Let me start with a disclaimer

-Have we been bewitched by history?
-Why has history, that was a goddess for Hegel, eventually become a vaudeville stage for so many?

1. In The Uses and Abuses of History, Margaret MacMillan explains the many ways in which history affects us all. She shows how only a deeper engagement with history, both as individuals and in the sphere of public debate, helps us understand the world better. But she also warns us that history is and can be misused and lead to misunderstandings. History has been and is used to justify religious movements and political campaigns alike. Dictators often do (and have) suppress(ed) history, because it undermines their ideas, agendas, or claims to absolute authority. Nationalists have told (and do tell) false, one-sided, or misleading stories about the past. Political leaders do (and have) mobilize(d) their people by telling lies. It is imperative that we have an understanding of the past and avoid these and other common traps in thinking to which many fall prey.

2. MacMillan further says, “There are also many lessons and much advice offered by history, and it is too easy to pick and choose what you want. The past can be used for almost anything you want to do in the present. It is abused when we create lies about the past or write histories that show only one perspective. We can draw our lessons carefully …or badly. That does not mean we should not look to history for a better understanding.” We have to allow that there are at least two sides to every story. History can be an important part of bridging this divide only if we are willing to lift up all the rocks and shine our lights on what is lurking underneath –prominently issues of human rights (HR).

Conventional historians have made assertions about the world as if they were facts while being completely blind to the subjectivity inherent in knowing anything

-History must be interpreted from the perspective of when it was written: disagree!! (Edmundo Moure)

3. Nations rewrite their history, from the textbook up, to support how their people are to see the past. Instinctively, we may recoil from this idea believing that it is better to turn over all the rocks and confront what is lurking underneath… However, it is justified to question the stories historians tell, because so much of their identity is both shaped by and bound up with our history. That is why dealing with the past, in deciding on which version we want, or on what we want to remember and what to forget, can and does become so politically charged. The ends do not always justify the means though. It is indeed possible to chronicle events in a certain way in the pursuit of politically justified outcomes.

4. Critically consider the view of the historical role of Napoleon and you will see the true reality: He used the instruments of the financial powers of the day to annihilate the principles of the Revolution of 1792-1794 –including liberté, fraternité, egalite’, i.e., HR. Nevertheless, Buonaparte always purported to give the impression of him acting in the name of France and in the name of republican principles. The same can be said about the founding fathers of the United States: In the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 they installed a regime that guaranteed to the powerful the control of Congress and made money the decisive element in presidential elections. The US Constitution is still current with nothing significant in the latter having been changed in over two and a half centuries. (Louis Casado)

5. Take the US one step further: Most of the wars the US has fought (fights) are actually not wars of necessity, but imperial wars of choice; it often also talked-itself-into fighting the earlier imperial wars of others (for France in Vietnam, for instance…). We can, therefore, not let this obscure the more typical disastrous consequences of America’s many wars of choice, particularly when the United States has gone to war for terrible reasons and ended up causing havoc at home and abroad. Mind you, the mainstream media have proved no match for the American security state; it is not even clear if the mainstream media are trying. Since the birth of the United Nations in 1945, such wars of choice have been totally against international law. Yet, in wars of choice, pretexts override reasons! (Jeffrey Sachs) So, you see? If we examine conventional history critically, its accounts have given us the true glances of colonial aggression and/or of corporate conquest endeavors. (L. Casado)

6. Or take contemporary history: It certainly belies the neoliberal idea that markets, if entirely ‘free’, bring only goodness for all.* How will a recast history from the perspective of HR politics look at this? Sympathetic readers may, however, question the historical reconstructions of history I am saying is needed. Nothing new here: Marx’s working class was neither homogeneous nor always history’s protagonist. (Mitchell Cohen)
*: We probably need more in depth studies on the social and economic evolution of history than studies on the evolution of markets… does this mean the future needs more Karl Marx and less Adam Smith? (Revista Primera Piedra, Chile)

What so many tend to miss is the historical connection between the human rights framework and the people’s struggles against oppression

-Is it that history, on top of ‘happening’ also tells us something? Indeed! Thousands of persons have had outstanding courage, but have fallen into oblivion. History has simply ignored them. So, what obligation do we then have towards these silent heroes of history? (Milan Kundera in his novel La Broma, Seix Barral, 1987)

7. Historically, many of those struggles were, of course, decolonization struggles. But then, in many cases, they became the struggles of ordinary people whose European colonizers were replaced by domestic leaders cut from very similar cloth. We have for too long seen the manipuation of the HR concept by the elites. Just because the HR framework was forged in the furnace of decolonization –at least in part– does not mean that it automatically served the cause of the have-nots. It is clear that this was a project of the elites. Decolonization may well have liberated millions from oppressive imperial rule. But for so many of those, whom Frantz Fanon called ‘the wretched of the earth’, one colonialism was replaced by another –the nationalist leaders fitting into the shoes of former colonial powers who set the economic rules. Mind you, the essence of HR and decolonization are basically the same, i.e., the struggle for freedom against the abuses of power. The modern HR framework was born in the crucible of decolonization. It is a historical context we would do well to remember. What the analyses of conventional history tend to miss is the historical connection between HR principles and standards and the people’s struggles against oppression. Historically, many of those struggles were, of course, decolonization struggles. Conventional history lost our organic connection with the struggles for HR. (Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International)

“History is written by the winners” is the popular view. But your winner most often is not my winner!

