“They do things differently…” – Viewing the past through a modern lens

12 Jul

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A short while ago the writer Philip Hoare penned a piece for the Guardian about Ivor Novello and Noel Coward’s brief “flirtation with fascism” in the 1920s. I’d recommend you read the whole piece to get the full gist of it, but the bottom line is that Novello and Coward contributed to a 1925 fundraising ball for the British Union of Fascists.

The "Bolshie Bug" sounds fun. (Pic courtesy of the Guardian.)

The “Bolshie Bug” sounds fun. (Pic courtesy of the Guardian.)

In its strap line and in the piece itself, Hoare asks if we can “excuse” either man for dipping their toes in the murky waters of the far right

I hadn’t given the article much more thought until today, when I read this piece (linked to by Julie Bindel) about Harriet Capon, a woman who presented herself as a man in order to serve in the army during WWI,  earn more money and support her family. The article looks at the way in which recent commentators have tried to shift Capon’s identity posthumously from that of a woman who considered herself a woman (what the more self-entangling types out there might call a “cisgender woman”) while dressing as a man, to that of a transgender male called Charles (the name she adopted).

Artist's impression.

Artist’s impression.

I won’t go into that post in any detail, because the author of Glosswatch does a much better job of that than I ever could, but the reason I made a connection between Hoare’s nostril flaring and the revisionist take on Capon  is that I think both make the mistake of viewing the past from the comfy (and politically biased) sofa of the present.

Now, of course, it’s difficult to do otherwise. Whenever we look at the past, we’re always judging it with our own values. For me, one of the most shocking scenes in the film 12 Years a Slave was the moment when Paul Giamatti’s slave trader leads his customers around his “showroom”, pointing out the best features of each naked slave for his well-to-do clientele. The later scenes, featuring Michael Fassbender’s deranged plantation owner, would have been distasteful to many people at that time, but the scenes with Giamatti’s character show how normal, how much a part of everyday life slavery was for people who would not have considered themselves inhumane.

But this guy? In real life, this guy must have known he was a piece of shit.

But this guy? In real life, this guy must have known he was a piece of shit.

The problem with viewing and judging the past through a modern lens is that it robs history of its greatest asset – the ability to teach us. This isn’t to say it prevents us from repeating our old mistakes – current events in Israel prove otherwise – but that when progress is made, it’s because history has shown us an alternative. You could even argue that the reason the situation in Israel goes on (and on) is because both sides are willfully ignorant of history, relying instead on mythology as justification of their actions. But if we pretend that the mistakes people made in the past are mistakes we couldn’t possibly make now because we are better people, and not just people with the benefit of hindsight, history itself becomes redundant.

There’s also a tendency in certain quarters – cultural commentary in the UK being one of them – to be highly selective about those we judge, based on political preference. So Hoare asks if we can “excuse” Novello and Coward, and elsewhere you’ll find similar pieces asking if we can forgive the likes of Ezra Pound (big fan of Mussolini),  P.G. Wodehouse (made Nazi-authorised radio broadcasts for the US), Henry Ford (Hitler’s pen pal) or Richard Strauss (who, though never a card carrying Nazi, carried on working under the regime).

"I gave you the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. What more do you people fucking want?"

“I gave you the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. What more do you fuckers want?”

 

You won’t, however, see many articles asking if we can forgive H.G. Wells (sang Stalin’s praises in New Statesman), George Bernard Shaw (fell hook, line and sinker for his “Potemkin villages” while touring the USSR), Jean-Paul Sartre (apologist for both Stalin and Mao) or any of the countless other artists and writers who either supported Communist regimes wholesale or downplayed their crimes. Even today, we give the likes of Oliver Stone and the Manic Street Preachers a free pass for cosying up with Fidel “My regime murdered thousands of political prisoners” Castro, while excoriating – and rightly so – those Tory windbags who provided shelter to Pinochet.

All this is to go a little off topic, however. My main point is that by asking if we can forgive men for “flirting with fascism” almost a century ago, Philip Hoare is looking at them through a prism tainted by the Holocaust and World War II. He seems blind to the idea that however objectionable many of us would have found fascism at the time, it enjoyed political power nowhere outside of Italy, and many of its supporters saw it as a necessary bulwark against Marxism, which – should we forget – had already seized much of Russia and caused countless thousands of deaths and mass exiles. It is, if anything, more understandable for two men from the middle and upper classes of British society to align themselves with fascism in its infancy than it would have been for either of them to raise the red flag.

For one thing, can you picture this man in overalls?

For one thing, can you picture this man in overalls?

So, if Hoare’s question is “Can we excuse them?”, I’d say the answer is yes. Had they carried on “flirting” with the movement after Kristallnacht, that may have been more questionable. As it was, they didn’t, and so it wasn’t. Trying to tie this 1925 fundraiser to Novello’s ration book fraud is tenuous, to say the least.

It is understandably tempting to make history’s characters our friends or enemies, based on whether we think we would have liked them as individuals, and they would have liked us. In this, our views are often coloured by the way these characters are presented in films, and so when we think of Gandhi, we think of Ben Kingsley’s sage Mahatma saying (as the real Gandhi said), “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”, and not (as the real Gandhi also said), “I do not consider Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted.”

"And don't get me started on the blacks."

“And don’t get me started on the blacks.”

To bring the subject more or less full circle, we see this kind of revisionism often in modern-day LGBT(etc) discourse, with figures from the distant past labelled gay, straight, bi or trans depending on what scant information we have about their private lives. Even when someone’s proclivities are well-documented, such as in the case of Oscar Wilde, there is a tendency to airbrush that which doesn’t fit the modern narrative, and so we see him as a “gay icon”, ignoring altogether the fact that he was married (and, to begin with, quite happily so) and fathered two children.

At its most dangerous end, this kind of “judging the past from the future” sees nutters with nothing better to do than set up union jack-smothered Facebook pages describe the prophet Muhammad as a “paedophile”, because his wife Aisha was said to have been 9 or 10 years old when they first shared a marital bed. This is dangerous not because we shouldn’t upset Muslims, or because Islam should enjoy special privileges, but because it is said to demonstrate that there is something inherently paedophilic in the religion, a tenuous link to those gangs of – predominantly Muslim – men prosecuted for grooming young girls in recent years. Here, a narrow, ahistorical view of history is exploited to stigmatise people – over a billion of them, in fact – in the present, mindless of the fact that this kind of union, though eye-poppingly distasteful to us now, was common in the 7th Century, and not only in Arabia.

Even in the 14th Century Scotland, it was not uncommon for men in their 30s to shack up with toddlers. According to Mel Gibson.

Even in the 13th Century Scotland, it was not uncommon for men in their 30s to shack up with toddlers. According to Mel Gibson.

The truth of something like an individual’s sexual or political persuasion becomes more – rather than less – complicated with time. Many of the terms we use to describe human sexuality are less than 150 years old, and so it means nothing when we talk about Alexander the Great or the poet Sappho as “gay” or “lesbian”. A word like “fascist” (or even “communist”) has a whole ton of baggage in the year 2014 which it simply did not carry in 1925.

If we’re going to think and talk about our heroes and villains of the past, we’d do well to remember the opening line from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between: 

“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”

 

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