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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Why History Doesn't Matter: An unreachable horizon?

[This is the concluding paragraph - and caveat - of the still-very-much-unfinished chapter 3 ('Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it: History as Memory') of Why History Doesn't Matter..  I think I need to get it out there as a rider to other provisional discussions of that book-project and its ideas.]

There is one very important caveat to my general recommendation that the aim of history should be to free people from perpetual commemoration of the past, from identification with past identities, and from the projection onto the past, and thus eternalisation, of modern identities.  It is one which leaves that recommendation with the status of an ideal, a horizon towards which we must work rather than a simple item of business to be put directly in effect.  In some ways, it relates to the areas where there is still much to do in compiling the factual record of the past, discussed in chapter 1.  It is all very well for me, a privileged white male from western Europe, to tell people to let it go, to stop identifying with the battles and oppositions of the past.  I don’t – as I will argue further in the next chapter – have to live with the burden of the past.  The past itself is as light as air, as I have argued, and that is always true in all situations, but the use of the past to justify the present, whether unconsciously or not, can create a very heavy burden for others.  It is not for me to tell African Americans or black or Asian Britons to forget the history of slavery and colonialism, especially when white Americans and Britons celebrate that legacy.  When white Americans and white Britons object to the removal of statues commemorating the figures who created and defended the systems that oppressed the world’s non-European population as an attack on their ‘heritage and history’ they underline and perpetuate their association with those systems and their place in them.  Who then has the right to tell the descendants of the oppressed, who still live in societies that preserve all too many of the elements of those systems, that it was ‘a long time ago’ and that they should just learn to live with it?  To make this clearer, let me use another example: who has the right to tell the Catholic population of Northern Ireland to forget the history of their oppression by the protestants of the province when the latter organise annual parades through Catholic districts to celebrate that history and defend their political supremacy?  In all these cases, it is for the more powerful to forget first.  Only when the groups who gain politically, economically and culturally from a system that has its roots in the past recognise that fact, only when they face up to the lessons of that history sufficiently, only when they learn that an appreciation of the evils of slavery and colonialism does not materially affect them (indeed in most cases it would benefit them), and that the critical appraisal of this history is not a personal attack on them as people, only when they dismantle the residue of those historic systems of oppression: then – and only then – might one be able to think about a different attitude to that history on the part of non-white inhabitants of Europe and the Americas.  Let me also make clear that – as intimated earlier and as I will argue in chapter 8 – this does not mean dealing with historical slavery in an ethically or morally detached sense.  I have no idea how realistic this idea is; there is too much work to be done for me even to envisage it becoming viable in my lifetime.  It’s not an objective that can be reached purely by governmental fiat, though that must surely play a key role.  I remain committed to it, nonetheless, as a horizon towards which we must continually strive.  This argument is developed in the next chapter, on the ‘burden’ of the past.