The New Statesman Essay - History as a Banana Republic accessory
With schoolchildren being taught virtual history, we are in danger of forgetting the sins of our for
History has become all things to all people. In Zimbabwe, the injustices of colonial history have become an excuse for murder and mayhem. In Chechnya, the persistent vilification of an entire people rationalises their removal from present history. Yet, in London, in the David Irving trial, there is a collective jubilation over a vindication of history.
The news abounds with the uses and abuses of history. Not all falsifiers of history are exposed and denounced. Not all manipulation of history is now actionable: if the principles vindicated in the Irving trial were applied across the board, international politics would come to a grinding halt.
The Holocaust notwithstanding, history as a profession does not have a distinguished record in preserving and acknowledging, or building its judgements upon, the testimony of suffering. We accept, in the case of the Holocaust, the overriding human duty to pay attention to the witness of victims. Ultimately, it was the testimony of witnesses that called Irving to account. But the suffering of the Australian Aborigines and native Americans, for example, elicits no such historical imperative. Both peoples were subject to systematic pre-modern genocide, but are still seeking their day in court to substantiate their historic right to what was rightfully theirs.
It is conventional, professional history that compounds the legal problems of Australian Aborigines and native Americans. Which people lived where, when? These are the details of historical questions. The selection of documents, manipulation of evidence and difficulties in translating the terms used in documents lead to the conclusion, in many instances, that there are no descendants through whom restitution can be claimed. The plight of the Aborigines may raise pangs of guilty conscience in some white Australians, but their voices as witnesses to their own genocide and suffering has no special claim before the Australian judiciary.
There are and have been many awful events in history that have not left such extensive paper trails, such obscene mounds of physical evidence as the Nazi death camps. If routine mass murder, so amply documented, can become embroiled in historical disputation, what chance of illumination on horrors with scantier documentation? Or no documentation at all, as in the case of Australia. Captain Cook was instructed to make a treaty with any inhabitants he encountered. He considered the Aborigines to be no better than wild animals, and claimed the entire continent for Britain - without any treaty. This allowed for the ethnic cleansing and mass murder of all Aborigines with legal impunity and no paper trail. Indeed, the last mass murder was as recent as 1958 at Coniston, Northern Territory. The belated, recent acknowledgement that Australian Aborigines were the original inhabitants is far from giving them a legal right to reclaim their land.
Proper remembrance should teach us that the abuses of history are merely the flip side of its normal usages. History is always selective, constantly manipulated, customarily prone to mistranslation and uniformly written with an ideological bias - frequently with racial undertones.
Take selection. Our contemporary understanding of British history has gone through many revisions. The entire thesis of E P Thompson (The Making of the English Working Class) and Christopher Hill (The English Revolution) turns on the faulty selection of previous historians. Available material that documents the activities, ideas, concerns and nature of important sections of the population, such as the working classes, had been selected out of proper historical consideration. To change the selection is to alter the historical perspective on events.
Consider manipulation. When we study the history of European expansion, we consider it as a contest between European nations. It is an historic episode about the contest between Spain and Portugal, and then the entry of the Dutch and the British into the arena they opened. Where, in this historically manufactured, manipulated frame of reference are the consequences, impact and effect on the peoples, lands and systems on which they intruded? By sleight of innumerable historians' pens, we seldom stop to ask such basic questions. This perennial manipulation, historic inevitability, gives rise to colonialism; and some historians, Marx among them, manipulate the facts so much that colonialism comes out as a beneficial enterprise.
This is why, to take an example, the history of the Raj written by the British is radically different from the same history written by Indian scholars. Even in India, Muslim historians tend to project the Moguls as benevolent, while Hindu history sees them as marauding invaders. Moreover, as the so-called "subaltern" historians have shown, the same history manipulated from the viewpoint of rulers looks rather different when seen from the perspectives of the peasants.
Manipulation often involves mistranslation. Language is a flexible medium and linguistic usage changes; thus, taking the modern usage of a word as its meaning in an historic document opens endless avenues for new interpretations. In Muslim history, for example, power has been shifted from "the people" to "religious scholars" simply by changing the meaning of the word ijma, or consensus. The "consensus of the people" became "consensus of the religious scholars"; democracy was written out of Islam by a sleight of hand.
As for ideological bias, it has always been the historian's metier. The victors get to write history, and they write it to favour themselves. Whig history, history written to show the inevitability of the rise of liberalism, is nothing but ideological bias. Marxist history is ideology as a means of selecting, manipulating and reordering our understanding of historic process. Western history is founded on racial bias. Primitives, savages, barbarians, tyrants and despots abound in history books. They are always "other" people. "We" in "our" history never see ourselves as being primitive, committing acts of savagery, being barbaric, acting as tyrants and despots.
History is always revisionism. Only occasional revisions work to bring justice to victims silenced by dominant history. More often, historic revisionism works to spread the deathly pall of moral neutrality over the horrors of history.
