2020: the historians’ verdict

From debates about colonialism to the lessons of previous pandemics, history has repeatedly made the headlines this year. We assembled a panel of experts to discuss the ways history has shaped 2020 – and how the events of this momentous year should change our understanding of the past | Interview by Matt Elton

2020_verdict

About the panel

Kerri Greenidge An assistant professor in the department of studies in race, colonialism, and diaspora at Tufts University, Massachusetts, Greenidge’s most recent book is Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter (Liveright Norton, 2019), which was shortlisted for this year’s Cundill History Prize.

Tom Holland Holland is a historian, broadcaster and the author of books including Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown, 2019). He has just finished a translation for Penguin Classics of Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars.

Suzannah Lipscomb Professor of history at the University of Roehampton, Lipscomb is an author and broad- caster. Her books include The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex, and Marriage in Reformation Languedoc (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Michael Wood Wood is a historian, filmmaker and broadcaster, and professor of public history at the University of Manchester. He is the monthly columnist for BBC History Magazine, and his most recent book is The Story of China: A Portrait of a Civilisation and its People (Simon & Schuster, 2020).

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Matt Elton: The past year has been extraordinary. Which news stories have stood out for you as historians?

Michael Wood: There’s an apocryphal Chinese saying – “may you live in interesting times” – and it’s been a fascinating year if you’re interested in history. Coronavirus has, of course, been huge news. And the Black Lives Matter movement is vitally important, not only in its own right but as part of a wider revolt against the political and intellectual establishment encoded in the 19th century and the view of history that underwrote it.

Of course, the biggest history story is climate change, which is rapidly becoming a catastrophe. It affects everything, and no event is more serious, but it’s been masked this year by other, utterly remarkable stories.

Tom Holland: Environmental degradation clearly remains a huge story – and not just climate change, either, but also the ongoing process of mass extinction, and the encroachment of humans on to reaches of the world previously immune to such encroachment. Of course, that’s partly what led to the pandemic, and the onset of zoonotic viruses and pandemics is part of a trend that we can expect to recur in the future.

Another story is the ongoing rise of China and, more generally, the rise of a multi-polar world. The pandemic has brought home to us the way in which, as the west’s economic, military and political power retreats, so too does its cultural power. This year has demonstrated to us that the assumption the west has been able to enjoy for at least 200 years – that what it thinks and argues, and its values, problems and issues, will have an impact on the rest of the world – is no longer the case. Indeed, I have a rather different perspective on Black Lives Matter which is how specific to the west, and Anglo-America, it is. It makes no sense at all to other parts of the world.

A protester in London in August 2020.
A protester in London in August 2020. “Black Lives Matter has had an instant impact in the UK,” argues Michael Wood. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Kerri Greenidge: On the contrary, I think that the events of 2020 have demonstrated the need, at this moment in world history, to recognise that movements around the world, such as Black Lives Matter’s stand against racial capitalism, are not localised. They are global. Even though they are led by particular groups of people – specifically African-descended and African-American people in the Movement for Black Lives in the United States, for instance – they have global repercussions.

There’s a reason why people in parts of Asia, Africa, eastern Europe and the Caribbean were waving Black Lives Matter banners at the start of this summer. We are in a moment in which everything is global, and in which the world as a whole is experiencing crises. I think that if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t see the planet in terms of local issues or of ‘west vs east’. If one country doesn’t participate, it’s going to have an effect on the entire world.

So I hope that what emerges as we try to tackle these issues is the notion that every action taken locally has a global economic, political and cultural impact. We can no longer take the provincial view that, for instance, the recent protests against police brutality in Nigeria somehow have no link to what’s happening across the rest of the world.

Suzannah Lipscomb: In many ways, 2020 will unfortunately come to be seen as a year in which many things fell apart. One hopes that they can be picked up and made better, but it’s not yet entirely clear how that’s going to happen. One of the effects of the pandemic is impoverishment across the world. I don’t think we’ve seen the full consequences of that yet. It isn’t just about how many people die, but how many are going to have their lives devastated; we’ve been very short-termist so far.

It’s going to have a huge effect on the arts, heritage, music and theatre, and those sectors aren’t easily going to recover. They matter a great deal to our sense of self and our collective, shared imaginations. The effect of the pandemic on heritage and the Black Lives Matter movement are linked by the question of how we come to terms with difficult aspects of our past. Are we reaching a point of reckoning with subjects such as colonialism and slavery, and their legacy? There’s been much discussion this year about whether you can ‘erase’ history – and whether pulling down a statue, for example, is erasing it.

