Chinese Monkeys on Our Backs

An eminent British statesman once confessed to Horace Walpole that he had learned all he knew of the Wars of the Roses from reading Shakespeare’s histories.  I do not recall who the statesman was, and I am only guessing that Walpole is the source of the anecdote.  As is the case of most of what I think I know of history, I am a bit shaky on the details.  I am scarcely alone in having an uncertain grasp of historical facts.  Most of us pick up our historical erudition from dodgy sources: secondhand anecdotes from friends, scraps of potted history from textbooks and “this day in history” features, and History Channel programs on the secrets of Nostradamus or the mysteries handed down from the Knights Templar to the funny guys in fezzes who raise money for burn units.

Of what possible use is the past to Americans who believe (with Marx) that we make our own history?  “History,” in our fine barbaric yawp, is at its worst an obstacle to man’s limitless progress toward the godhead and at best a useless relic of the contemptible past.  “He’s history,” we say of a celebrity down on his luck or an Illinois governor trudging the well-worn path to the federal hoosegow.

Those who care enough about history to make a modest income by spending ten to twenty hours a week, eight months a year, in the academic asylums known as universities express their contempt...

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