Is History Dangerous?

NCH London | July 9, 2018

Is History Dangerous? 

By Tatyana Goodwin

NCH Essay Competition 2018 Third Place


History is an essential part of cultural and national identity. It informs our worldviews, adds conviction to our opinions and shapes the foundations of political and economic policy. It is incontestable that history acts as an essential part of society.  But often history is viewed as a dangerous thing; some may argue that in an era of pessimism, it is easier to blame the workings of history (the unfixable) than to confront the aspects of society as being the essential causes to our failures and fixations. “It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir,” Heaney declares, and while this rhetoric seems initially appealing, it is essential that we recognise that history in itself cannot be dangerous or non-dangerous; it is not so binary to be committed to the linear. Indeed, from a post modernist perspective, the commitment to historical understanding is the “refusal to see history as linear”. Instead, it is in the hands of the individual where history gains its power. But to understand the importance of history in its influence upon us, we must first understand the importance of something which I shall term ‘non-history’.

Without history, our lives become committed to the arbitrary, lacking both a moral conviction and justification to our actions. History builds the very foundations of our opinions, our worldviews, and illuminates our ignorances. This is the knowledge that allows us to move towards a clarification of conceptual knowledge. Without such clarification, the individual is able to pervert accounts (which should be derived from absolution) into the arbitrary. When the foundations of views are eradicated, it is impossible for them to be seen as weak, as these foundations no longer exist as foundations at all. Political dogma, therefore, gains strength not when it is derived from a misinterpretation of history, but rather no history at all.

During the takeover of Cambodia in April of 1975, the Khmer Rouge established the political notion of ‘year 0’, an inert ideology birthed from the formation of non-history. This essentially abolished all previous history of nation and state in order to ‘restore’ Cambodia to its ‘mythic past’ and establish a total agrarian society. Within this regime, so called ‘new people’ were targeted. This would include intellectuals, doctors and lawyers- and later, this ideology simply became an excuse to justify the mass execution of non-conformists of a new regime. To facilitate ‘year 0’, all ethnic and religious heritage was abolished in favour of a ‘purification’ of society. Pol Pot declared that there was “No gain in keeping, no loss in weeding out”. By eliminating historical past, Pol Pot was able to polarise his country towards the ‘progression’ of his future rather than returning to old habits and customs, and indeed views on the rights and wrongs of the world. Richard Evans writes, “All history thus has a present-day purpose and inspiration, which may be moral or political or ideological.”

‘Year 0’, by the time Pol Pot’s regime had come into fruition, was far from an alien ideology. During the French revolution and the terror that followed, it was used to justify the destruction of society and nonconformity against the new order. All previous and religious identity was swept away under a mass mobilisation that moved to condemn the ‘other’. It is hard to know exactly how many people were killed in the Terror following the French revolution , but between June 1793 and the end of July 1794, there were 16,594 official death sentences. During the Khmer rouge campaign in Cambodia, the number is closer to 2.5 million (it is important to note, however, that this is not just executions, but deaths caused by factors such as the man-made famine. Pol Pot is quoted a, stating “Hunger is the most effective disease”). It is obvious that massive human suffering can often rise from an abuse of history: we need to look no further than the current situation in Israel, which sees Palestinian minorities being oppressed in favour of a perverse abuse of ‘affirmative action’- the idea that we must compensate the current generations for past historical atrocities.  But what we see from a lack of history is far worse; it is a world devoid of conversation, a world where a new order can be established on few, fragile foundations in the name of revolution. When we seek to eradicate cultural, religious and societal identity through the elimination of such historical identity, we make the components of society exist as arbitrary things, determined by the individual and their own personal agenda rather than a plural society intent on progression. An abolishment of such common mores has grave implications for the human condition.

While these examples of non-history allow us to condemn and maintain an epistemic distance to such situations, the ever growing proximity of non history and its role in liberal democracy is increasingly disturbing.This is more than just a perversion of history, it is not misinterpreted, but disregarded. The removal of historical importance is also a non-history, as it removes the fundamental purpose of such knowledge, to maintain the boundaries and moral absolution of society. As Evans declares, in an increasingly post modernist world, “the past no longer has the power to confine the researcher within the bounds of facts”.  Following the September 11 attacks in America, Bush declared that “this crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.” Later, Alexander Cockburn would refer to Bush’s war on terrorism as the “tenth crusade”. Bush’s repeated use of such a phrase with such negligence for its historical significance is representative of the West’s obsession with disregarding history to justify its prestige projects. Westist dismissal of history acts to maintain its function as a seat of control and civilisation. Therefore Bush’s detachment from the real historical implications of the word ‘crusade’ – a war on religion, an unstoppable terror perverted by the history books – allows his rhetoric to become unfalsifiable, immune to conversation and historical opposition. Indeed, “Mr. Bush’s supporters insist that the rhetoric of Providence is as American as cherry pie” and it is clear that the use of non-history is becoming increasingly frequented in the search of strengthening political dogma and nationalism. This increasingly unsettling image taints the growth  of true liberal democracy, which becomes arbitrary and perverted by those who seek to disregard the foundations of their nations.

Indeed, as ‘Little Britain’ we are  becoming increasingly focused on a ‘negative’ censorship, not eradicating the consequences of history, but disregarding them. For example, the disastrous consequences of colonisation are overruled by the glory of the British Empire, allowing the government to maintain control through the deceit of British pride. Even though history may appear to grow more visible today, it only illuminates the role of non-history in the foundations of society. Only now are we seeing the huge implications of the Conservative government’s heinous abandonment of responsibility concerning the Windrush Generation. This brings to light centuries of racism and cultural prejudice that lie at the heart of our government, all of which have arisen through the disregard of the importance of past convictions. Forgotten history poses much more of a threat to socio-political conversations than history which has been continually open to dialogue.

This is why, in so many established ‘liberal democracies’, the growth of nationalism continually threatens to destabilise the political order. We turn insular, focusing on nationalistic pride in order to compensate for our apathy and ignorance concerning our commitment to history. If we genuinely believe in history, and work towards making the past far more visible, we can establish the natural absolution of truth and falsehood. As Haack says, “everyone who believes anything…implicitly acknowledges…that there is such a thing as truth”. But in a world were opinion increasingly overrules any truth, knowledge or justification, in a world where politics is built upon the arbitrary nature of the world, this is a statement which is so often rejected in favour of political rhetoric.

Our opinions, aided by the growth of non-history, develop into bliks, unfalsifiable beliefs. These are not built upon weak foundations, but rather no foundations at all, facilitated by the growth of non history. This is what threatens a society working in plurality in search of progression: the growth of individual opinion becoming unopposed, a disintegration of essential morality which evolves into the arbitrary.  The phrase “I cannot be responsible for my ancestors past” is so often thrown around in light of new historical truths. Though problematic in itself (it rejects the role of the past in forming the state of the present), a far more problematic rhetoric would assert an indifference of history that leaves us floundering in the dark. It is the path of the blind man that is most dangerous; the man with his eyes open can determine the danger of the road ahead.


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