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Issue No. 20 (December 2000) -- Mark Satin, Editor
A bold new kind of global
A new approach to world history has been moving to the fore over the last half-decade or so.
It paints a portrait of the world as an organic, emergent whole, rather than as merely a collection of separate nations and cultures. And it speaks, however tentatively, of a common global subject -- a “we” -- rather than the “us” and “them” of traditional histories.
Since historians tend to determine how the rest of us see the world (and our place in it), nothing could be more promising as we enter the new Millennium.
In the U.S., the new approach can be traced back to the work of two prominent history professors, L.S. Stavrianos and William H. McNeill.
Stavrianos’s college textbook A Global History of Man (orig. 1962, now out of print), and McNeill’s surprise best-seller The Rise of the West (orig. 1963), were the first books by U.S. historians to provide coherent frameworks for the whole of human history (e.g., both taught that reaction to contacts with other cultures was the motor of historical change).
Neither Stavrianos nor McNeill was shy about publicizing the holistic new approach. But it was drowned out by quantitative history, regional history, and “politically correct” history (which was hostile to making judgments about cultures and political systems).
Both historians kept the flame alive, though, Stavrianos revising his textbook into the Nineties, McNeill going on to write a textbook originally published as The Ecumene: Story of Humanity (1973; now A History of the Human Community, 5th ed., 1997) and then a moving someday-we’ll-all-be-doing-global-history-better-than-me essay for the 25th anniversary edition of Rise of the West.
Two well-known history books from the early Nineties give the impression of being holistic: Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes (1994) and Paul Johnson’s Modern Times (rev. 1991). But don’t be fooled. In real life they’re fossils of the old history rather than exemplars of the new.
Both are histories of “the world” from World War I to the present. Both have coherent, guiding theses and pay a reasonable amount of attention to other cultures. Both are wonderfully well written.
But they’re so politically partisan I’m not sure I’d classify them as history books at all. They routinely omit or downplay inconvenient facts -- something even our best journalism doesn’t do. They routinely massage other facts to serve partisan purposes.
On Uganda, for example, Hobsbawm doesn’t even mention Idi Amin’s reign of terror. Johnson rubs our faces in it, and in the OAU’s embrace of Amin.
Hobsbawm is considered a great historian by the radical left, Johnson by the political right. But if you read them side by side, you’ll wonder if they’re writing about the same planet.
Eventually you’ll grow weary of their half-truths, their clever manipulations of incident and fact.
A true example of the new global history, and a perfect counterpoint to Hobsbawm and Johnson, is J.M. Roberts’s new book, Twentieth Century (Viking, 856 pp., $40, 1999).
He writes as well as they do. (One of his earlier books, The Penguin History of the World, 1989, became a publishing phenomenon, selling nearly 500,000 copies worldwide.) He’s as formidable a historian as they are, a warden at Merton College, Oxford, until his retirement in 1994.
He pays at least as much attention to other cultures as they do -- sub-chapters are devoted to, e.g., India under the Raj, Indonesia between the world wars, the Egyptian revolution and after. And that attention is real attention; it has nothing to do with scoring political points
Above all, the battles between socialism and capitalism are forced to share center stage with population growth, medical discoveries, “mental changes,” breakthroughs in transportation and communications, and the changing roles of women.
If there’s a central theme, it’s that the possibility of “decisive historical action” has moved -- over the course of the century -- “from the stage of European history to a wider stage, to, indeed, world history in the true sense.” We’re in the midst of a process now “interlinking all parts of the globe. . . . Much of its meaning is still being revealed.”
Not as vivid, perhaps, as Hobsbawm’s bittersweet lament for socialism, or Johnson’s glib triumphalism. But a much better text for helping us discern our place in the world.
Roberts is a generous spirit. He says “yes!” to most cultures and phenomena, or at least he looks on them with intense curiosity, a kind of innocence.
David Landes, from Harvard, is a very different kind of global historian, a voice of experience rather than of innocence. In his award-winning book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (Norton, 531 pp., $16 pbk, orig. 1998), he asks one basic and undeniably rude question: How did the rich countries get so rich, and why are the poor countries so poor?
To find out, he takes us on a 600-plus-year trek through all the major global civilizations; and the answer he comes up with is even ruder than the question: “If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference.”
What makes his answer less rude than it first appears is he doesn’t see himself as one of “us” lecturing to a recalcitrant “them.” He explicitly denounces use of words like “better” or “superior.” The peoples of the Earth are all brothers and sisters in this text, teammates in Coach Landes’s huddle, and he’s telling us What Works -- whether we like hearing it or not!
