Magazine article New Internationalist

Simply: How History Has Been Hijacked

Magazine article New Internationalist

Simply: How History Has Been Hijacked

Article excerpt

National destiny

NATIONALIST chauvinism is perhaps the main distortion of historical understanding all over the world. It's an old story -- my country right or wrong. For all too many historians their own countries have a special destiny and represent superior values to their devious and barbarous neighbours.

Double standards abound. The English attack the excesses of the French Revolution but prefer to forget they also executed a king. The French blame the English for the persecution of Joan of Arc -- forgetting the complicity of their own Catholic Church. Jewish history talks of the struggle to be free of the evil Pharaoh but gives short shrift to the Hebrews' own massacres and conquests. US history, meanwhile, is one of expanding human rights and freedoms -- except for natives, blacks, radicals and small countries in Central America.

The good old days

THIS is a potent myth going back to the story of the Garden of Eden. The idea of a lost 'golden age' is particularly appealing to the old and those displaced from positions of wealth and power. The appeal often lies in the clarity and stability of the former age: when women and servants knew their 'place' and the prerogatives of empire were unchallenged; when there were still 'family values' and respect for authority. But as these examples imply, one person's good old days were another person's nightmare.

This kind of nostalgia fuels a fundamentalist reading of history: an era of true belief (Victorian England, the natural authority of the Tsars, the 'right - thinking' caliphs of early Islam) can be returned to by rooting out the immorality of the decadent present. This can be tricky. Real things are lost in the course of history: the destruction of community and commons by the Industrial Revolution, for example. But appreciation easily gives way to idealization.

Manufactured tradition

TRADITION cloaks the powerful and their institutions in the robes of respectability. But these are often skin deep and of quite recent vintage. A plethora of patriotic symbols created to inspire mass loyalty -- flags, national anthems, equestrian statuary -- date only from the latter part of the nineteenth century. Such traditions were even exported to Africa, where elaborate British, Portuguese and German rituals of imperial monarchy were fused with African symbols. Favoured tribes were encouraged to create 'tribal traditions' of land tenure, political authority and customary law which did not exist in precolonial Africa -- and worked to the detriment of women, youth and people from other tribes. A relatively fluid set of precolonial identities was frozen by, rigid 'traditions' that Africa still suffers from to this day.

Conspiracy theory

ATIME - HONOURED view of history that ascribes society's misfortunes to the plotting of Catholics, Jews, Communists, Freemasons, Capitalists or what - have - you. This idea is particularly popular with the Right in general and fascists in particular, who see the world as controlled by a vast network of unlikely conspirators. According to works like the fantastical Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Jewish bankers and atheist communists made common cause to promote oppression, cultural decadence and race - mixing. Modern fascists like British historian David Irving spill a great deal of ink to convince a sceptical world that the Nazi concentration camps were a public - relations invention of these same Jews and leftists. …

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