Sara Sheridan describes one way in which history informs the present. This chimes in with quite a bit of economic research which shows how history shapes societies today.
The latest example of this comes from Alberto Alesina and colleagues. They show (pdf) how societies which traditionally made intensive use of the plough have lower fertility even today than societies which used other tools such as the hoe. This, they say, is because child labour is of less use to plough-based agriculture than it is to hoe-based farming - and this different economic incentive to have children shaped cultural norms which persist long after society has moved away from agriculture.
This, though, is but one example. Graziella Bertocchi and Arcangelo Dimico describe how American slavery affects inequality and educational attainment today. Daron Acemoglu and colleagues have shown (pdf) that the holocaust still affects population and voting behaviour now. Nathan Nunn has analyzed the impact of slavery upon African societies now. And Stanley Engermann and Kenneth Sokoloff have shown (pdf) that inequality and slavery in south America has left the region relatively poor today.
All of this confirms Edmund Burke’s famous saying that society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Like all partnerships it binds us and changes us in unexpected ways.
What’s more, it is in the very nature of things that we do not fully appreciate this, because, as Jolie says, “culture is what you don’t notice” - but culture is the route through which yesterday affects today.
All this matters, because it stands opposed to a nasty strand of libertarianism and managerialism - the notion that people are, or can be, self-made men. But it’s not so easy. We are - for good in the UK and for bad in many other places - the creations of history.