issue 247 - September 1993
|Simply... how history has been hijacked|
Nationalist chauvinism is perhaps the main distortion of historical understanding all over the world. It’s an old story – my country right or wrong. For all too many historians their own countries have a special destiny and represent superior values to their devious and barbarous neighbours.
Double standards abound. The English attack the excesses of the French Revolution but prefer to forget they also executed a king. The French blame the English for the persecution of Joan of Arc – forgetting the complicity of their own Catholic Church. Jewish history talks of the struggle to be free of the evil Pharaoh but gives short shrift to the Hebrews’ own massacres and conquests. US history, meanwhile, is one of expanding human rights and freedoms – except for natives, blacks, radicals and small countries in Central America.
The good old days
This is a potent myth going back to the story of the Garden of Eden. The idea of a lost ‘golden age’ is particularly appealing to the old and those displaced from positions of wealth and power. The appeal often lies in the clarity and stability of the former age: when women and servants knew their ‘place’ and the prerogatives of empire were unchallenged; when there were still ‘family values’ and respect for authority. But as these examples imply, one person’s good old days were another person’s nightmare.
This kind of nostalgia fuels a fundamentalist reading of history: an era of true belief (Victorian England, the natural authority of the Tsars, the ‘right-thinking’ caliphs of early Islam) can be returned to by rooting out the immorality of the decadent present. This can be tricky. Real things are lost in the course of history: the destruction of community and commons by the Industrial Revolution, for example. But appreciation easily gives way to idealization.
Tradition cloaks the powerful and their institutions in the robes of respectability. But these are often skin deep and of quite recent vintage. A plethora of patriotic symbols created to inspire mass loyalty – flags, national anthems, equestrian statuary – date only from the latter part of the nineteenth century. Such traditions were even exported to Africa, where elaborate British, Portuguese and German rituals of imperial monarchy were fused with African symbols. Favoured tribes were encouraged to create ‘tribal traditions’ of land tenure, political authority and customary law which did not exist in pre-colonial Africa – and worked to the detriment of women, youth and people from other tribes. A relatively fluid set of pre-colonial identities was frozen by rigid ‘traditions’ that Africa still suffers from to this day.
A time-honoured view of history that ascribes society’s misfortunes to the plotting of Catholics, Jews, Communists, Freemasons, Capitalists or what-have-you. This idea is particularly popular with the Right in general and fascists in particular, who see the world as controlled by a vast network of unlikely conspirators. According to works like the fantastical Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Jewish bankers and atheist communists made common cause to promote oppression, cultural decadence and race-mixing. Modern fascists like British historian David Irving spill a great deal of ink to convince a sceptical world that the Nazi concentration camps were a public-relations invention of these same Jews and leftists. The Cold War playground of spies and subversives provided excellent raw material for the eager conspiracy historian. But this type of history easily gives way to gossip: less dramatic notions such as economic interests and political influences explain super-power behavior better.
History is too often seen only through the eyes of Europe – or those European settlers, missionaries and fortune-hunters who ended up colonizing the rest of the world. This form of tunnel vision sees all progress and development as flowing from European innovation and genius. European culture is civilization; the rest of humanity is simply what anthropologist Eric Wolfe calls ‘peoples without history’. Africans, Asians and native Americans are reduced to irrational resistors, passive victims or silent witnesses. Their contribution in work and culture – whether African labour or native American agriculture, Islamic mathematics or Chinese science – is trivialized. Their histories begin only when they encounter Europe. Even when the terrible costs of European colonialism are realistically calculated, these peoples are seldom granted their due as historical actors in their own right.
The nobility of the oppressed
Those who resist the forms of history that celebrate the virtues of the winners stand in danger of romanticizing the losers. Cartoon histories of noble workers and fat capitalists give little real sense of the flesh-and-blood struggles against oppression. Such an approach to ‘history from below’ tends to portray women, black people or the underclass as either passive victims or brave resistors. Their contradictory humanity and how it changes over time is reduced to a flattering but sterile nobility. Their hopes and fears, idiosyncrasies and ambitions, are flattened to a dull sameness.
From the top down
This is history from the perspective of the winners. A series of great men – usually politicans (referred to as statesmen), war heroes, entrepreneurs, monarchs and important thinkers – are responsible for the progressive evolution of society. Its repetitive storyline sees the members of a revolving élite falling in and out of grace. They hand down reforms – the right to vote, the abolition of slavery, the right to form unions, universal education, welfare programs – to a passive and grateful public. This view minimizes the hard struggles of ordinary people to force these concessions out of recalcitrant and reactionary powerholders. The careers of the rich and famous are substituted for the rich diversity of popular culture and its many forms of resistance.
The certainty of progress
The notion that history has a definite goal has often seduced humankind. Old-fashioned versions tended to see history as the enactment of God’s will on earth. More modern variants include the Marxist notion of a classless society and the various techno-fantasies of believers in the forward march of progress. Most of this is wishful thinking which ends up cramming people and societies into categories where they just do not fit. It can make for crude history and pretty ruthless politics. The by-products of ‘progress’, not least of which is the potential ecological collapse of the planet, should lead to a healthy scepticism about any pre-ordained results for humanity’s historical adventure.