-In the now and then, the steering wheel of conventional history ignored the fate of too many unheard people. There has been some kind of a ‘catastrophically real historical optimism’, but the same has always been the purview of the dominant/winning classes. The rest of us have been left knowing little of the real history –living under the influence of a conventional history that focuses us on that fake optimism. It is clear we have to get out of that history that has left us paradoxically inclined to pardon the criminals of history. (M. Kundera)

8. A lot depends on what narrative historians have tried to build. History ought to be collective memory and not just loosely chronicle the fate of the winning groups.** History is being rewritten all the time. Sometimes it is rewritten, because new information has come to light, perhaps from previously classified documents. When this happens, there is hope in HR circles. We joyfully anticipate that more information will deepen our understanding and right the wrongs of history. But rewriting frequently happens in the service of further building a narrow national narrative that ignores the details that ‘do not fit’. Such revisionists of history perhaps like our history to be uncomplicated simplistically identifying both the good and not-good from a biased perspective.
**: In conventional history, it is posited that the winners were born to win and the losers born to loose and also that the poverty of the poor is not an outcome of history, but a curse of biology. (?) If the winners have nothing to repent about, the losers have nothing to complain about… (Eduardo Galeano, Apuntes para Fin de Siglo)

9. In his own sarcastic style, the late Eduardo Galeano actually wrote quite a bit about the fallacies of conventional history. Here is a sample:
• To pass our history exams, we are asked to –over and over– repeat the following lesson: ‘Selective memory is a good recipe for quieting the minds of the masses’. What has been done unto them (the numerous nobodys) is condemned to oblivion.
• The history we need does not attempt to bury those who died little deaths, but it attempts to perpetuate them. The hope is to gain the trust and support of the perennially ignored social groups, especially the youth, who are the ones called upon to change the course of history.
• What good is global history if it only reflects facts as they appear in the red press?
• The statues that I see missing are as many as the statues I see too many of.***
• Has conventional history mounted a ‘machine of silence’ that attempts to mask reality, erase memories, empty social consciousness? Is conventional history a pedagogy of amnesia and lies?
• Is humiliation the fate deserved by the weak?
• Do conventional historians perhaps think that countries like to be invaded?
***: Heroes do not have to be perfect, and we can learn just as much from their imperfections as from their achievements. (M. MacMillan)

What do we want from history?

10. Do we want to learn from it, with the hopes that, in doing so, we will avoid mistakes by understanding the experiences of the past? After all, we can almost always find a basis for HR claims in the past if we looked hard enough.

11. As with medicine, there is a certain fallibility to history. If we selectively look at the past from the accounts of conventional historians, then the situation becomes precarious when we exert pressure to change that history. Instead of looking at history as objectively as possible, conventional historians will challenge us allowing only those interpretations that are consistent with the narrative they are invested in. These historians have worked assiduously to recover old stories and piece together the history of what they chose to call their reality as though it had an unbroken existence since antiquity. The cumulative result has been to create an unreal yet influential version of how history evolved.

12. Would the scholars have gone-on with their speculations if they could have seen what they were preparing the way for? Take, for example, the hideous regimes of Hitler and Mussolini with their elevation of the nation and the race to the supreme good. When one selectively reaches back into the past to justify claims, one reduces the complexity of the history of HR and of humanity. If we cut ourselves off from the full complex scope of history, it quickly becomes clear that the conventional version does not fit with the HR narrative that we pursue. We must learn from the past so that we can apply those lessons to the situations we are facing today. (from M. MacMillan)

Bottom line: Have we been bewitched by history?

-We have to open up a new era of human history in which HR will neither be at the margins of history nor under the yoke of conventional history, but instead will allow us to direct and write a new fairer history. (M. Kundera)

13. Human nature has two sides: It has a dark side, to which nationalism and militarism appeal; but our species also has a genius for cooperation, which we can see in the growth of culture and of calls for greater attention to people’s rights. Is there then not a need to reform our educational systems, particularly the teaching of history? As it is taught today, history is a chronicle of power struggles and war, told from a biased nationalistic point of view. We are taught that our own country is always heroic and in the right. We urgently need to replace this indoctrination in chauvinism by a reformed view of history more centered on HR. Human history is stained with the blood of wars and genocides. Today, this dark, aggressive side of human nature threatens to plunge our civilization into an all-destroying thermonuclear war. The terrible aggression seen in wars and genocides is directed towards outsiders. Human nature seems to exhibit what might be called ‘tribalism’, i.e., altruism towards one’s own group/ aggression towards outsiders. Today, this tendency towards tribalism threatens both human civilization and the biosphere. We are all specialists, who understand only a tiny fragment of the enormous edifice. (John Scales Avery) Always remember: Many died so that you could be born! (Lawrence Krauss)

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
Your comments are welcome at schuftan@gmail.com
All readers can be found in www.claudioschuftan.com

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