Tuesday, March 29, 2011

19/100: The History Mistake

There are two kinds of people, those who read history and those who do not know it exists. And, it is easy to tell who is what from a conversation: Reading history gives a view of the world around you and inform you with a perspective.

I am a history reader, indeed. For me, history is a living experience, manifested in small details of life. For me, the irony of Gaddaffi, the writer of the Green Book and of the freedom to the people, is ever so apparent: So is the hypocrisy of the current NATO action of bombing the way to a regime change. You can see that everyone is playing for time; they always did, in war and peace.

However, reading history also tells me that men make history and it is not the other way round. We are not mere pawns in a great chess game played by an absent master, but we make our own moves. There may be an iota of truth in saying that those who do not read history is condemned to repeat it, but it is equally true that sometimes, we repeat as we read - see a Kennedy in Clinton and a Vietnam in Iraq - and sometimes, we build concepts based on our sense of history which then shapes history itself.

I keep coming back to Churchill at this point. A number of people ridicule his Nobel Prize for Literature, but I would contend that he was possibly the most influential wordsmith history has ever known. The followers of Marx, Jesus and Mohammed may be slightly offended, but I see pure genius in Churchill's conception of the 'iron curtain', a deception that lengthened Britain's empire on life support and shaped a whole century worth of political debate. He imagined the Cold War when there was not, and allowed the conception of the good and the evil that sold newspapers and launched armies. This resulted in tremendous human miseries and huge political mistakes, of the regime change in Iran in 1956, of the United States' violent and unnecessary engagement in Vietnam, of creation of Pakistan by stoking up a division there wasn't. I shall say Churchill saw the world in those terms as he studied history and understood his world in terms of the Great Game, the race between Tsarist Russia and Imperial Britain panning out over two centuries, and he could never escape the thinking. Therefore, the man who could not ride the tube became the man who influenced our times the most.

We can't escape history anyway as it influences the language in use, our ideas of good and bad and our visions of the future. But this is precisely where we make a mistake: Future is quite a different place than history has been. History does not offer a reusable template, just a perspective on human action. And, a key perspective from history is how we keep repeating historical mistakes as we remain history bound.

This starts with our personal lives. We judge the future by the past. We remain prisoners of what we know, and are afraid to open our minds. We fear strangers, and always try to fit today in yesterday's mould. We mourn the dead, but don't care about the unborn. We don't care about the non-existent, a fair point, but determine our actions by times past. The illusions of the ever-existent past rule our lives.

What if we could think that the past never happened? Conservatives will recoil in horror: This will wipe out our identities, nations, relationships, morale and everything that matters. Indeed. But how does one know when the past ends and the future starts? If you trust the media, and the experts, you will be told - history repeats and the future actually never starts. Therefore, all actions must be guided by the past, and not by the future.

This we then carry into public lives: An image of our collective future moulded by our imagined past. Because it is impossible to have a collective past - we were all unborn in the past and therefore did not matter - and what we are guided by is our picture of it. This is where we become the master and not the slave of history: We construct what was and through this, what would be. We let the constraints of the past determine the boundaries of the future, and then try to fit the stories of the past be shaped by our expectations of the future.

In summary, then, this is the point: There isn't a past which is 'real'. History is a perspective, not a fact. Things happened, indeed, but they happened for a reason that existed at the time. People of the past did sorts of things they did because they expected their future, our time, to be shaped by their past: It did not turn out to be that way. Because we came, because we are the masters of our destiny. We should read history, but not keep repeating it.

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