Is it the duty of the state to police a positive national history story?

Something very odd happens when people get told a story of how other people with some shared characteristic have behaved in the past: they take it personal and see themselves in those ‘ancestors’, even if they share no actual family relationship to those people and even though they were of course not involved anyway. When a group of people who see themselves as Polish now get told a story of how other people described as Polish behaved 300 years ago, that story becomes part of the self-image of the listeners, making them proud when they hear something that sounds good about those previous Poles. When hearing something bad or shameful, they feel bad about their own ‘Polishness’.

People thus cannot help but ascribe historical continuity in their story of how they relate to the history of their country. Honesty dictates they shouldn’t, but they do and that has enormous consequences for the telling of the history of groups. It makes history politically contentious and a potential reason to go to war, to break up a country, or to work towards a positive shared future. The history story of groups should not be treated lightly.

The inevitability that people see themselves in the story told about ‘the history of their country’ forces a country that wishes to remain united and strong to police the story of its own history. A unified country needs to punish those who put something too negative for the living into the story of that history. The alternative is a recipe for civil war and break-up into smaller bits that then are prepared to police their national story.

Poland shows you how that policing is done. Spain and the UK show you what happens if you don’t.

The Polish government, newly reelected in October 2019 with a majority in parliament, passed a law punishing anyone from mentioning Polish complicity in the Holocaust, despite ample evidence of enthousiastic complicity in WWII. After all, how could a thousand years of Catholicism in that area not lead to complicity? It is now illegal to bring up that evidence in Poland in a public forum.

The government also sacked the director of the national history museum and put a new one in place who ironed out any negative stories about Poles over the ages. The fault of any misdeeds in the past, like, say, the mass murder of the population of Gdansk by the Teutonic Knights in the Middle Ages, is now described as due to someone non-Polish, which means one must avert ones eyes when one looks at just who made up the rank and file in that army of the Teutonic knights.

Intellectuals are of course up in arms about this in Poland, but what the Polish government is doing can also be seen elsewhere in the world for the same underlying reason of needing a positive story for the population to buy into now.

[Added due to persistent misunderstandings:] One should of course not confuse the need for a positive history with blind adherence to the history telling of today, or that one should abide by the history telling of a large dominant group in a society. On the contrary, the logic of needing a positive story for the population to go forward leads one to advocate additional elements and changes in emphasis to the existing history telling to accommodate new migrants and marginalised groups in society. Rather than accepting a particular story and not revisiting history, one is then continuously updating one’s view of history to ensure (almost) no-one is depicted as having an evil history. What we are now seeing in the world is many countries re-defining their history, some indeed accommodating groups not previously catered for, but sometimes not accommodating the whole population but merely a large part of them. The history re-writing is inevitable, leaving out large minorities is not.

In India, a similar historic cleansing is underway to generate a continuous narrative from the Veddas to ‘modern’ Hinduism. In China, the government facilitated the creation of a story of 2,000 years of the Han Chinese nation, falling due to outsiders and rising again due to its innate greatness. We see similar processes in Turkey, Japan, South Korea, and much of Eastern Europe. In each case the new national history story is in a literal sense a made up story, concocted in committees and overseen by politicians, a fabrication that falls apart if you look too close.

It is not necessary that the actual events and interpretations in the favoured national history story are completely made up, though that is rather normal. What is necessary is that certain things are accentuated and others not, ie the perspective is always selective. Hence the new Polish national story does not have to pretend that the murder of the population of Gdansk did not happen, but it does require downplaying the role of anyone described as Polish as perpetrators.

We see stirrings of new history fabrications in the UK and Western Europe, usually in response to the failure to police or update old fabrications. The Catalan government since the 1990s churned out a story of Catalan history that is cleansed and that creates a national narrative for the Catalan people. That lead to civil unrest and the possible break-up of Spain, and reflects the failure of the Spanish state to control the national history story in Catalonia.

Scotland has such stirrings too, for the same reasons and with the same consequences.

In the UK they just put a prime-minister in charge who has personally penned down a more romantic nationalistic story of the time under Churchill, leading the charge out of the EU by drawing on narratives of Imperial greatness. The main question in the UK on this point is whether the Brexit movement is channelled towards a resurgence of British Nationalism or towards English nationalism. If it goes the way of ‘rose tinted’ English national history revisionism, it means the break-up of the UK. If it goes the way of ‘rose tinted’ British national history revisionism, I think the union will survive.

I personally feel conflicted about the various fabrications. They offend me because I was taught to value truth and I don’t want to be constrained by a make-belief lalaland of national goodness. On the other hand I recognise that groups cannot function if they do not buy into a story that makes the members feel good about themselves. Without functioning large groups there is massive bloodshed, so if their stability requires history to be fabricated, then it must be fabricated. The alternative is the destruction of large group, and that can involve civil war, ethnic cleansing, and other mayhem. Breaking up the larger groups into smaller ones doesn’t help at all but just pushes the same issue one layer down, only stopping when there is policing of a fabricated story at that lower layer.

The ultimate question is whether peace is more important than truth. Surely it is.

