Saturday, September 03, 2011

Why Simon Schama sounds less than a historian as he mourns 9/11

Simon Schama has done a history of the French Revolution from the people's point of view, based on the cahiers -- the petitions that were collected from citizens and provincial councils, including the 'parlement' of Paris. He is seen as one of those precocious new historians who seems to take saturation reporting style of history to its extreme end. So, when he writes on 9/11 and starts from the memory of Laura,a close friend's sister who died in the terror attack on New York, and who used to be a guest at his house dinners and played with his children, he strikes a personal note, not that of a historian. And he is justified in doing so. But he also fulminates against the 'barbarians' -- the jihadis and the Nordics -- who strike against civilisation and culture as he knows it. And it is here he seems to falter and fall, and fail his duty as a historian.
He does not seem to have the same sense of sorrow and justice that Laura's sister shows when she goes to Iraq and reconstructs the stories of the victims there.
Mainly, Schama is dwelling on the issue of public memorials. The issue for him is not 9/11 per se.
So he does not seem bound to ask some pertinent questions about the US retaliation to 9/11 -- the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the destruction it has wrought. That would have been the natural path to trace if a historian is talking about 9/11. But he does not. He is content to blame the marauders as it were.
Somewhere, western culture and tolerance just seems to fail. They cannot understand the barbarians except to demonise them. Something wrong there, something narrow-minded, something unintellectual, unhistorical.

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