Tuesday, September 26, 2017

History is more than 'silly putty' to be shaped by egomaniacs in their own image

The “power” of elected or appointed office, and the “status” of income, personal address, wardrobe, executive title are too often misused by those who are convinced they possess such power and status. In small towns, elevated “position” and elevated “income” are often ascribed/worn/claimed/flaunted by the same people.

And it is not only through their attitudes, actions and words today that they abuse their power; their influence has written most of the history books read and studied by young people in schools. It has also generated the myths of “status and culture” that are passed down from generation to generation. Their legacy in entombed in the names and the bills and the buildings and the athletic stadiums, the performing arts halls, and the graduate schools, especially the business schools bearing their names. The appropriate and conventional public attitude to such benefaction is extreme gratitude. And to some degree, these facilities might not exist, except for their donors, even if the donations are undoubtedly tax deductions.

One of the more noxious examples of the unwarranted abuse of power came in a memo from then Ontario premier, Mike Harris, to the scholar at Queen’s charged with writing the next edition of the grade 9 history text for Ontario schools. According to the memo, no accomplishments of women, labour or indigenous people were to be included in the text. I recall feeling shocked and incredulous when I first learned about the memo. My naivete and innocence precluded my previous embrace of such a directive.

With the rising public tensions over public statutes, like the one over the statute to Cornwallis in Halifax, and the several Confederate monuments in the U.S. South, the issue of how “privilege” dominates not only on the stock market, and in the corporate board rooms, in the university boards and institutional trusts, and also how that influence infuses the tone, the words, the images and thereby the myths on which we are raised.

This weekend, trump, having no other more pressing issues lying in piles on his Oval Office desk, urged NFL owners to fire those players who knelt during the playing of the national anthem, since he considers such defiance an act of disloyalty to the realm. Of course, players, coaches and even owners responded variously by kneeling, linking arms, absenting their whole teams from the field until the anthem ended and generally thumbing their nose at the president’s attempt to divide the league. (Let’s not forget that the first NFL player to protest how blacks are treated especially by law enforcement in the U.S., Colin Kaepernink, has been black-balled by the league and no team has found it in their moral or ethical compass to offer him a contract, even when they needed a quarterback.) And then, after witnessing the defiance of his intrusion into league deportment, for trump to declare that the issue “has nothing to do with race” is such a complete perversion of the facts to suit his need to control history that it casts an additional layer of contempt on the president.

In their attempt to minimize the complexities of conflict in their departments, some executives declare (blindly and boldly) “We are starting from today, and everything that has happened in the past is to be wiped off the desk as if it never happened.” As if to reduce human beings and their evolving issues (including personnel issues) to a single slice of a cell on a microscope plate, in order to analyse the component parts, in sterility and from the perspective of complete control, these men and women are committing a very serious mistake, both in their assessment of reality and in their potential to “fix” the problem.

History refuses to comply with such reductionisms. And for that we can be thankful. Just as trump’s “cause” has been reduced to “respect for the flag” (after he has shown such exaggerated contempt for the American judicial system, the State Department, the Health and Human Services Department, the Housing and Urban Development Department, The Director of the F.B.I., and the dignity of the Oval Office) the issue of racism refuses to be silenced.

History, of the kind that journalism begins, and scholars dig deeply into the archives, the documents and more recently the video and digital archives to find, has attracted many of the best minds in all generations. Revisionist history comes from public “information” departments in government, or from the public relations arms of political parties and corporations. Some scholars have seen history as coming from a variety of academic perspectives: economic, geographic, single human agency (the strong man/woman, either shaping events or being shaped by events into the leader s/he became), religious, ethnic, political, scientific, or perhaps cultural. In a recent column in truthdig.com, Chris Hedges references Nietsche’s reflection on three varieties of history: monumental, antiquarian, and critical.

The first, monumental, focuses on the monuments that have been erected to laud and honour certain individuals or their ‘historic’ contributions. Apparently, a revision of their respective ‘contributions’ is taking place across North America, as specifics of some of their negative and nefarious traits are surfaced from a new and more critical perspective. Antiquarian history, the kind that is removed from context, supports the “ancestry” movement, and the filling in of empty lines on family trees. There is no attempt to discern the conditions under which those names made choices, moved from place to place, attended which schools, or entered which occupations, nor suffered from which diseases, nor belonged to which groups or political parties. Both ‘monumental’ and ‘antiquarian’ categories of history pale in their complexity to Nietsche’s third: critical.

And in a time when power is so ubiquitous, money and status so redolent, and reductionisms to favour personal bias so permitted and present, critical history suffers a kind of daily pumelling, if not by direct hits, then certainly by glancing blows, most of which are unnoticed except by those professional practitioners whose focus is the preservation and the elevation of the best standards of the “historic” pursuit.

