Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Historical Perspective: Between Education and Catastrophe

"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." -Sir Winston Churchill

Context is a particularly important factor to understanding in both the study of history and in the relationship between past and present. In general, this is practically non-existent in a majority of today's media, leading to misunderstanding and outright falsities about current events. Numerous circumstances facing the world today can be traced back years, and even decades or centuries; yet, there is a tendency to gloss over or omit these facts in modern news formats. This is true for both positive and negative aspects, with hindsight eschewing the historical perspective in favor of more modern aesthetics and sensibilities.

Throughout history, those who wished to assert control and remain in power have attempted to manipulate, if not obliterate, the historical record in their favor. The customs, ideas and knowledge to be found therein nothing less than dangerous to such totalitarian regimes. During the Second World War, the Nazis were notorious in their stealing and destruction of culturally significant artifacts in order to establish that history started and ended with the institution of a mythical, and thankfully failed, "1000 Year Reich." At the same time, Allied forces took great pains to preserve and restore what had been looted and destroyed by the Nazis – by and large the first time in history that a conquering force committed itself to such a selfless act. Truly, to the victors not only go the spoils but also the narrative of history. (Evermore even after the fact, as seen in the pervading conflict between traditional versus revisionist debate in the annals of time.)

Politicians especially are well versed in rewriting history for their own political benefit. In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration failed to recognize that the United States was at war with al Qaeda despite numerous incidents that eventually led to the shocking attacks on September 11, 2001. Even more, Clinton fell short in addressing the continuing threat posed by Saddam Hussein, despite U.S. and United Nations policies that warranted and facilitated his removal from power over Iraq's disregard toward treaty obligations and the dismantling of its weapons programs. But, it was all Bush's fault. Now, the Obama Administration is using the same obtuse vision of history in its reckless foreign policy, from the mocking "1980s are calling" campaign to the asinine "underestimation" blame game concerning the Islamic State – notwithstanding years of renewed Russian provocation and a war on terrorism that has been ongoing for over a decade. Even longer on both accounts given the proper context.

Francis Bacon suggested, correctly, that knowledge is power; but more forthright, power truly lies in the dissemination of it. As the late historian Oscar Handlin stated in his landmark work, Truth In History:  "Where there is no evidence, there is no history...[but] no abstraction, no general interpretation, no wish or preference can challenge chronology's dominion, unless among those peoples who, lacking a sense of time, lack also a sense of history...all the uses of history depend upon the integrity of the record, without which there could be no counting of time, no reading of words, no perception of context, no utility of the subject. No concern could be deeper than assaults upon the record, upon the very idea of a record." With 24/7 "news" media increasingly becoming a propaganda tool to prop up agendas and narratives, historical perspective and context can, and must, play a greater role for an educated and engaged citizenry. Otherwise, those who exploit such a lack of knowledge will continually be placed in power over them. 

©2014 Steve Sagarra

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