he says that India is a Hindu civilization, despite the fact that there are more Muslims living in India than in any country in the world except Pakistan and Indonesia. And he produces a set of maps to suggest that there are these civilizations whose history he doesn't seem able in fact to explain, which are deeply antagonistic to each other and where there are no connections or conversations across the boundaries of identity at all, which seems to me and seems to many other to be a deeply oversimplified account of how actually the world works.
The concept of civilization is enormously seductive. It is impossible to define. Dr. Johnson back in the late 18th century said we really shouldn't use the word "civilization" at all. Well, I think there is no chance of, as it were, forgetting the word that has been around now for the best part of 200 years. But it is important to notice that as a concept, as a version of identity, civilization doesn't survive serious scrutiny. And to the extent that people talk about them, it is important to notice that in practice relations between civilizations are interactive and accommodational rather than, on the whole, conflicting and confrontational.
So that's what I've tried to talk about in this book, that these identities, which are so easily resorted to, are in practice rarely as homogenous or monolithic as is claimed; that the claims to uniformity and all-inclusiveness—Christians, Muslims, men, women —aren't actually true. Since each of them claims their particular identity is more important than any other, they can't all be right, and I suspect the answer is that none of them are right. The notion that there is one single, simple identity that determines who we are seems to me grotesquely oversimplified.
Human relations are extremely messy. They are not primarily Manichean at all, but they are about blending, borrowing, interacting, and interconnecting. A divided past is in fact only part of the human story. It may be the one that makes the headlines, but, arguably, it's not the only one and it's probably not the most important one either.
Let me end with a few more quotations which I hope will bear this out.
Here is Roy Jenkins in his last speech in the House of Lords, commenting on that: "The prime minister is a little Manichean for my perhaps now jaded taste—seeing matters in stark terms of good and evil, black and white, contending with each other, and with the consequent and naïve belief that if evil is cast down, good will inevitably follow."
And here is George W. Bush once again, his farewell broadcast as president: "I have often spoken to you about good and evil, and this has made some people uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two of them, there can be no compromise."
And here is Barack Obama instead: "The Middle East," he said in a speech, "is not where West and East divide but where they come together. The interests that we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart."
If you want an even pithier quotation that exemplifies that view, which I have tried to justify in this book, it is from Winston Churchill. "Jaw, jaw," he said, "is always better than war, war." Well, since Churchill was arguably the greatest orator of the 20th century and one of the finest war leaders of the 20th century, he was well placed to draw that comparison, and that is what he said.
My point then essentially is this, and with this I'll stop: The world is not simple. The world is complex, and we ignore those complexities at our peril. And it is the job, it seems to me, of responsible journalists and of responsible political leaders and of responsible scholars to say the world is very complicated, and people who say the world is very simple—simple built around binary divisions—should not be trusted, should not be believed, and should not be voted into office.
I am for common humanity, I am for nuance, and I am for hope, and I am very delighted to have had the chance to come to this organization, which believes in those things, too, to reinforce its message tonight. Thank you.
QUESTION: Kim Gantz-Wexler. May I ask you to quote Winston Churchill again? I didn't understand the first part.
SIR DAVID CANNADINE: The Churchill quote is, "Jaw, jaw, is always better than war, war." He meant speaking, talking, conversation. And as I said, Churchill was one of the greatest talkers of the 20th century and one of the greatest war leaders, and he was well placed to draw that comparison.
It's rather interesting. Churchill is like Shakespeare; he is full of quotations, as it were. But that quotation of Churchill's is very rarely used. The quotations of Churchill's that are always used are, "Never give in to aggression"; "Outface dictators"; "Let's go to war."
But actually, although Churchill was a very accomplished war leader, he really didn't like it, and he actually thought conversation, on the whole, was a better way to proceed. But that Churchill we don't ever hear much about, which is rather regrettable, since the advice seems to be well worth taking.
JOANNE MYERS: Let me ask a question. This is all wonderful, and it's good that you can bring this to our attention. But do you have any ideas about how we can make more people look at these issues and come together instead of be separated?
SIR DAVID CANNADINE: Well, actually, no. [Laughter] But let me elaborate on "no," since that's not a very helpful answer.
I found myself at a party at Princeton just before Christmas, and Neil Rudenstine was there. Neil asked me what I was writing. You know that one description of a bore is when you ask someone how they are, they tell you. Well, the description of a boring author is when you ask them what they're writing, they tell you.