Ironically, it is only through the lens of the “critical” historian that we can better grasp the full reality of where we are, when we are, how we got here, and how we might extricate ourselves from our worst and most dangerous entanglements. Calling the disclosure of “critical” assessments of current or past public events “fake news” will never obliterate their truth, nor eviscerate the inherent motive for truth that underpins human existence. The diligence of courageous reporters, and the unqualified support of editors who can and will continue to discern facts from bullshit (propaganda, political opportunism, distractions, and the many other techniques to paint mascara over their errors deployed by the powerful), along with publishers who are unaffected by the taunts and the threats to withdraw advertising dollars because of unfavourable coverage are pillars of democracy that we must never take for granted.

Critical history, also, cannot and must not be replaced by monumental history, nor by antiquarian history. Comedian Stephen Colbert’s retort to trump’s ‘taking the knee has nothing to do with racism’ in these words, “that’s like saying Gandhi’s hunger strikes were a protest against snacking”….qualifies in the current context as “critical history”….and there is an insatiable need and appetite for critical history.

We have already suffered enough through the lies, cover-ups, distortions and denials of ‘significant’ people including:
·      both Holocaust and Global warming deniers, political decisions to “improve health care for all” under the guise of a tax cut for the rich, and also a
·       promise to “fix” everything by a man whose history is to have torched everything he ever touched
·      a promise to restore coal jobs to miners who have lost them, when everyone knows that is another cotton candy ‘delivery’

Sadly, the list is growing weak under the weight of its own lies….and there is no sign of a let-up in the pattern before 2020, when we can only hope that an authentic person with at least a modicum of integrity will find and receive the support of the American people.

Written in the 1958, a novel entitled “The Ugly American” by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer depicts an American ambassador to Southeast Asia whose powers of discernment allow him to see the conflict he is there to help resolve as one between communism and democracy. By the time he is able to see a more nuanced and complicated “reality” it is too late. The Peace Corps was established, in part, as a Kennedy response to the novel, aimed at portraying and displaying a much more effective and responsible voice and face of America in foreign lands. Ambassador MacWhite, from the novel, would likely have a more reasonable and nuanced perspective on the issues facing the Oval Office today than the current occupant.

So, from the perspective of north of the 49th parallel, one has to ask, “Have the Americans really elected the archetype of ‘the ugly American” as an expression of the collective ugliness of their country? Co-incidentally, daily I am one of several cars that line up for a ferry from an island in the St. Lawrence River, to return to the mainland. The island lies between the U.S. and the Canadian border, and just a few minutes ago, while turning the corner to board the ferry, I found an American tourist cutting into the line in his motorhome.

I was so strongly tempted to get out and tell him I was confident he had voted for trump…although my instinct for getting home unscathed prevailed. As a young boy, I lived and worked in a town overrun by American tourists, and in those many years, I encountered none of the brash rudeness of today’s encounter, nor the simpleton reductionism of MacWhite from the novel.

A critical ‘take’ on history is necessary not only historians, journalists, editors, ambassadors, legal scholars and especially the occupant of the Oval Office. Anything less than a substantive grasp of the truth of the past, the complexity of human beings and their legendary issues, the capacity to continue to learn and debate issues from a variety of perspectives, ideologies and intellectual files as well as the insight to accurately and honestly reflect on the calculus of each potential option in every situation….these comprise a minimum list of requirements for the most important office in the world. And the current occupant fails on each account.

It took Obama to begin to restore America’s good name and reputation following the debacle that was George w. and his war in Iraq. It took John F. Kennedy and Sergeant Shriver (Kennedy’s appointee to generate the Peace Corps) to begin to rebuild America’s good name and reputation following the Burdick/Lederer novel. Following WWII, the Americans mounted the Marshall Plan, to help rebuild devastated towns, cities and factories in Europe.

What will it take to heal the cancerous tumor that is infesting the American ship of state in 2017, and likely for at least the next three years?

Tweeting about flags, monuments, crooked Hillary or any of several other opponents (the appetite for targets is so demonstrably insatiable that it suggests a wild man in a shooting gallery with never enough targets to take out) is so reprehensible and so ugly and so despicable as to paint the American “face” with gothic and threatening paint, every day, without the playfulness of Hall’o’ween….


The world’s foundational grounding in a common, shared and credible, if often tragic, history is being eroded minute by minute and the process is deliberate, willful, co-ordinated and cumulative…and all of it destined to burnish the apple of the reputation of a single dangerous man…..Is there anyone else who is both shocked and now growing more frightened by this spectacle that seems unstoppable?

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