ALS Topic 10 - History is written by the literate, and lived by the nameless

Focus questions for Adelaide Lunchtime Seminar, 9 June 2018 ( )

Note: The questions below are not supposed to suggest biased answers. You really can adopt any point of view your can suggest evidence for. Do be prepared for others suggesting counter-evidence! Note: clearly not all of these questions can be properly covered in a meetup, but they give us a conscious choice about what to talk about while making the background context clearer. It is up to the people who come on the day to choose what aspects they would like to deal with.

Focus Questions:

1. "You can go back in history and say anything" - Anuvab Pal. Try to think of examples where this assertion has been exploited. (reference: Sarah Sahim (3 May 2018" "Empire state of mind: the comedian untangling India's identity crisis. An interview with Anuvab Pal". The Guardian @ )

2. "It's not what happens to you that is important. The important question is what you do with what (you think) happened to you". How are people crippled, deluded, enraged or empowered by what they think is 'history' (true or false)?

3. There is no place of human settlement on earth that hasn't been invaded by strangers, and reinvaded, and colonised (usually multiple times) over the last 20,000 years. Sometimes the incomers exterminate the originals ('ethnic cleansing'), or absorb the originals into a new culture, or sometimes they are absorbed themselves. This is the world we live in. At what point should the old resentments and hatreds of history be put aside to build a society on what we actually have now?

4. How should history be taught in schools, and how much? I frequently meet individuals who have no apparent formal knowledge of history at all (just encounters with the occasional TV re-creation). I can see the distortions in my own historical education, but I have a starting point. Chinese citizens from the PRC I meet have been totally misled, and they are not alone. Where do we start?

5. Historical theme parks are popular in some countries (especially China). Historical homes to visit are a more common approach in Australia. How useful and how reliable (which is a different question) are such venues for giving people a sense of how life was lived in earlier generations.

6. Genealogy is a popular hobby. How useful is it as a personal path into understanding life in earlier generations?

7. There is an argument that 'history' as recorded is rather like the daily news cycle: a complete distortion based on dramatic events, and ignoring the daily reality of most people's lives. What is the best way to overcome this kind of distortion?

8. There are idioms attached to history: e.g. 'The price of forgetting history is to relive it'. 'History repeats/never repeats itself' (take your pick); 'History books that contain no lies are extremely tedious' [Anatole France]. So what kind of history can we in fact learn something useful from?

9. A more sophisticated way to examine history is to focus on subjects: 'history of science', 'history of religion', 'history of art', and so on. Is this kind of history likely to be more useful and reliable than the traditional political histories? What kind of history would interest you?

10. In futuristic books like '1984' (Orwell) we find predictions about societies where any historical memory is erased and forbidden by a ruling elite. Any claim whatsoever can be made for political advantage by that elite. How close are we to that kind of society? What are its dangers.


Extra Reading

Sarah Sahim (3 May 2018) "Empire state of mind: the comedian untangling India's identity crisis. An interview with Anuvab Pal". The Guardian @ )

Catherine Bennett, (27 May 2018) "Don’t rewrite history, even if you get an awkward Spitfire question". The Guardian @

"Were nobles hygienic during the middle ages?" -

"The Chinese admiral who spread Islam across Southeast Asia - Over the past decades, researchers have concluded Admiral Zheng He and his armada were the key force behind Islam’s spread in Southeast Asia" . By Chow Chung-yan, 20 Aug 2016 @

A generational view of history: "Polybius reached his conclusion by first distinguishing between three distinct forms of government. In a kingdom, the king rules either justly or becomes a tyrant. When a group of men rules, they can either be the best and wisest (“the aristocrats”) or be corrupt oligarchs. A popular majority can constitute a democracy — the third option — with civic order and rule of law, or can also be mob rule where lawlessness prevails. Unless features of the three forms of governing are mixed, they can end badly, even if they start well, because, Polybius explains, the handing down of privileges to future generations is done without the latter understanding the discipline that was necessary to create the well-being to start with..... ." “Mixed constitutions” incorporating elements of the three distinct forms of government may prevent such declines. The Roman experiment was Polybius’ example, where consuls were “commanders-in-chief,” (an aspect of monarchy); limited by the senate controlling the purse (an aspect of “aristocracy”); the two being controlled by people, voting for or against laws, and ratify (or not) alliances and treaties". @

"History is written by the losers" - a really interesting blog post:  - "Sima Qian is sometimes called the “Herodotus of the East.” It’s a fair title. Herodotus is one of two men who can claim to have invented history. Sima Qian is the other"... "When high position is stolen from you, and access to the heights of wealth and power denied, there is little one can do about it—except write. History is thus rarely a “weapon of the weak.” The judgments of the historian do not serve the margins. They do not even serve the masses. They are a weapon in the hand of defeated elites, the voices of men and women who could be in power, but are not. What was true in Thucydides day is true in our own. The simplest explanation for modern academics' hostility to 21st century capitalism's “structures of power” is their complete exclusion from them."



A key notion in this seminar is that "civilization" is never more than a generation deep for the vast majority of people in a culture. What is passed on to young minds is fragmentary, biased and accidental. The young can be told anything, and will at an heroic age (17-27y.o.) willingly die to defend whatever tales they have been told. Those tales are constructed by a literate elite and used by power elites for social control. The real working life of your great great grandparents is a memory forever lost. China, to take one example, often claims 5000 years of recorded history, but I've seen estimates that before the modern era only about 2% of Chinese were literate. 98% had no "history". It is the same in every culture.

Thor's own websites:

1. articles at ;

2. legacy site: .


History is written by the literate and lived by the nameless? (c) Thor May 2018 return to Ddiscussion