So I told Neil what this book was about. Neil said, "Oh, I think that's terrific. I think it really needs saying, but I must warn you, nobody will take any notice." [Laughter]
Well, I hope that's not true. But that rather reinforces your point, in a way. I don't know.
I am deeply concerned about the fact that it seems to me, for a variety of reasons, we do in particular now, in a way that I think was not true 20-30 years ago, live in a world with an astonishingly polarized media. I think there are a variety of explanations for that, one of which in this country is that the legislation which obliged networks to be evenhanded was repealed, I think, 10 or 20 years ago. Another is, of course, that newspapers are all worried that they're going out of business, so they make their headlines more and more strident in the hope that people will keep buying them.
I think that the result of that is that, as it were, the invitation constantly to see the world in very simplified terms is one that is being extended, in my view wholly regrettably, more and more and more.
What's to be done about that? I don't know. You couldn't run a political campaign saying, "I'm for nuance." I mean I am, that's what this book is about. But how we're to make progress on that, I don't know.
QUESTION: My name is Herman Schalper. I'm from the Netherlands.
How do you look at situations where there's a lack of identity? For instance, in Europe, there are very good political, financial, and economic reasons to come together more and more. But one of the fundamental problems is there is a lack of European identity, and people don't identify themselves as European, and on that basis it is very difficult to build a democratic structure. When people have a choice, they would rather go for national identity than for European identity, although in the longer term it is against their interests. How to solve that?
SIR DAVID CANNADINE: I entirely agree with that. Of course, your country has a much better record on this than my country does. In a sense, the fact that the British are the worst Europeans of any European nation, so bad they don't want to be called Europeans at all—there was this famous cartoon in the 19th century in a British newspaper: "Fog in Channel. Continent cut off." [Laughter]
That sense that Europe is kind of over there and they jabber away in strange languages and we should just let them get on with it is, I am afraid, still deeply powerful in Britain. But in part it bears out the points I was making.
The British still haven't got over the Second World War. While I am glad that they were on the winning side, it is time they moved on. They're still fighting 1940 again, and the continent is full of wicked people who speak foreign languages and have tyrannical inclinations. The Brussels bureaucracy is now presented as that in a right-wing media that is deeply strident, deeply antagonistic, and presents it constantly in that way.
Whereas, of course, the great European success story, as it seems to me, which you cannot get the time of day for in the British press, is Germany after 1945. The caliber of leaders in Germany after 1945 surpasses that of any other Western country, certainly Britain. But you could not get the time of day for that in a British newspaper.
So it is certainly true that there is this media presentation of plucky Britain against this ghastly Goliath monolith of Europe, which is part of the trouble that you identified in your question. And I think it is, not entirely but to a substantial degree, the creation of a very irresponsible media. Britain is now going to have another referendum on whether it should stay in Europe or not.
If I were, as it were, a European in your country rather than a European in Britain, I would have lost patience with Britain years ago. I have to say I find it all deeply deplorable.
QUESTION: I am Bryn Roberts Cohen.
Although I am not that well informed about religion, in a sense I've always believed that if one believes in God, it's somewhat talking about the universality and the oneness of the world and mankind. So in light of that, I find it difficult to in any way bring together the feelings that religion is doing anything whatsoever good in the world in the larger sphere. I think in a very personal way it might. Do you see any hope for anything happening that will be good with these divisions?
SIR DAVID CANNADINE: I think this is not unique to Christianity, though. I am not sufficiently expert on other religions to be able to talk about them with any plausibility whatever, but I do think it is true of Christianity and I think it is true of Islam—if you read certain of the foundational texts for it, you can produce the notion of a militant, warlike, crusading religion against the infidel. On this basis, he that is not with me is against me.
But I do think it is also true, as I tried to suggest, in Christianity and in Islam, that there is another argument about common humanity and about loving thy neighbor—the good Samaritan. This seems to me a much more appealing one, though, which I think has received, certainly in the aftermath of 9/11 and so on, much less ventilation than it should have done and that in other contexts perhaps it does.
It is also certainly the case—and I go into this at some length in the chapter on race—that although the religious chapter perhaps might be thought to be rather hostile to religion because of the ways in which it has been used to justify antagonism, torture, execution, heresy, being burned at the stake, the Inquisition, all that stuff which seems to be completely deplorable, on the other hand, it is certainly the case that the alternative, or an alternative, Christian view that all men are brothers—we would now say that all women are sisters—that we are all equal in God's sight, of course, underpinned what seemed to me to be some of the best things that Christianity did in the 20th century, which was its attack on apartheid and racial regimes, because it thought that that was going against the Christian view that all people are equal in the sight of God.
