I don’t imagine I’m alone in how frequently I ask, “How will history remember this time and what we did in it?” It is a preoccupation of mine (close friends and family may say it’s excessive) to predict the potential ramifications of actions and words, develop contingencies, and document my intentions and thinking for future reexamination. I think all the time about endings, from relationships to jobs to humanity itself, and not just why they’ll end, but how. Will I be proud of the part I play and how it affects people, or will I be ashamed for my inaction or passivity? How can I act in the present to minimize the harm I do as it flows into the past?
When I consider the history of average people living in 1930s Germany or 1970s Chile (or 1970s Americans who insisted Pinochet was an ally) or well, just a few years ago in Syria, I always wonder about their thinking. Did they have misgivings, as I do now, but felt powerless to speak out? Did they protest or try to raise alarms, but found themselves threatened, ignored, or shouted down? Should I look at them uncharitably, as is my first erroneous impulse, and condemn them for not screaming and overthrowing their governments in defense of the victims of genocide or a military dictatorship? I recognize that most people are not just going along with the status quo because their personal lives aren’t immediately affected (though many do). I see it firsthand because I feel, everyday, the allure of cynicism and giving into that voice that says, “You can’t change anything, so why don’t you focus on your own problems?” It is easy to console ourselves with essentially historical anonymity — even if someone in the future knew I existed and didn’t do enough, they would have to forgive me, right?
One of the features I’ve observed in 20th century history and fiction is the glory of heroic conclusions. The great stories of American exceptionalism align neatly with the attitudes of pop culture and literature: these things happened, the heroes rose to the challenges, and good overcame evil, more or less. They are satisfying stories, to a point, and they consolidate loyalty and unify a people. The 20th century American attitude was unapologetic and emboldened by a belief in the moral superiority of our way of life, namely, that we were keeping the world safe for freedom and democracy, which increasingly seems like shorthand for just “capitalism.”
By contrast, the 21st century has felt mired in post-history. I don’t mean that in the snarky speculative sense that some artists have taken to using it lately, but rather unraveling the aftermath of events and addressing all the, “And then what?” concerns that were previously quashed with feel-good triumphant music and credits rolling. Culturally, we have started asking more of our stories, either as a response to or demand for franchise film-making and serial novels. We want the prequels, the sequels, the spin-offs and expanded universes, we want the fan fiction and the animated versions, and at some point it is worth stepping back to ask why the original story wasn’t enough anymore. Why didn’t it leave us satisfied?
It’s possible that post-historical storytelling is an inevitability of increased globalization, digital access to more primary sources or each other, and a general multicultural awareness that reminds us there even are other versions of events. When we encounter a villain in a movie now, he must have some complexity and nuance to his motivation to be believable, or we dismiss him as a caricature of evil. We ask that our villains have repressed trauma or a personal vendetta against the hero to complicate the story and not necessarily justify terrible actions, but make them abstractly relatable. The soul-consuming drive for money and power feels cheap when our whole world is already driven by greed.
So too when we look at real-world geopolitics, it doesn’t feel sufficient to say, “This group wanted to take land and resources from that group, so they manipulated their people to support them.” Instead, we view our national turf wars as fundamentally ideological conflicts, exploring the beliefs and purported motivations of each side, and we become so wrapped up in the post-history (i.e. viewing every act as retaliation, retribution, or self-defense) that we may be missing the simplest and blandest evils, our old friends greed and power.
Tacit to our understanding of conflicts is, obviously, unpacking the historical antecedents that set the stage (access to waterways or transit routes, control over resources, religion, racial bias, exploiting economic inequality etc.) but we shouldn’t overlook how often American wars also include, “protecting our nation’s interests” or allusions to energy independence, strategic alliances, and other vagaries. Our nation’s interests aren’t necessarily the same as oil companies’ interests, but it can certainly feel that way when presented persuasively enough.
It has been my experience that when one suggests every conflict is ultimately about greed, accusations of cynicism and being unpatriotic always follow. We buy into the narratives, that we must go kill Osama bin Laden to avenge the lives lost in the September 11 attacks and keep terrorists from striking again (oh, and while we’re at it, we might as well make sure our access to oil stays tidy and settle some old grievances in Iraq) or we must bomb the Middle East off the map to make sure ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas, or anyone else can’t bring the fight to American soil, whether that’s remotely plausible or not. It’s effective for scaring people into loyalty, but by accepting a satisfying story over the truth, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility to prevent the loss of innocent lives or send generations of young soldiers to get killed. We further distance ourselves from the radicalization that occurs in the wake of our bombing campaigns, and our politicians rely on a general ignorance of recent history for most people to connect the dots.
