Saturday, September 19, 2009

History Lessons

Of all the subjects taught in elementary and secondary education, history is the most primitive. For when it comes to history, we teach children the pretenses that man has given for his actions as if they were the substance, and for the most part communicate the truth only subliminally.

Beginning with Mesopotamia and Egypt, we follow a wearying succession of states, wars, and empires. The details can of course be entertaining, but the simplicity of the truth is obscured by the many names, dates, and actions. What is an empire, for instance? Why did Alexander bother to go on a rampage from Macedonia through the Middle East all the way to India? Wouldn’t it have been less of a bother to just stay home and enjoy life? The student would get a complex answer to this, I’m sure, but here is my answer: Macedonia saw the chance of stealing a lot of land and possessions, so they did. A few centuries before, Persia had seen the chance of stealing a lot of land and possessions in Greece, so they tried and failed.

The point is: it’s stealing.

Stealing is taking what you want by force. Applying this principle to political science in general, we see that states and kingdoms were based on groups of people forcing other groups of people to do what they want. Sometimes what they wanted was good, relatively speaking—a more peaceful and organized state rather than a chaotic warlord-type state, for example. The principle I’m laying out is more fundamental than whatever good or bad results you might get. It’s simply the principle of force. As the last line of defense, so to speak, in the social order, after persuasion, indoctrination, promises and agreements have failed, there is just force. We will force you to do what you don’t want to, or punish you by force for doing what we don’t want you to do.

Children understand this at a deep level, but it’s seldom spelled out so clearly. The parent will impose his or her will on the child through physical restraint or the infliction of pain. The parent also teaches morality of some kind, ideals and principles of good behavior. But when push comes to shove (how revealing is that phrase?) the child will be forced to comply with the parent.

However (and there are thousands of years of history contained in this “however”), the wills and desires of human beings are various, and with will and desire comes a sense of freedom and justice. I’m referring to the simplest kinds of feelings, not the great ideals fashioned later from these words. Freedom is the basic pleasure of action, of following my desire and perhaps attaining it. Justice is the sense that my freedom is respected and that my will is recognized by others. When someone else—who has will and desire as well, but also more power than I, more access to force—when someone else makes me do something against my will, or prevents me from doing something I want to do, it is experienced as the opposite of free or just. When someone takes something away from me by force, it is felt acutely as unjust, and this is perhaps the most basic experience of injustice there is.

The dilemma of humanity in the development of civilization becomes this: How can we have an organized society without bondage and injustice? This is often modified to mean: with a minimum of bondage and injustice. In a nutshell, the principle of force seems to contradict our humanity in essential ways.

The dominant school, today and for most of history, claims that force is not a contradiction at all, as long as it works efficiently. From monarchism down to fascism, this strain of thought vigorously persists. The competing schools of thought claim that the principle of force is something to be overcome, or at least reined in, so that higher principles (freedom, justice, love) can prevail in society.

What I find interesting is that even from the authoritarian point of view, force tends to be disguised in idealistic terms. Honor, glory, and fame have been the trappings of force since Homer, and they are still worn today. Heroism, bravery, courage—these describe the incredible risks of life and limb taken by those fighting in the cause of theft. In the modern age, the words are borrowed from the non-authoritarian traditions: we fight for freedom, democracy, human rights, peace. The old words have lost something of their power because of the memory of mass murders that boggled our minds, such as in the Holocaust. So these newer idealistic words need to be brought in for service. Our troops are fighting for our freedoms, right? If you say they’re fighting for oil, that’s considered an affront to the soldiers.

When a nation fights in its own defense, then the war is considered “just,” and rightly so from that relative point of view. World War II is considered a “good” war by Americans, because we were fighting against those who sought to enslave us. But if we are not to be entangled in our own rhetoric, we must acknowledge the big picture: World War II was started the old-fashioned way: a group of people (Germany, Japan) saw the chance of stealing a lot of land and possessions, and they went ahead and did it. Notice, however, that the Germans clothed their murder and theft with idealistic words: purity, fatherland, destiny, and so forth.

