The reports of the death of the past have been wildly exaggerated. We have danced on the grave of history only to find that history lives. We have met the enemy, and it is us (bows to Walt Kelly). We ARE history.
Yet we live in an age where we are constantly told to get over the past, it is just a bad story we tell ourselves that keeps us up at night. Pick yourself up, brush yourself off and get on with the future. Think about it this way for a moment. What are we, as selves, as living humans, but congealed history?
When we are born we know little (the exact amount is in dispute, but I think we can agree that even if the tabla isn’t rasa, there isn’t a lot going on). Even what we do know is a process of creation and accretion. Some say our taste in food is partially created in the womb, and modern mommas read to and play music for the fetus. We are made of stardust, to be sure, but that stardust has a past. We spend our lives doing what we do best- learning and accumulating layer after layer of our “selves.”
So the silly adage that we should get over the past, get over our “selves”, would mean an act of radical erasure. What would be left? Yes, some do learn to meditate and become essentially one with the universe. But what are they learning? Essentially that we are nothing but accreted otherness. Our resting selves are merely dust.
We are not only the past, but we are the collective past. Our very being is a social artifact. Neuroscientists are now debating whether we genetically inherit experiences from our ancestors. The term for this inheritance is epigenetics.
But I am more interested in how the ideology of hyper-individualism and anti-historicism creates an environment that can deny collective responsibility. The final volley of people who want to not engage in discussions of history and why some groups of people act the way the do, suffer the way they suffer, and maybe even thrive the way they thrive, is to say that is all history and we must just get over it.
This often comes up in discussions of the Middle East, or Latin America, or, closer to home, the African American community. Slavery, imperialism, colonialism, oppression, economic exploitation, etc., are all in the past. Why haven’t X group done better? Why is Africa still poor? Why is there still so much fighting in the Middle East? Why can’t people in Latin America thrive? Why do the middle class and rich (white) people always end up doing better? Putting aside the ongoing acts of oppression and racism, and the west’s ongoing interfering in these countries, history lives on and through us as collectives as well as individuals.
Here is a recent report from the Middle East Research and Information Project explaining the foundations of ISIS.
Today, sitting astride the Euphrates valley, ISIS brags that it is erasing the lines drawn in the sand by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. This secret accord between British and French diplomats carved up the Arab lands of the dying Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence for the two Western powers. It laid the groundwork for the division of Iraq and the Levant into British and French mandates after World War I. The boundaries of those mandates, which later became the borders of Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, were much contested by local nationalists and in the Middle East “Sykes-Picot” is a code word for colonial skullduggery. Together with another British document, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Sykes-Picot dispensation paved the way for the settler-colonial project of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians. In a sense, ISIS is another force mobilizing resentment of the dubious record of Western imperialism, whose mantle is now borne by Washington. http://www.merip.org/mer/mer276/isis#.VmnqREBSA5A.facebook
How do we understand ISIS? Is it just some lunatic religious fringe that is madly holding on to a past that is over? Can’t they get over the Crusades? Will they always be “just” tribes embedded in conflict? A lot of people would love to ahistoricize ISIS and the conflicts in the Middle East. But ISIS is in some ways the crowning achievement of western colonialism. ISIS is a manifestation of our collective history. And we cannot forget it away.