Thursday, April 26, 2018

History and truth

At The Electric Agora, E. John Winner reflected recently on a tragic – and relatively late – episode in the long history of the destruction of Native American culture and society: the Battle (or Massacre) of Wounded Knee. I have only a general sense of the history involved here, but the basic themes will be familiar to anyone who has lived in a colony or former colony or has knowledge of European colonialism.

What many people don't realize is that in many cases the main actors on the European side saw their actions in positive and idealistic terms. I know a bit about British colonial activity during the 18th and 19th centuries and, if you read the letters and reports of the people involved (administrators, professionals, etc.), the sense of responsibility and moral seriousness is often palpable. Certainly they saw what they were doing in very different terms from how we tend to see it today.

That said, in most cases they underestimated the complexity and sophistication of the indigenous cultures with which they came into contact and which in many cases were almost totally destroyed.

There is, I think, a general acceptance that politics – and especially geopolitics – doesn't actually work according to principles of justice; in other words, that wealth, technology and ultimately force are more important driving forces. Consequently, claims based on moral or justice-related grounds are often seen in rhetorical and political terms. They may not even necessarily be believed in (in any real sense) by those initiating or promoting the claims. Claims based on generalized notions of justice (and especially on notions of social justice) are often wielded merely as political weapons.

My own inclination in dealing with historical narratives is to try not to expropriate them for political purposes, because this inevitably leads to distortion. The aim becomes not so much to understand what happened as to find or develop a politically effective narrative, to have a useful story. The story is judged not according to criteria such as balance or truth (i.e. whether it derives from a plausible interpretation of available primary sources) but rather in terms of perceived usefulness for bringing about a desired political outcome.

I am more comfortable dealing with terms like "probity", "decency", "cruelty" and "betrayal" than with more abstract and generalized concepts (like "justice" or "social progress"). The former can often be read out of primary sources fairly directly. By contrast, the latter – more often than not – are read into such sources by historians or activists who have their own preconceived ideas about what justice or social progress is or should look like.

We come to terms with the past only to the extent that we understand it. And understanding history inevitably involves being open to a range of (often conflicting) perspectives or points of view.