Do I then not believe a country should face ‘the truth’ about its terrible history, learn its lessons and try and do better in the future, meanwhile reminding its citizens of the horrors they have been capable of?

No I do not because that ‘truth’ is just another fabrication, particularly when it comes to things no longer in living memory. You see, none of those alive were actually involved in what happened before their birth and all countries emerged from lots of different entities with lots of people mingling within it. So any story about ‘our past’ that divides the living into victims and perpetrators is a quite nefarious fabrication itself. It is simply another attempt at enslaving the audience to a particular self-image, and we should judge on the likely outcome.

So what matters about the fabrications is how they make you feel about your country and your place within that country now.

This does not mean we have to pretend humanity is good. If you need to remind people that humanity can be brutal, tell a general story of human brutality, but do not accentuate this in the story of your own group.

So I return to the point of my introductory paragraph: since people see themselves in the story told about ‘the history of their country’, countries must police the story of its own history and punish those who put something negative for the living into the story of that history. This is a basic duty of the state. The alternative means civil war and the break-up into smaller bits that are prepared to police their national story. So ultimately there is no alternative: we have to make up a positive national story that gives the vast majority of the population a positive view of their past.

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12 Responses to Is it the duty of the state to police a positive national history story?

  1. Chris Borthwick says:

    An Orwellian dystopia. I won’t, however, go into my disagreements: I’ll just point at a possible meetingpoint of resolution – the approach taken by Benet’s The Devil & Daniel Webster:
    “And when he talked of those enslaved, and the sorrows of slavery, his voice got like a big bell. He talked of the early days of America and the men who had made those days. It wasn’t a spread−eagle speech, but he made you see it. He admitted all the wrong that had ever been done. But he showed how, out of the wrong and the right, the suffering and the starvations, something new had come. And everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.”
    There are stories that comprehend the darkness and stories that deny it.

  2. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    One of the problems with that is what we see with the Australian “white blindfold” view of history – who gets left out, and how that is used to justify their continuing to be left out. But an inclusive history is problematic for the nation narrative for almost every country because the past is not a nice place. Which way should a country like South Africa be unified? It’s a black and white choice…

    Australia in that sense is worse than Europe, because there’s so much more history been extinguished so much more recently – the closest parallel I can think of is imagining the success of the Third Reich in producing a unified Europe the way the British produced a unified Australia. “for we are young and free” and all that.

  3. KT2 says:

    Paul, I’m gobsmacked.

    “make up” – lie
    “vast majority” – except minorities
    “their past” – like us

    Chris Borthwick says: “There are stories that comprehend the darkness and stories that deny it.”

    Moz of Yarramulla;  “closest parallel I can think of is imagining the success of the Third Reich in producing a unified Europe the way the British produced a unified Australia.”

    See above – first two replies. One introducing the third reich. Is it april fools day? Or will you be making up stories? Can we trust you? 

    I am astounded at this phrase also Paul “and punish those who put something negative for the living into the story of that history”. 

    Begs the question!!! What punishment Paul?

    “Some countries, such as Germany, have criminalised the negationist revision of certain historical events, while others take a more cautious position for various reasons, such as protection of free speech; still others mandate negationist views.

    “Notable examples of negationism include Holocaust denial, Armenian Genocide denial, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, Japanese war crime denial[5][6] and the denial of Soviet crimes.

    “In literature, the consequences of historical negationism have been imaginatively depicted in some works of fiction, such as Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell. In modern times, negationism may spread via new media, such as the Internet.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_negationism

    “I am convinced  that when Karl Popper wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies, he couldn’t had guess that half a century later, his own university would become an arch enemy of freedom and truth.” 

    “Teachers do not have the luxury of being selective about the past, and ought to be the frontline of resistance against this historical amnesia.

    “Whether we like it or not, the only thing that should be vetting teachers for conformity is the yearning for justice. Unless we refuse to be caught up in a culture of Orwellian newspeak, we’ll be placating the aggressors by sanitising Britain’s imperial past.”
    https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/black-history-month-colonialism-history-teacher-whitewashing-selective-past-a8025741.html

    You are the “Professor of Wellbeing Economics”. Your only plea for wellbeing is; “So what matters about the fabrications is how they make you feel about your country and your place within that country now.”. What if I’m aboriginal and don’t feel like it is my country and state sponsored fabrications continually alienate me from my country now?

    Second get out clause: “The ultimate question is whether peace is more important than truth. Surely it is” … today, when there is NOT peace. But tomorrow – the day after – 200 years hence. You are conflating peace vs peaceful vs unrest.

    Peace and truth – the  biggest straw man I’ve seen in years.

  4. Paul

    “‘truth’ is just another fabrication” do you ‘sincerely’ believe that?
    (Or are you just playing with self reflexive paradox for fun?)

  5. Conrad says:

    “So ultimately there is no alternative: we have to make up a positive national story that gives the vast majority of the population a positive view of their past.”

    I think that people can think of ways to fight and kill each other whether they have a positive story and not — peace and freedom seem more like epiphenoma that appear now and then in human history. Australia is also lucky in some sense because it might be possible to actually create a story that the vast majority of the population might believe versus many other place (e.g., Euroland, China…) where there will always be splintering.