On the one hand, you have those who argue that we should not be held hostage by national myths. Others, including the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, have said “it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history”. These issues meet in the impact they have on heritage sites, and on institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum.

At the same time as many institutions have had to cut jobs and are struggling to survive, they are getting letters from the secretary of state for culture telling them what they can and can’t do. I think it’s extraordinary that they’ve been told, “we expect your approach to the issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the government’s position”. It seems an odd area for the government to exert control, when control arguably hasn’t been well exerted in dealing with the pandemic. We live in a strange time, in terms of ambiguities and contradictions about the ways in which power and control are handled.


You can listen to the full conversation on the HistoryExtra podcast:


ME: As coronavirus first spread, lots of comparisons were made to the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918–19. How useful is it to draw such explicit historical parallels?

KG: I think that, when people hear commentators drawing parallels between the present and the past, they often assume it must mean that the two are exactly the same – or that what’s happened in the past can tell us what’s going to happen in the future. I would argue that studying history requires more than simply looking at its role in the present: it can tell us what the currents are, how systems work, and about the myriad ways in which human beings in all their fallibilities and complexities react to certain situations.

When people hear commentators drawing parallels between the present and the past, they assume the two are exactly the same

I don’t want to blame the media for everything, but it would be great to get away from simplistically saying: “Oh my gosh, we had a pandemic back in 1918! Isn’t it the same as today?” Instead, we should explore the historical decisions, actions, thoughts and ideologies that have led us to a moment such as this. That’s where history can tell us, for instance, a lot about how people react to pandemics, or the way in which they have the potential to give rise to autocratic regimes. All of the work that’s been done on past pandemics can inform us about this moment, its dangers, and its radical possibilities.

MW: I agree. There’s a great line attributed to Mark Twain – “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes” – and there have been disturbing rhymes going on this year, in which the pandemic plays a part. We’re in an unstable political world, with rogue states and states jostling for power, and if I were looking for rhymes, I’d look to the build-up to the First World War in 1914; the dangers evident in the 1920s after the Spanish flu pandemic; and the rise of fascism in the 1920 and 30s. Each era saw disastrous turns of events caused both by accidents and unwise leadership, and those are the areas we need to look at today.

Consider the muscular nationalism being employed in China, for instance. As someone I spoke to in Beijing put it: “The Chinese leadership think the US is losing.” It’s arguable that the possibility that they might ‘win’ has prompted Chinese authorities to launch a programme of economic growth and military expansion that might otherwise have taken a decade. That would explain their aggressive stance on the issue of the disputed ownership of the islands in the South China Sea, but also their actions in Hong Kong and Tibet – and even the clash with India on the Himalayan border [Chinese and Indian soldiers were killed in a skirmish in the Ladakh region in June]. They’re testing the water. These are dangerous times.

The past 12 months have seen dramatic events around the globe, including the ongoing coronavirus pandemic
The past 12 months have seen dramatic events around the globe, including the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)

TH: Understandably, because it’s our history, those of us in the west looking for parallels to the current pandemic look back to pandemics that hit the west in the past. The Spanish flu is the obvious one, but I’ve read lots of articles about the Black Death – and plead guilty to having written a piece comparing it to the [fifth-century BC] plague of Athens.

None are really of immediate relevance. What we should have been alert to was the experience of nations around China during the 2002–03 Sars outbreak. One of the reasons Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have dealt with coronavirus so much more successfully than the west, relatively speaking, is that they absorbed those lessons. They were alert to the fact that this kind of pandemic was very liable to come out of China, that it was highly probable the Chinese authorities would try to cover it up, and that therefore there was a heightened risk it would spread.

Of course, it’s incredibly easy to say this with the benefit of hindsight. Yet we remain solipsistic: unaware of just how much we have to learn from other areas of the world, and the degree to which our historical experiences no longer provide the default paradigms by which global affairs must be understood.

SL: As a historian, I’m tempted to turn the question on its head: it isn’t so much about what history tells us about the present, but more what the present moment tells us about the past. Personally, it’s been very revealing coming to terms with a heightened awareness of mortality, being confined to a specific area, and having children underfoot while you’re trying to work. For many of us, these aren’t things that have been part of our everyday experience before, and in many ways what has been happening in our own small worlds gives us an insight into the past. That’s the question I’m interested in: what can we learn about then?

ME: You mentioned that 2020 has seen the west reappraising colonialism and its legacy. Why do you think that issue seems to have come to the fore this year?

