Historian and editor Cannadine (History/Princeton Univ.; Mellon, 2006, etc.) constructs a stirring critique of history that questions conventional approaches to narrating the human chronicle.
The author rejects the Manichaean simplicities of “us vs. them” and “good vs. evil” embodied in traditional histories’ preoccupation with “difference” as well as the alleged uniformity of antagonistic groups. Cannadine investigates the categories of religion, nation, class, gender, race and “civilization” to reveal the persistence of thinking in adversarial absolutes—the malevolent or hapless “other”—and the incalculable damage this mindset has caused. He insists that we indulge in arbitrary, incomplete group “identities” and ignore at our peril the interactions that go on across supposedly impermeable boundaries. Knighted in 2009 for his distinguished service and Chair of the National Portrait Gallery from 2005-2012, the author is no Pollyanna. In assaying the work of such predecessors as Gibbon, Huntington and Toynbee, as well as contemporaries of the caliber of Fernández-Armesto, he acknowledges the strife that has occurred within these often self-contradictory categories but argues convincingly that such tensions are far outweighed by a history of mutual borrowing and cross-fertilization between peoples. Of particular salience are his observations on religion and perception as expressed in a divergent view of the relationship between Christianity and Islam. That we exaggerate animosities and fail to recognize how cooperation, at least as much as conflict, has marked humanity’s experience, may seem a belaboring of the obvious. Yet Cannadine, an accomplished writer, details it in fresh and provocative terms.
A generally persuasive, impassioned book-length essay. While his conclusions (and language) sometimes grow repetitive, they nonetheless serve to underscore at every turn an incisive argument buttressed by millennia of evidence.