You will not be surprised to know that I am rather, as it were, in favor of that. But I am not in favor of religions that say, "Here's an elect group with a hot line to a deity, and everybody else is at best damned, at worst infidel, and they should be burned at the stake." I think that is a completely deplorable way of thinking about humanity.
I've never forgotten, I must repeat, this lesson that I read when I was eight or nine about sheep and goats, "Depart ye cursed into everlasting fire," I remember. This is not a sensible way to think about our fellow human beings. It really isn't, and it is put to wicked use.
QUESTION: My name is Jennifer Tavis.
I was curious to hear your views on why the us-versus-them narrative seems to be so much more powerful and pervasive in the world as we know it than nuance. Why is nuance laughable when combative language is so prevalent?
SIR DAVID CANNADINE: It is partly for the reasons I've already broached, that I think simple views of the world do have a kind of appeal because they offer, in my view mistakenly, the claim that they make complexity comprehensible. That's called simplification. Us-versus-them seems a very easy way to do it. I think, in a world of mass media, more strident media, there's a constant pressure to see the world that way.
It's very easy. It puts us on the right side, and that seems kind of appealing. But as an account of how the world has generally operated, and as an account of the world in which we are now, I do think it is deeply, to put it at its politest, deeply regrettable.
But back to, Joanne, your question—what's to be done about it?—I don't quite know. I'm a historian. I've only ever made one political prediction, which was in 1989 that Margaret Thatcher would be in power for another 10 years. So I've given up predictions as a result of that.
I suppose my claim would be that what I've tried to do in this book is to clear the ground or at least to make the case that these Manichean views of the world are misleading, inaccurate, and historically more often than not invalid. I would like to think that I've succeeded at least in opening up that set of issues for discussion and I would hope, more than that, have made that case.
What organizations, such as Carnegie, think you can do off the back of that is, if it were up to you—and I don't say that as a pop-out. I do say that because I would like to think that this book might have some influence, notwithstanding the words of Neil Rudenstine. But I suppose I feel as a historian that doing the past is about as much as I can cope with, and the present and the future are up to you. [Laughter]
QUESTION: I want to question your emphasis on the mass media because it seems to me that you're dealing with a very powerful empirical phenomenon. After all, we can go back in history to, let's say, after Islam tried to conquer Christianity, and then there were the Crusades in which the Christians tried to conquer the Muslims, and then you had the Thirty Years' War in which the Protestants and the Catholics tried to kill each other. Then you had World War I more recently in which nations struggled.
So it seems to me this is a very, very powerful empirical phenomenon. I wonder if you have some kind of explanation for it. You're arguing against it. But why is it so persistent, and why is it so deep and so important in human affairs?
SIR DAVID CANNADINE: In saying it has become very important of late, I am obviously not wanting to say that it hasn't been important earlier, and indeed, the episodes that you just recounted are treated in this book of mine at considerable length, along with others. Part of the point of the treatment that they get is to say that even at the times when these conflicts were going on, actually a lot of other things were going on that weren't conflict, and that one of the problems is that the non-conflictual modes of human interactions are to historians like good news is to journalists: They just take it for granted and don't write about it. My point actually is we ought not to take it for granted, and we ought to write about it.
So my reply to your question would be I don't contest the conflict. I don't contest the fact that people have said the world is divided in the ways that you've talked about and I've talked about. My point is that those claims are never wholly true and, moreover, that's not the whole of the truth of what was going on even at the time when those claims were being made. That is something is not said often enough.
Beyond that, I think another point that I would want to make about where we are today is the following, and it's slightly off the back of the point I was making in answer to the question about Britain and Europe. One of the things that I think we remain—and by "we" in this instance I certainly mean Britain and I certainly mean America, though I don't think, for instance, I mean the Netherlands—one of the things that Britain and America, not all Britons and all Americans but certainly some of them, remain enthralled to is, in a broader way than just plucky Britain in 1940, the Second World War, which is seen, in my view more rightly than wrongly but not wholly rightly, as the good war when we, the good guys—that is to say the British and the Americans—beat the bad guys—that is to say the Germans and the Japanese. It was a heroic war in pursuit of noble aims, freedom against tyranny, and the good guys won, and so it came out right.