    I also think the basic problem with forcing people to accept essentially vacuous stories is that once you do, someone will think of a vacuous story others don’t like, or will use the vacuous story for political gain — fighting off opposing groups at least temporarily increases group cohesion, and so nationalism and other such nasties work. Given this I’d rather the truth than the positive story.

  6. paul frijters says:

    Moz, Kt2, John,

    you don’t seem to get what I am trying to say here. I am not advocating a history that excuses the majority. I am advocating a history that excuses almost everyone (more than 99%), including any obvious minority. I am saying that anything else is a recipe for serious trouble (and I have been saying so for several years). One trifles at one’s peril with the history story of any large group. It is inclusive to provide a positive history story that ropes in most of the population. It is an act of psychological violence to put a negative stamp on any large group now based on whatever someone else did in previous centuries.

    I have no interest in getting drawn into an Australian white-versus-something else discussions. I already made clear long ago I favour some form of land restauration to those who have the better ancestral claim (even if that claim is not provable to a high standard: the balance of probability is enough for me).

    Conrad, of course a positive history is not the end of all troubles. It is merely part of what you need as a peaceful society.

    • Paul I , think?, I now get your intention.
      Some kind of counter to the exponential splintering that identity politics gives rise to ?
      Some kind of secular version of , let us confess our sins and our forgiveness of those who sin against us, and then exchange “ peace be with you”?

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      Actively looking for the things that bring us together and celebrating them is a good idea, and works really well. But too often that’s been used to stamp out people affected by the bad things so there’s a lot of distrust to overcome.

      I think it would be awesome to have something like Waitangi Day replace Australia Day, for example. As an interim step perhaps we could celebrate the 1967 referendum, perhaps calling it “We’re All Australians Day” or “Universal Suffrage Day” (even though it wasn’t really about that and we still don’t have universal suffrage I suspect most people would be willing to overlook that. Except the pedants, obviously, so I’m sure Nick would crank out an article to correct us :)

  7. KT2 says:

    Paul, obviously your prose set the tone and reactions. Made up fabrications.

    We need TRUTH & Reconciliation imo, NOT fabrications.

    “The Winter Institute’s Welcome Table program brings together racially mixed groups for  monthly meetings over a year and a half—first focusing on building trust, then discussing tougher matters, including first childhood memories of race as an issue and the difference between systemic and intentional, personal racism. Part of what makes the approach work, Neiman writes, is the Institute’s insistence on “the humanity of the perpetrator as well as the victim,” in order to build “the trust needed to talk directly about racism, past and present.” “When you’re listened to,” one staff member tells Neiman, “no matter what your identity is, you feel valued, and you’re more open to engage in conversations that get deeper and deeper.”

    “Neiman perceives ample evidence in Mississippi for her thesis—that lack of reckoning with the past is indeed responsible for our fraught present.”

    https://newrepublic.com/article/155546/facing-past-german-style#

    To the Dr’s & Professors here, were are you and what do you suggest re a national story?

    Is this like the ‘R’ word, not to be spoken of in “polite” company?

  8. Chris Borthwick says:

    “The history re-writing is inevitable, leaving out large minorities is not”.
    I genuinely can’t see anything in the principle that “A nation must have a unifying story that includes almost everyone” that would exclude “A nation can have a unifying story that blames all problems on a tiny minority”, and from there, well….

    And, separately, I have never really been able to come to terms with the idea that intellectuals should push the masses to believe something that the intellectuals don’t, in order to make them easier to manage; something often said about Confucianism for the elite and superstition for the masses, or Gibbon’s “Ancient Rome had many religions. For the philosophers, these were equally false; for the people they were equally true; and for the government they were equally useful.”, or the American right where themselves-secular thinkers promote Christianity for the people. To say “The ultimate question is whether peace is more important than truth. Surely it is….” is not only to destroy any idea of ‘truth’ but also of ‘ultimate’.

    Not only that, I can’t see it as very useful, in that while I concede it’s not easy to find ‘truth’, it’s not necessarily less difficult to predict the future development of deliberately emotionalised political systems based on self-serving lies in such a way as to steer them into paths that will maximise ‘peace’, assuming that’s what we prioritise. The complaint against revolutionaries used to be that once you encouraged resorting to violence the army was much better at it than they were; and the same really goes for lying.

    • paul frijters says:

      “I genuinely can’t see anything in the principle that “A nation must have a unifying story that includes almost everyone” that would exclude “A nation can have a unifying story that blames all problems on a tiny minority”, and from there, well….”

      indeed, it does not exclude that at all, which is why it is important to be involved in a positive history re-writing rather than leave it to others with worse motives.

      I share your sentiments re lying, but peace ultimately must trump truth.

      The main bit I disagree with you is that there is a unified group of intellectuals who lie to others whilst not to themselves. I lots of little groups all lying to others as well as to themselves. Groups have a ‘face’ and a reality that is different. Totally normal. Just think of religious beliefs. Or the idea that people are obese only because of genetics. Or a zillion other comfortable lies that most of us dont challenge in order to keep the peace. As Dr House said “everyone lies”.

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