I was absolutely fascinated by this article on narrative therapy and the ways telling our own stories can change how we think and live. Revisiting events with the wisdom of hindsight, reframing our interpretations in a more positive light, or just seeking to better understand the motivations of those who hurt us, can have a profound impact on how we behave going forward. It is a crucial part of therapy and trauma counseling, and I think it can be scaled up to better understand history as well.
It is not comfortable to say, “My ancestors acted out of greed and self-interest and did breathtakingly cruel and violent things in the process,” so we are more likely to say they were “defending their land” or “building a better life for future generations,” or any of the euphemistic excuses we give after the fact. I think a lot of America’s inability to come to terms with the brutality of our history is that those who benefited from it are reluctant to cede their privileges for the sake of healing. If I were going to apologize for hurting someone personally, I would try not to couch it in phrasing like, “That was how it was at the time,” or, “I just didn’t know better,” or, “Your friends and neighbors were already hurting you before I even met you,” but somehow discussions of the atrocious history of slavery still get softened, if not brazenly justified. Maybe we can make better progress in repairing the extant dehumanizing racism in our country if we start telling our history as it really was? Maybe we’d be less likely to fall for thinly-veiled racism as political expediency in the future? (A girl can dream.)
Revisionism and historiography are frequently met with skepticism, as they’ve been distorted in the pop culture sense. Personally, I think it’s foolish to resist reconsidering events in light of additional information or perspectives, but that is because I am not terribly invested in maintaining history as it’s written (or how I’d like it to be). The wide chasm between events that happened, the reasons that were stated, and the actual reasons we do things may never be met, but if we believe our government is telling the truth (I do not) then what harm is there in declassifying information, questioning motivations, or demanding a “truer” truth of our history? Why are we afraid of having all the information, if we are not complicit in perpetuating lies?
In grade school we did a project examining President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII. It felt like it stretched on for an eternity, with mock congressional debates and reenactments, reading primary and secondary sources, and everyone assigned to advocating for one of five potential decisions / viewpoints. While I appreciate the value in going in-depth on the ethics and considerations that went into the decision, I hated the project at the time because I kept coming back to the utter inhumanity of bombing innocent civilians, and none of the arguments in favor of doing so truly persuaded me it was the right thing to do. The exercise went as expected, that the student playing Truman made the same decision he did, for the same reasons, and we all kind of congratulated history and our classmate for doing the “right thing.”
As an adult I look back on that exercise with even more frustration than I felt at the time because it seemed to gloss over the crucial fact that not all viewpoints are actually equal. Many of the arguments made were specious, deliberately misleading, or pure conjecture, but they were written on a chalkboard as successful refutations to other points. I believe we do the same thing now with current events, giving equal air time to reactionary opinions and speculation as informed analysis, and unfortunately most people demonstrate even poorer reasoning skills than my eighth grade class.
Why are we so afraid of news without interpretation? Why do we accept nonsense like “alternative facts” or outright lying, when we have evidence of events that occurred? Are we so clouded by mistrust for reality that accusations of “crisis actors” or just saying, “that never happened” are no longer the provenance of jackasses, but become widespread, accepted beliefs? What is the harm in saying why we are really doing things and holding ourselves and our government accountable? Why do we continue the myth of America-as-always-right instead of work together to actually make it right?
My hope is that, as with narrative therapy, we can find healing and paths forward with post-historical storytelling. Let’s stop ending our war stories with, “And the forces of good prevailed…” but insist on examining what happened next, when the armies withdrew. Was life better for the average person, or appreciably worse? What if we examine our history with unflinching honesty, lean into the discomfort of what we’ve done and said (even in the very recent past) and start making it okay to acknowledge it was wrong, so we can now work to make it right? In my heart of hearts, I think that is the only way to stop making the same mistakes and falling for the same lazy but frighteningly effective manipulations that keep the wheel of suffering turning.
I want to believe we are capable of more, as a species, and I’ve seen glimmers of humanity rising to be better, but history is daunting. We will probably not see peace or anything resembling it in my lifetime, but maybe we can start something better for future generations. I don’t want the epilogue of humanity in our post-history to read, “We thought it was Us versus Them, but it was Us versus Ourselves all along.”