Do you like to attend parties? At Christmas time, many do. To sour the moment with the backwards glance of a historical reflection may seem about as appealing as walking down the street alone with a black Santa “bah humbug” hat on, or going around with a perpetual scowl on one’s face. At the risk of being a party pooper, however, this is what I am about to do, for I am about to reflect on that “other” meaning of parties.
At a winter film festival a good few years ago, I remember an intense reaction from a Dutch and Czech person to what seemed to be a casual reference within a film to the idea of a (political) party. A single reference to party as a definite article—as in “the party”—evoked immediate negative mental associations in this audience of a totalitarian nightmare and the suppression of all intellectual freedoms. I remember a few days later being at an Irish history book launch where a similar reference seemed to evoke the opposite reaction; namely, knowing grins and intimations of secret identifications. I am not sure which experience I found more unsettling. At the time—when I was at a perhaps more impressionable age than I am now—it seemed to me as about as appealing as being a participant in Joseph Cotten’s memorable lecture on the modern world and after-lecture repartee with a Romanian in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man (1950). The late Irish historian Ronan Fanning was a good figure for being outspoken. I recall him stating, for unspecified reasons, that, in Ireland, history is considered “too important to be left to the historian” and, therefore, party politics seemed to reign supreme in shaping scholarship or, indeed, the comparative lack thereof. To hear such comments from such a prevalent figure created a distinctly uncomfortable feeling, for I had every inclination to be a historian and no inclination at all to be a member of a political party. Did that mean I was inherently a “fish out of sea”, or about as naïve as Joseph Cotten’s character in the Third Man? Let us banish such nightmare thoughts.
However, the Irish experience may not be so exceptional. A disappointing discovery in digital humanities literature this past year was how much of it seemed to be but an echo of a kind of cultural, or ideological, war that seems to have been taking place in academia in the United States since the 1980s. This may even be growing, even though my impression has, or had, been, that the Americans were not as prone to this kind of wrangling as, say, Europeans were during the interwar years. Another unpleasant thought is this: how much are historians to blame for creating, or perpetuating, such ideological wars that might otherwise not even exist? Is, in Ronan Fanning’s words, “history too important to be left to the historian” not only in Ireland but “everywhere”? What a terrible thought that might be, bringing to mind associations of endless intellectual own goals or confirmations of total futility. Yet an answer to this conundrum can perhaps be found.
I came across an interesting video recently of a five-year-old debate by four historians that dwelt largely on Ireland’s relationship with the world during the Second World War. If the debate was boiled down to a single issue, the polarising point of the debate was largely a question of “was non-participation in ideological conflicts in international affairs tantamount to a reneging of social responsibility?” A corollary of that same argument is that one simply “must” take a definite stand within an ideological conflict if one is to have a defendable historical position. Is this perspective, however, not at the root of the whole problem? Is the creation of such polarities not akin to the creation of red and black Santa hats, to use an entertaining metaphor, rather than just being satisfied with the plain old red? Personally, I think it is. If historians can walk down the street without inflicting ideological perspectives upon either themselves or others, they may become as deserving to wear a red Santa hat as much as a red graduate’s robe and the world may be “all the better” a place for it. Perhaps that is a naïve perspective. But it is a good historical thought for Christmas.