KG: We have seen a host of instances around the world, from January onward, in which inequities wrought by racial, capitalistic and colonial systems have come to a head. That’s why, for many people in the west of certain backgrounds and classes, this appears to be a monumental moment of racial reckoning.

But I would point out that, for most people in what we can call ‘subaltern’ communities – people who have been colonised or been the object of colonial enterprise – all of this hasn’t come out of nowhere. I think that one of the lessons that we can learn from this moment of crisis is that we need to pay more attention to the people who have lived and witnessed these events, both now and in the past.

Although it’s heartbreaking, I don’t think it’s a surprise that most of the people dying of coronavirus in the US are from impoverished or African-American and Latino communities. These inequalities don’t just suddenly appear. The cases of police brutality we have seen in the US in recent years don’t just happen. As people in the groups I just cited will tell you, it’s been a steadily building wave.

History isn’t a prophecy that tells you what will happen, but it can indicate where things are heading. For years now – even, dare I say, as far back as the start of the century – groups of people around the world, from colonised subjects to indigenous people, were pointing to certain environmental and social patterns. But the people involved in shaping western thought weren’t listening. And it’s not as if, looking at the history of colonialism and empire, what’s been happening this year is unthinkable and unimaginable.

So I’d argue that the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement aren’t new, and they aren’t localised. It’s more accurate to say that it has caused the western world to come to a reckoning of what it has wrought.

SL: Yes, I agree. It’s very much a case of us realising and recognising the relationship between the past and the present – that present injustices stem from the past and the stories that we continue to tell about it, the stories that we omit, and the stories we commemorate. Kerri’s is a very good point – it’s not like all of this has suddenly come out of nowhere. So the question is: why are people listening this year?

We increasingly realise that present injustices stem from the past and the stories we tell about it – and those we omit

It could partly be because the pandemic made us slow down a bit, meaning that people have been paying more attention to what’s going on in the world. I fear, however, that it’s chiefly because there was footage. Think about the number of times in the past, since we’ve had cameras, that a photograph has become a defining image that pushed people to a response – [the 1972 photo of] the child running down the road from a napalm attack in the Vietnam War, for instance. So I think that it’s the footage that has, in the end, moved people to feel that there cannot be any more of these injustices. And that has made people focus on how we have got to this point. What is entrenched in our societies today as a result of history?

TH: I think it also shows that what happens in the US, and its pathologies and ‘culture wars’, remain a topic of obsessional interest to people in other countries – particularly English-speaking countries. All kinds of people have suffered terrible things this year; in a sense, the ‘dog that hasn’t barked in the night’ so far in this conversation is the suffering of the Uighur people [a Muslim minority group who live predominantly in the Xinjiang province of north-western China]. A million people have been rounded up into what are effectively concentration camps, women have been sterilised, and an entire culture is being deliberately wiped out. Yet that’s had no cut-through at all, I think in part – picking up on what Suzannah said – because we lack images. There is no footage. They speak a language that most of us don’t speak. But, above all, its not American.

What happens in the United States remains a topic of obsessional interest in other countries – particularly English-speaking nations

The ability of America to project its drama around the world remains unrivalled. I do think that the civil rights movement had a greater cut-through beyond English-speaking lands, and that the ideals it articulated were admired and taken up more widely. As far as I can tell, attitudes towards Black Lives Matter and the ‘culture wars’ more generally are more ambivalent.

MW: I’d argue that the Black Lives Matter movement has had an instant impact in the UK. I agree with Suzannah that technology has made a big difference. A younger generation has grown up well-informed about modern history via the media, the internet and social media. They can look it all up.

Black Lives Matter has been important in the British world not only in terms of black lives mattering – as obviously important as that is – but also in terms of what it has told us about our own historical experience of having ruled an empire across the world for so long. I would say that the British empire is the single most important fact in the past 400 years of British history, and it’s an experience that we haven’t, as a culture, really faced up to.

So the ongoing ‘culture wars’ are not only about Black Lives Matter: that movement has sparked off other important lines of enquiry. Suzannah mentioned the letters the British government sent to organisations such as English Heritage and the National Trust, effectively telling them that, because they are publicly funded bodies, they have to toe the line. Another remarkable moment for historians was when the prime minister tweeted [in response to a statue of Churchill being defaced in June] that “we cannot pretend to have a different history”. The whole point is that history is constantly rewritten and re-understood by every generation.

