Bad history

Even while I was in high school, History has always been a favorite subject. I used to think this was an esoteric subject. Then I came across a recent article in the Financial Times (FT) “Who controls the past?” by Simon Schama that showed that history is really one of the main causes of wars. China has based its ridiculous claim on West Philippine Sea and Spratly Islands with the nine-dash line argument. As a minor collector of ancient Philippine maps, I have yet to see a map that justifies this claim.

The FT article explains this rise of militant nostalgia:

“Bad history can kill. Those who butcher the truth may end up butchering people. Every day, the news from Ukriane says as much.  You would think, what with existential calamities – ecological and biological – bearing down hard and fast on the world, that even the most empire-addicted, power-ravening despot would have better things to do than wage war in the name of historical myths and fables. But no, somewhere within the mind of tyrants lies the strange urge to be a professor; to cloak Machiavellian brutality with the gravitas of scholarly authority.

“Posing thus, autocrats can persuade themselves – and those to whom they feed their deluded claptrap – that their belligerence is at the service of some higher mission: the recovery of national self-respect, the righting of grievous wrongs and humiliations inflicted by wicked foreigners.  Invariably it’s history, or rather, their mangled version of it, that gets wheeled out to vindicate those obsessions. Should actual, factual history, with all its complexity and nuances, resist being nailed to the Procrustean bed of grievance, then the inconvenience of truth can always be trimmed away.”

The exploitation of history is as old as history itself. Many historians have used the inevitability of historical texts to explain the developments in historical processes. For example, the theory of Thucydides that wars begin with the inevitable conflict between a rising power and a declining power. This theory results in the acceptance of wars between superpowers as something that cannot be avoided.

Thucydides is an ancient Greek historian who wrote about the Peloponnesian Wars and whose writings are still quoted hundreds of years after those wars. During the 20th century, Hitler used the myth of Aryan superiority to justify not the conquest of other nations but to systematically eliminate all Jews.

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Revising history to suit our present desires and ambitions is not just limited to countries. We can notice how many highly successful people will commission biographies to be written to revise their own stories about their personal lives in order to justify their present status. So biographies today are full of stories about the “hardships and determination” which were the basis of their personal success. After all, no one wants to talk about the exploitation of other people or the corruption that was indulged in in order to gain wealth and power.

Today, FT wrote about Vladimir Putin and his attempt to justify the invasion of Ukraine. Putin even published a manuscript on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians. However, this has been proven totally untrue. FT writes that this is not the first time nor the last time that autocrats will use fabricated history to justify their actions. Destiny is a game that is a favorite of would be autocrats in order to evade personal responsibilities.

Surprisingly, this excuse has been used even in other minor fields. For example, a basketball coach that recently lost a highly publicized game said that his team’s loss was due to destiny. After all, losing because of destiny sounds much loftier than saying losing because the other team played much better.

Germany has been praised for confronting its Nazi past. In German schools, the atrocities of Hitler are part of the curriculum. Most countries, however, try to erase their past when dealing with shameful periods of their history.

In the United States, there is now an ongoing debate about their period in history where slavery was considered legal. So now, the debate is about the real cause of the American Civil War. For many years, the Civil War was even considered as the “lost cause” and its military heroes like Robert Lee, Stonewall Jackson were considered American heroes. So all over the south, there were statues and memorials to the Confederate heroes. At present, the move to remove all these statues continues as black Americans gain more influence and power in the southern United States. However, there is now a resistance to this removal of memorials for Confederate heroes as people have publicly proposed the view that the Civil War was not because of slavery but for the right to declare independence.

Who controls the past? This is the question that is often asked. There are those who claim history is really the version of the past by those in power, to suit the prevailing populist view. Although authentic historians have called this “cheerleading history” or simply, bad history. Eventually, history must truly be a narrative “to describe, examine, question and analyze past events, and investigate their patterns of cause and effect.’’

As FT says, “For some time now, backward-looking history has become the future for authoritarian nationalists.”

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Young Writers’ Hangout on May 28 with Joyce Bernales (“The Secret of Good Stories”), 2 -3 p.m. Write Things’ six-day summer workshop “Writefest” (now on its 8th year) has begun with guest author Edgar Samar and continues till May 27, 3-4:30 pm every session. Tomorrow’s special guest is poet Dinah Roma. Workshop facilitators are Roel SR Cruz and Sofi Bernedo.

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