The contradiction therefore remains, as evidenced by the need for those wielding power to disguise the naked character of force with ideas of a more exalted nature. So the child reading an American history book, at least in my day (there have been modifications since then), learns that Europeans “discovered” America, explored it, and colonized it. The English colonists eventually broke away from their mother country because they wanted political freedom. They owned black slaves in America, and eventually there was a Civil War in the United States that freed them. The implications of this history can only be sensed subliminally by the student, for the most part—a student with a critical and inquiring mind (a rarity) will intuit the meaning in the gaps of light darting between the obfuscating mists of the textbook.

My 7th grade history teacher made an effort to head such inquiries off at the pass—he told us that Africans were actually much better off in America than they had been in their miserable grass huts in Africa. There is a need on the part of the social order to turn history into a narrative in which everything is “ok,” at least in terms of “our” country, whatever that may be. Sure, there was slavery, but it was better than slavery in Brazil, and eventually it worked out and justice prevailed. This imperative of the social order manifests as a political pathology in which nothing can be “wrong” about one’s country. The authoritarian is invested in his country as “great”—better than other countries. The reality of power is minimized in order to instill pride. If you point out injustice in history, you’re being unpatriotic and denigrating the country.

A history book written from the sole point of view of force might be a very short one. A summary would perhaps be something like this: When people formed into cities and nations, they created structures by which groups of people forced the rest of people to do things the way they wanted them done. The more power was amassed by these groups of people, the more they needed in order to sustain power. So they organized more efficient ways of theft—mass killings and thefts known as wars. Some people got so good at this that they gained power over huge areas known as empires. The Romans developed methods of warfare that allowed them to steal on an unprecedented scale, and their empire lasted for many centuries. Other societies followed the same pattern, to a greater or lesser degree.

When the countries of Europe had developed their technology to a certain point, they discovered the existence of other countries in parts of the world of which they had previously been unaware. They saw the opportunity for stealing vast areas of land, and huge possessions, and therefore went ahead and invaded these countries. In order to develop these stolen lands more quickly and to greater profit, they enslaved millions of people from Africa and forced them to work on the stolen lands. A few centuries later, they went into Asia and Africa and stole every bit of land they could, dividing these places up between themselves so they could steal more efficiently.

Eventually the competition between the various thieving European countries proved to be so intense that they could no longer cooperate at all, and they got to killing and stealing from each other on a mass scale, which was known as the Great War. This didn’t really resolve the issue, so a few decades later there was another killing and stealing spree that was even more terrible than the first. This time Japan had caught the fever, and made a bid for big thief status along with Europe. Luckily the more humane countries ended up winning the Second World War, but by this time the people in the stolen countries had organized and decided to reclaim their lands and possessions. Gradually they succeeded, although there was a lot of thieving and bloodletting in the process. When the dust settled from World War II, the two countries with the most power left entered into a contest to see who would survive, and they used smaller wars to try to attain this. Technology had advanced to the point where the weapons could quickly destroy everybody in the world, so that made world wars much less desirable for stealing. Eventually the United States emerged as the most powerful thief in the world. Since that time, they have been struggling to consolidate and expand their stolen goods by maintaining a higher level of force than any other country.

This overview of the history of empires is of course very general. One must keep in mind that all the people everywhere, not just in Europe, experienced periodic instances of killing and stealing in order to maintain and expand power and possession. Moreover, by focusing on wars and conquests, it is easy to lose perspective on humanity as a whole. While all this was going on, people were also maintaining families and communities, enjoying themselves, creating culture, sharing ideas, and so forth. It’s just that the farther away from the individual we stand as an historian, the more we consider the actions of humanity en masse, the more important mass killing and theft becomes—the more evident, that is, becomes the principle of force.

Most people would be horrified by such a history book. I would imagine that a teacher who instructed students in this way would be hounded out of his or her job by enraged parents and politicians. There is an investment in hiding the principle of force. Such things as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” would be much more difficult to implement if a majority of people were to see through the language of empire. The entire narrative of military honor, honoring of troops, memorializing the war dead with parades and speeches, the very logic of war as an answer to our problems, would be terribly weakened if the curtain were lifted from empire.

In that case we would be faced once again with the question of how force can be reconciled with freedom and justice. We could at least consider this question together with a certain degree of clarity. Who knows what answers we would come up with? At least we would be asking the question again, the question with which philosophy, religion, political science, ethics, and art have grappled for thousands of years. But first we must acknowledge that such a question exists, and to do that we must clear our minds of attractive and comforting lies.

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