How frequently do most of us worry about how we will be viewed by history? Not often I would guess – despite the massive explosion in the amount of documentary evidence that we now accumulate about our lives (in digital photographs, blogs, Facebook pages, etc.) the vast majority of us, once we are dead, will quickly fall back into the anonymity of merely having been one among the teeming masses of humanity.
For the rich and powerful however, attempting to shape the opinions of those as yet unborn often seems to become a very high priority indeed. Some of their approaches can seem very oblique – for example Hitler planned his triumphal architecture at least in part on how impressive they would look as ruins after Nazism collapsed. In contrast Churchill took the most obvious route, as distilled in his quip, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” Indeed his history of the Second World War is kind to him, and is also a better work of literature than it is an accurate historical record. Partly this is caused by his attempts to distance himself from cock-ups and unpleasant decisions, and partly because he couldn’t reveal at that time the existence of the Ultra project that broke the German Enigma encryption devices – and information provided by Ultra influenced almost every major decision the Allies made, certainly towards the end of the war. (Incidentally, I consider the recent film based around Ultra and Alan Turing, ‘The Imitation Game’, to be as ahistorical as the notorious ‘Pearl Harbour’ and one of the worst films ever made, doing a gross disservice to everyone involved with Ultra.)
Dragging myself back to my original point, there was recently a brief discussion at Judith Curry’s excellent Climate Etc. blog on Barack Obama’s new deal with China on CO2 emissions. Steven Mosher made the point that the deal is a long shot by Obama to secure a place in history as the man who ‘saved the planet.’ The agreement is not legally binding, requires Obama to do nothing in his remaining time as President, and on the Chinese side only requires them to reduce emissions after they hit their upcoming demographic peak in 2030. It is the equivalent of an alcoholic agreeing to give up drinking after he is dead. Hence, I agree wholeheartedly with Steven that Obama’s motivation for signing the deal has far more to do with managing his reputation (in both the short and long term) than any practical desire to reduce emissions.
If you follow the link given above to the discussion, it becomes obvious that Steven and I ended up talking at a tangent. He concentrates on how Obama wants to control his reputation, while I focus on the fact that in the long term he’s doomed to failure. In fact it’s my strongly held belief that not only will none of us get out of life alive, but eventually and inevitably we will all have our reputations shredded too.
The reason is simple – most people judge their antecedents by the standards of their own time, not the contemporary standards that those people lived by. I think this is one of the great fallacies by which people judge the past – dismissing every Roman who ever lived as a slave-owning warmonger, or every Victorian male as a misogynistic racist. The number of honourable exceptions can become vanishingly small, for example even Alexander, who uniquely among the Greeks accepted the universality of humanity (instead of the normal rationale of ‘civilised’ Greeks vs Barbarian ‘others’), is routinely condemned now as a bloodthirsty warlord.
Some universal standards do survive the test of time – murder has always been murder. But even paedophilia has at various times and places been culturally acceptable. Cultural relativism, whether applied to the past or the present, is a terribly thorny problem. Who is to say whether in another hundred years or so the eating of animal meat will seem as repulsive as owning slaves (probably they’ll just grow it all in vats), or the individual rearing of one’s own children without continuous monitoring by child-rearing experts will seem slapdash and dangerous?
Everyone who now examines Churchill’s history in any detail knows how flawed it is, and reaches conclusions on Churchill’s character as a result. (I still consider him perhaps the greatest Englishman of all time.) And so despite the best efforts of such a charismatic and skilful man, he managed to directly influence how he was viewed for only a few decades following his death, and these efforts are now part of the historical record by which he is judged. For Obama it will be the same. He is sketching out a painting others will complete, and complete however they see fit.