That's the general view. But being allied with the Russians doesn't entirely square with that. People in Dresden certainly wouldn't have seen it that way. Arguably, people in Russia wouldn't have seen it that way, and Japanese-Americans locked up by FDR wouldn't have seen it that way. Nevertheless, notwithstanding that, there is a case that it was a good war, fought for good ends, if not necessarily always by noble means or with good allies.
I think that view has remained hugely powerful. It is the view of the world—notice it is a Manichean view of the world—that is endlessly recycled to justify Korea, perhaps properly; Vietnam, I think less plausibly; and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, as in those quotations I gave, that this is another cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil, like the Second World War.
Well, actually, they are not cosmic struggles between the forces of good and evil. In that sense, the Second World War was actually a great aberration, to the extent that it was a good war, notwithstanding your modifications and mine. That's another reason, I think, why the Manichean mode is such a popular one, because the Second World War seems justified, and therefore, the temptation to present subsequent wars as if it's like the Second World War all over again, temptations to which both Blair and Bush completely succumbed, as those quotations I gave suggest, is a temptation that ought to be fought and ought to be resisted.
QUESTION: Allen Young.
To some extent this relates to what you just said, but the comments of Winston Churchill about warring and jawing were made in the 1950s. He wasn't making those comments in 1938. It was Neville Chamberlin who was talking about jawing and not warring. I think history has to judge, as between the two men, Winston Churchill got it right and Neville Chamberlin got it wrong.
SIR DAVID CANNADINE: I am not making that case. I am far from denying, as I've said, that there's plenty of conflict in the past. My point is there's lot of other things, too, and you can quote me Churchill as long as you want and I can quote Churchill even longer. But the point remains valid that the Churchill who is always quoted is the Churchill of fighting tyranny, but in practice, for most of his political career Churchill was a far more accommodating figure, and he believed in conversation.
My point, of course, is that Churchill was endlessly quoted at the time of the Iraq War as if Blair and Bush knew what Churchill would have thought. There is no cause to think necessarily that Churchill would have said this man is Hitler, we must fight them all again. That was exactly Anthony Eden's misjudgment of Nasser in 1956. He said Nasser was another Hitler. Well, that wasn't true.
So I wholly agree, as I sought to point out, that the war against Germany was, on balance, a good war, and I'm glad we won. But it nevertheless is very unusual in being describable in those terms, and I think it has been misused by subsequent people in the ways that I've said, and I think that's very regrettable.
QUESTION: Michael Schmerin.
You are talking about a strident and polarizing media, and as a historian, you're not going to tell us how to deal with it going forward. But as a historian, is the media that much more strident and polarizing in the 21st century than it was in the 20th and 19th centuries or prior?
SIR DAVID CANNADINE: I think it's very hard to compare things like that over time. I think it's certainly possible to argue that even now the media is more deferential than it was in the era of Rowlandson and Gillray when cartoons and caricatures were produced that would make people blush today. So one could possibly make that argument.
I think that one of the other ways of thinking about the issue of the media is it's hard to know whether it's more strident or not. What it certainly is possible to know and to say is that it's more pervasive. That is to say we live in a world now of electronic communication, so that you can get access to this stuff all the time in a way that's to say the world of 24/7 news, and that did not exist more than 20 or 30 years ago. That does seem to me to be the serious difference.
Let me give you one example of this. I was at the Huntington Library on a visiting fellowship two years ago, and since it was California, I thought I had better do what people in Rome do and join a gym. So I joined a gym and went frequently. One of the things that joining this gym meant was that when I got on a treadmill, there was a set of television screens. One of those television screens was Fox News, not my normal diet, I would say.
I thought to myself, there are millions of people whose apprehension of reality is based on Fox News. Now, that's a degree of media intrusiveness and saturation of a kind that has not existed before the 1980s or 1990s at the most.
In the interest of evenhandedness, I suppose I ought to say that there was also MSNBC on there, and there will be some people who would regard that as deplorable too.
So I think that the intrusiveness and ubiquity, pervasiveness, 24/7-ness of the media is something that is new and is different and unique in human history, because it didn't exist before the 1980s or 1990s. We kind of don't yet know what the consequences of that are, but I think they are going to turn out to be very important.
For example, I am very intrigued by the fact that the Great Depression of 1929-1933 was not played out against a 24/7 news background. I suspect that that is going to turn out to be very important, because performance of markets depends in large part on confidence, and what does the media spend all its time doing in terms of this issue over the last four years? It keeps telling us that everything is getting worse all the time.
