Owen Jones posed a good rhetorical question last week. ‘How,’ he asked ‘ will history judge a media which obsesses far more over what the leader of the opposition said under his breath than the fact hundreds die on the streets of one of the wealthiest societies on earth?’. The literal answer to this question, surely, is ‘it depends who the historians are.’ And I imagine this is not the one he had in mind. The trope is quite a common one. Whatever we think now, History, or historians, sooner or later, will know better.
This is of course not necessarily so. Aside from the diversity of the profession, which will always include bad historians, even the general trends or attitudes might well turn out to be ones we won’t like. Perhaps the profession will be dominated, as it at times it has been, by arch Conservatives. Perhaps historians will be the kind Nietzsche complained about, who wrote national histories which glorify the existing order. Perhaps the story of our time will be written by the David Starkeys of tomorrow, who probably won’t write the kind of stories we’d hope they would. That will depend a lot on how the profession is funded and what kind of a society we live in, as well as essentially random and unpredictable endogenous developments and trends within academia.
Why, then, is this idea so often invoked? On some level we want to imagine that future historians will validate our current judgements. Perhaps this is similar to the way others have invoked the final judgement of God: whatever happens now, however hopeless things seem God will judge you. The idea of the future historian now fulfils that role. It is a kind of secular diety, which gives hope of an eventual vindication. It goes hand in hand with a lingering belief in absolute truth that people who see themselves as fighting ‘post-truth’ political forces.
Unfortunately, the reality of both our political predicament and the way future generations might see it is far less straight forward. The relationship between truth, propaganda and a political reality which is in part subjectively constructed has an extensive and growing literature, for the time being dominated by those who would cast similar judgements to those Owen Jones hints at. What the future holds, on the other hand, is unclear.