If revisionism worked to redress the imbalances, then the hackneyed idea that history is made by western civilisation would have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Instead, the ideology of western historians, from Oswald Spengler to Arnold J Toynbee, which presented the history of the west as a great Universal River, continues to be the unquestioned arena in which all history happens. The global success of Francis Fukuyama's obnoxious and trite book, The End of History, is but the latest testimony to the inflexible, unrevised grip of dominant history.
In addition to the dominant, Eurocentric and frankly racist, conception of history, we now have to contend with postmodern notions of history. Michel Foucault in particular has reduced history to archaeology, a remnant of a dead and distant past with no living presence. In postmodern history, the emphasis is firmly on abandoning any sense of historical continuity. The gap between ideology and history is collapsed and history becomes a multicultural salad bowl. In postmodern history, selection becomes a high art. This is best illustrated in such works of postmodern history as Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's Millennium and the television programme based on it; here the history of the last thousand years is represented as snapshots of achievements of individuals and cultures.
Postmodernism conceives itself as a struggle against history. Postmodern writers and historians thus freely plunder history to render it meaningless, to drain it of truth, to fictionalise it, to appropriate it. Postmodernist novelists such as Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie freely mimic history, dig up its remnants, select and juxtapose, manipulate and assemble, put different histories of different cultures side by side in a museum of modern knowledge.
Indeed, this kind of magical realist history, as I discovered to my horror when my daughter was doing A-level history, is now taught in the classroom. It goes by the name of virtual history. It consists of asking hypothetical questions about events that never happened instead of wrestling with understanding what actually occurred.
This virtual history, despite being dubbed "historical shit" by E P Thompson, is the latest academic fashion. But it is dangerous. Making history a plaything, where actual events are no more important than flights of fancy, breeds amnesia and spreads it as a cultural product to be consumed by us all. We revisit horrors of the past as nostalgic designer products in shops such as the American chain "Banana Republic" and the South-east Asian chain "East India Company", where colonial history is packaged as postmodern fashion. The search for "roots" or Africa often ends up as a television series: as a collection of images, or pastiche, of some romantic past. In every case, the object of the exercise is to make the multinational postmodernist consumer feel at home with the injustices of history and to legitimise the injustices of the present.
How this historic amnesia works can be seen in Chechnya. A few weeks ago, we were cautioned not to accept the "excited reports" of people in refugee camps. The caution came from Igor Mironov, Russia's Commissioner for Human Rights. The "excited reports" are the accounts of survivors and victims of the Russian blitzkreig on Chechnya. Tsarist history had viewed the region as a land of bandits and brigands needing to be colonised and subdued. Postmodern historic amnesia transfers that propagandist history to contemporary reality. Seamlessly, dominant and postmodern history combine to enable new Russia to reawaken old stereotypes, manufacture pretexts (as when the KGB itself blew up buildings in Moscow and blamed the Chechens), and proceed unchallenged to the mass destruction of an entire nation.
History collapses as a result of amnesia and denial. There was no 50-year wait for a trial of past injustices before Mironov could airily claim that Russia is a civilised, modern state, as if that somehow is a defence against eradicating a whole nation. It is not only in the law courts of London that the right of survivors to be heard is on trial.
When amnesia rules, historic experience is replaced with political expediency, as in the case of Tony Blair's embrace of Vladimir Putin, the Butcher of Grozny. The need to do business with Putin is akin to the fluttering piece of paper that another prime minister brought back from Munich. An ethical foreign policy evaporates as victims of history are artificially and selectively categorised: the Kosovars are, the Chechens are not.
Thus, in all its forms - conventional, modern, postmodern, multicultural - history is selective, manipulative and ideologically biased. It is a battle zone. Even the most objective history can only be partial and interpretative. It often claims, as its first casualty, truth. Historic denial, not just the denial of the Holocaust, must be confronted. Just as the historic reality of the Holocaust is intrinsically tied up with the Jewish identity and the survival of the Jewish people, so the sacred histories of other cultures are intimately linked to their survival.
History provides non-western cultures with a repository of ideas and principles to question the present. This is why history has a constant presence in non-western cultures and is periodically re-enacted in the form of rituals such as the Shia remembrance, in the Islamic month of Muharram, of the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandsons at the battle of Kerbala. The ever-present historical memory provides a source of cultural identity, social cohesion, a sense of permanence among change and means of rejuvenating the present and shaping the future.
Without a sense of continuity and confidence in their history, all non-western cultures, as well as minority cultures in the west, become archaeological sites fit only to be represented in museums or exist only as a source of entertainment for postmodern tourists. Historic identity becomes problematic; and with the erasure of historic identity, their future as living cultures becomes threatened. The global rise of identity politics, which often goes under the rubric of fundamentalism, is a product of the postmodern onslaught on the notion of historic truth as well as the modern marginalisation of all non-western histories.
And that is precisely why history cannot be a morality-free zone.
Only the victims of history can save us from amnesia and moral neutrality. When it comes to the Holocaust, we must all feel as Jews to prevent ourselves thinking as Nazis. The lesson is not singular, a one-off, to be applied in one historic instance only; it is universal. The failure to apply this moral methodology is not only the shame of history as a profession, it is our shame as moral beings. To get at the truth, we must always arraign history in the court of moral judgement, and we must always give a platform to the victims of history.