What Works is having a competent educational system (either schools or apprenticeships), selecting people for jobs by merit, fostering initiative and competition, and allowing people to enjoy the fruits of their labor and enterprise.
How do you get these things? Narrow is the gate, he says. In Northern Europe, the Protestant Ethic generated such traits as hard work, honesty, seriousness, thrifty use of time and money, and even scientific curiosity. The result: The industrial revolution and all that followed.
Why was there no industrial revolution in India? Radical and Indian historians blame it on the British conquest, but Landes says it had a lot more to with rigid caste identities and the culture’s lack of interest in scientific knowledge.
Why did the great Aztec civilization stumble and fall? Neil Young blames it on “Cortez the Killer,” but Landes says a deeper reason was that Aztec culture had perfected the “industrialization of blood sacrifice” -- hundreds or even thousands of people at a time (usually prisoners of war) were being sacrificed to the tribal god Huitzilopochtli -- so Cortez and his ilk had no trouble finding allies among the Aztecs’ native foes.
In an epilogue to the 1999 edition of Wealth and Poverty, Landes calls himself an optimist. Even the economic slowdown in East Asia, he says, has valuable lessons to teach -- e.g., that overreaching and overconfidence are not part of the cultural apparatus one needs to succeed, economically, in this world.
If Roberts demonstrates that the new global history can be objective, and Landes demonstrates it can be tough-minded, then Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, in his book Millennium : A History of the Last Thousand Years (Scribner, 737 pp., $18 pbk, orig. 1995), demonstrates it can be inspirational and fun.
The author, a well-known professor of history at Oxford, doesn’t just pay respectful attention to other cultures -- he gives them pride of place. China was preponderant for most of the millennium, he shows. Even Landes, in Wealth and Poverty, praises Fernandez-Armesto’s attempt to restore the careers of the African and American states of mid-Millennium.
This hyper-global perspective is no accident. One of Fernandez-Armesto’s themes is that Western world dominance began a lot later than most historians think -- and is already ending (something Roberts also suggests).
Another theme is that cultures and civilizations engaged in a lot more give-and-take than historians allow (echoes of Stavrianos and McNeill, of course). The history of the last thousand years is in many respects a history of “shifting initiatives,” he claims -- principally between or among China, Islam, eastern Christendom, and the West.
What really makes this book sing, though, is Fernandez-Armesto’s astonishing at-homeness in the societies he describes.
He has the capacity to bring you intimately into each of them (a “pointillist” technique, he explains), so on every page you’re engaged in pondering, from the inside, what Ming intellectuals thought of popular Taoism, or why 18th-century Islamic missionaries were more successful than their Christian counterparts, or why a 19th century Cantonese merchant was wealthier than the Rothschilds.
For all that, his stated purpose isn’t entertainment, or even instruction. It’s to contribute to what he calls “our sense of belonging” to the universe. It’s to “help us face, with resignation or even relish, our cramped coexistence in the next millennium.”
The most original example of the new global history is surely Theodore Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity (HarperCollins, 472 pp., $16 pbk., orig. 1994).
Although Zeldin is yet another prize-winning Oxford historian, he’s a very unusual person. His specialty is social, psychological and emotional history (the 2,000-page book that made his reputation is called A History of French Passions); for recreation he chairs the Oxford Food Symposium.
To write a psychological history of all humanity, Zeldin eschewed geographical and chronological categories and looked at 25 “sentiments” instead. The chapter titles can give you the flavor:
What’s remarkable is that the book is always about real human beings -- not psychological abstractions. In the “loneliness” chapter, for example, Zeldin takes us into the mental landscape of ancient Hindus, German Romantics, the Athapascan tribe, the Bishop of Jerusalem (c. 212), and American cowboys!
Gradually, a message emerges from the text, becomes stronger and stronger as the book goes on. It’s that the “cycle of toleration and persecution” that’s characterized our planet from time immemorial must be broken.
It can only be broken, Zeldin says, by cultivating a “third way,” more exciting than toleration or persecution: By becoming “personally interested in the beliefs and ways of thinking of other individuals,” and by “building individual relationships” with them.
Forget trying to spread “general goodwill,” Zeldin says. Abstract sentiments never work. Gandhi preached general goodwill; he lost the Muslims in India because he never got to know his Muslim counterparts well enough.
By the end of the book, you not only feel emotionally and psychologically linked to all humanity. You hunger to know, personally, many different kinds of people.
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