History’s Sloppy Summations

UK Labour grandee Denis Healey was once asked to name the best speech he had heard in his four decades in Parliament. He cited a 1959 oration defending the humanity of the Mau Mau prisoners who were murdered by British soldiers in the Hola Massacre. Who gave this passionate anti-Imperialist speech condemning abuse of the people living under British colonial rule in Kenya? (Take a guess, answer after the jump)

Enoch Powell!

I would not have guessed that, and can’t think of anyone who would. Enoch Powell gets one line in most people’s historical memory: “Wasn’t he the racist, anti-immigrant Rivers of Blood guy?”.

There was clearly more to him than that. Among other things, he was an accomplished poet and scholar/translator. Few people’s lives can be accurately summarized in one phrase. Even villains can have some virtues, and even our heroes can sometimes badly let us down (see, e.g., Gandhi’s comments about South African Blacks).

Edward Bulwer-Lytton meets a particularly cruel fate in history’s shorthand. We remember only “It was a dark and stormy night” as a kind of joke about bad opening sentences in novels, and the poor man’s name adorns an annual contest for atrocious writing. Yet someone who gives the English language phrases like “the pen is mightier than the sword” and who outsold Charles Dickens for years was no mere scribbler. As I read Leslie Mitchell’s biography of him, I realized I previously didn’t understand Bulwer-Lytton at all, including being ignorant of the fact that he was a Member of Parliament and a consequential politician of his age.

Some accomplished people fear being forgotten by history. But a far worse fate is to be remembered as a caricature based on a single over-simplified phrase or anecdote (Potentially, as in the case of poor Howard “The Scream” Dean, based on something that never really happened at all). Such things make me profoundly grateful for my own obscurity.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “History’s Sloppy Summations”

  1. Powell had some statements which still resonate. You triggered me to go look for 'all political lives end in failure' and I found in addition "Yet we slink about like whipped curs:;… our self-abasement principally takes the form of subservience to the United States:;… we are under no necessity to participate in the American nightmare of a Soviet monster barely held at bay in all quarters of the globe by an inconceivable nuclear armament and by political intervention everywhere from Poland to Cambodia. It is the Americans who need us in order to act out their crazy scenario… We simply do not need to go chasing up and down after the vagaries of the next ignoramus to become President of the United States."

    1. Powell served as Unionist MP for South Down (Northern Ireland) from 1974 to 1987, when he lost to an Irish Nationalist, and to de-gerrymandered constituency boundaries. In that election, he advised the British to vote Labour. This suggests a journey to the extremes, both political (for a Tory) and geographical (for an Englishman)

      1. It's plausible that the Tory's narrow win in 1970 and narrow loss in 1974 were both due to Powell's influence. The story some tell themselves today is that the country universally rejected him after Rivers of Blood, but the truth is that while The Establishment rejected him, most of the population (including many Labour voters) resonated with his message. Many parallels to US and British politics today are evident in his unusual career.

  2. – Timur the Lame, patron of the arts. (An architect who failed to meet the autocrat's standards was summarily executed).
    – Grigori Potemkin, founder of cities, scourge of the Ottoman Turks.
    – Neville Chamberlain, a great Minister of Health and the best interwar Chancellor of the Exchequer.
    – Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary hero, victor of Saratoga.

  3. Isaac Newton, part-time scientist, Master of the Royal Mint, alchemist, heretic & full time Bible researcher, "last of the Babylonians" (JM Keynes)

    History's summation on Newton has been kind.

  4. Galileo, trimmer. (In contrast to Giordano Bruno, who went to the stake for his wild SF speculations)

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