I think it will be very interesting to compare the media treatment of 1929 to 1933 with the media treatment of 2008 to whenever it's going to end, because I do think this—we kind of just take it for granted now, but suppose we ask ourselves what's the impact of all this. Well, it's hard to measure, but I cannot think it isn't important.
QUESTION: My name is Masood Khan from Pakistan.
Thank you so much for this talk. This was very fascinating. I endorse your views, your thesis in fact, and I hope that it gets the attention that it deserves amongst wider audiences.
First, an observation. This is about Muslims. Ninety-nine percent of Muslims are not jihadis. They do not wave jihad. It's just a fringe that speaks in the name of Islam and hijacks it and creates these perceptions through the media that all Muslims are violent. Ninety-nine point ninety-nine percent of Muslims, they go about their life like other ordinary citizens all around the world. They have aspirations about education, good health, livelihoods, jobs. But this is not reality about Islam.
I think it is true of other religions too. I know that there is less militancy in other religions. But there is political manipulation of religion in other religions.
My questions are three. One is that after this extensive study that you have done, what is your conclusion, that the world is more divided today or more united?
The second question is what is the reason, in your view, of the recent ascendency of religions and their influence on politics?
The third is what is your prescription for a solution. Relying on the historical data that you have seen and as you have synthesized it, do you think that these matter for today or a correlative that can join nations, bring them closer?
SIR DAVID CANNADINE: Thank you for that. I, of course, wholly agree with your opening remarks about Islam, and I think it's doing nobody any favors to to pretend that Islam is full of terrorists. It seems to me a deeply irresponsible way to think about things.
Insofar as I have a religion, I am a member of the Church of England, and somebody in the 18th century said that the purpose of the Church of England was to provide those conduits by which the seas of religious fanaticism were diverted into the lagoons of religious moderation. [Laughter] Enough of that.
Your first question, do I think the world is more united or divided? I don't know, but in a sense it is back to the point that was raised in the question over here that not only do we now have 24/7 news, but it's entirely global. So we have a sense of a global world, I suppose, far greater than we used to have, because you just turn on BBC World News over breakfast, and there it is. So I suppose in that sense we may have a slightly more vivid sense of the fact that we're all here on this globe together, because that is beamed into our homes every day in a way that, again, before the 1980s, it wasn't. On the other hand, a great deal of the beaming into our homes is built around conflict, so I am not sure I can do any better than that.
Now, what was your second question?
QUESTIONER: The ascendency of religion.
SIR DAVID CANNADINE: Yes. I do think that is, again, a hugely interesting question. Two stories here.
In 1968, Kenneth Clark made that wonderful series Civilisation. I have never forgotten that there is one episode called "The Smile of Reason," and it was about the European Enlightenment. It was a very, as we would now say, Eurocentric series, but Kenneth Clark had a ton of money by the standard of the time and could film anywhere. The final part of that program on "The Smile of Reason" was filmed in Jefferson's Virginia. The claim was that the United States of America was a nation created on Enlightenment principles. And one of the signs of that, Clark argued, was the complete separation of church and state and the fact that religion wasn't important.
Well, you wouldn't make a program on America now and say that, which bears out your question. It doesn't answer it but it bears it out.
By the same token, it has been very interesting to have lived long enough, as I now have, to have observed the shift from what in the 1950s and 1960s was called Arab nationalism, which was throwing out the British and trying to throw out the Americans, to what is now called Islamic fundamentalism, which shifts it from, as it were, a secular wish for national independence, from that to something much more religiously motivated.
So it is absolutely clear—I am reinforcing your question rather than providing an answer to it, I suppose—that in recent times, if one takes religion in this country or if one takes some element of Islam—as you rightly say, only some element of it—then religion has become much more important again. Why that is, I don't know, except to say that, historically speaking, it is certainly true in this country that there is a kind of pendulum that swings back and forth. One thinks of the new awakening earlier, but there is a pendulum that swings back and forth for religious enthusiasm and then, if not religious indifference, then religious quiescence.
I think one could make that case about Islam, probably over a longer time frame as well. But what determines the dynamic and the timing of those pendulum swings, I have to say I am not well placed to answer.
You had a third question.
QUESTIONER: Something that you would suggest could unify the world, back to the same question.
SIR DAVID CANNADINE: Yes. Well, that's the Carnegie Council's job, I think.
JOANNE MYERS: And that's where we end to begin the conversation, ready to continue it. Thank you so much, Sir David. It really was terrific.
SIR DAVID CANNADINE: Thank you very much.