The Black Lives Matter movement is one of the forces that has made people here and around the world look again at the impacts of the colonial enterprise, and the structural racism that accompanied imperialism. And it’s unleashed a wider critique: how are we going to understand our history now? How are we going to teach it, now that we have begun to develop a better understanding of how deeply ingrained slavery and its legacy are in British culture? This has always been a huge deal in the US, because African-Americans are descended from people who were taken by force to the Americas. But in Britain, it all happened somewhere out there. That’s why this is part of a bigger revolt. It seems to me that history has never been so politicised, and I remember how politicised it was under Margaret Thatcher – who, for instance, wrote the foreword to a pamphlet about the teaching of history by Lord Hugh Thomas, explicitly renouncing the so-called Marxist school that I grew up with as a student.

History has never been so politicised – and I remember how politicised it was under Thatcher in the 1980s

TH: But isn’t this basically an Anglo-American story? It’s about what happened in the Atlantic world from the 17th to the 20th centuries. When I look at places such as France or Belgium – nations that also have a colonial legacy – I’m not convinced I see it cutting through there, or in India or China.

KG: It’s everywhere, and I would argue that, if you’re not seeing that for some reason, it’s because of media bias. We need to look at the news within the nations and regions in which the subaltern groups I referred to earlier live.

You mentioned the Uighurs, Tom, and, interestingly, Black Lives Matter groups in the US and Australia were highlighting the atrocities committed against Uighur people when the issue was not as rigorously highlighted in the mainstream press. I think we have to move beyond thinking that, if we don’t see something in mainstream media coverage, it must not exist. Indeed, one of the things that I think the study of history requires us to do is look critically at sources – and as historians, we can also do that in real time with our current moment. I never take what I see or what I believe at face value – because we know there were many people in the past who said: “What I believe must be true,” and we know how that often turned out.

Take, for instance, the atrocities that took place in the Congo Free State at the turn of the 20th century [including violence against, and the forced labour of, the region’s indigenous people]. We know that most people in the west at the time didn’t believe those things were happening, but the fact that we now know that those terrible things did happen should teach us to evaluate our own period more closely.

So among the many lessons we can learn from 2020 is that we should interrogate our own assumptions. Is what we believe about what’s happening now accurate? As historians, we know that these kind of misjudgments happen all the time: after all, it’s part of what makes history fascinating.

TH: But I think that one of the sources of privilege for English speakers – particularly in Britain and, more recently, the US – is to assume that their concerns are of universal import. Why is the name of George Floyd [an African-American man killed during an arrest in May, whose death sparked global protests] spoken on London’s streets, but not the name of a Uighur person? It’s because of the huge cultural hegemony the US wields. I think that 2020 will come to be seen as the year in which the conceit of people in the west that their values and concerns are universal will come to be seen as just that – a conceit.

Other things have happened this year, too, that suggest the values we in the west have always assumed as being part of everyone’s mental framework are coming under stress. One example is Turkey’s president converting the Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque in July, essentially rejecting the model of secularism which I think people in the west tend to take for granted. I believe we are moving into a culturally multi-polar world in which universalism is in retreat.

ME: We’ve talked about both history and politics. Do you think there is any danger of history becoming too politicised?

KG: History is always political. As this debate shows, people see history in different ways – and some people have always been excluded from the conversation. It’s dangerous to argue, for instance, that forcing empires to account for themselves is more political than not requiring them to do so, because both are political acts. Arguing that history doesn’t have to take colonial legacies into account is no less political than arguing that it does. Both views have just as much of an agenda.

SL: When I was a PhD student, somebody said to me – completely without irony – that they, as an atheist, were singularly able to have an unbiased opinion on the struggle between Catholics and Protestants. But I hope that we’re now beginning to more widely recognise what historians have always known: that we all bring our subjectivities to determine the nature of the past that we tell.

We need to be honest about the lens we put in front of our vision. The idea that history shouldn’t change or be rewritten is baloney. We continually rewrite history, because we are always speaking from our present position – historically and geographically. The key is to work out that perspective and try to account for it, or discount it, as much as possible, knowing that we will never fully compensate for the biases we naturally have.

TH: History will always be political for the same reason that politics will always be rooted in history. There are never any definitive answers, and people will always disagree. All of the convulsive issues that we face here in Britain are rooted in people’s perspectives on history. Brexit, essentially, is an argument about history. Whether the UK should cohere or Scotland will vote to leave is essentially a debate about history. If you broaden that out to almost anywhere there are political tensions – essentially everywhere in the world! – those arguments tend to be about history.

MW: All of what we have talked about here goes to show why history matters. Clearly it gives value and meaning to our lives. I agree with Kerri that history may not be a prophecy, but it sure as hell gives you some sense of where we might be heading.

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine