The Problem of Distory

Times of India | July 06, 2020
In recent weeks we have seen a spate of statues being pulled down. A statue of the confederate Robert E. Lee and the British slave-trader Edward Colston were the first to go in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Then in Antwerp, a statue of King Leopold of Belgium (who oversaw the systematic killing of millions in Belgian-run Congo) was set alight. But unlike the statues of Joseph Stalin or Saddam Hussein that were knocked down many years ago in Hungary and Iraq, the new targets are people who have often been treated well by history, depending on who narrated it. Mahatma Gandhi, Robert Clive, Winston Churchill, Christopher Columbus. The list is long.

Truth be told, pulling down a statue is relatively easy. What is far more difficult is presenting a historical counter-narrative to the one that has been force-fed over generations. Author William Dalrymple recently wrote, “In Britain, study of the empire is still largely absent from the history curriculum. Now, more than ever, we badly need to understand what is common knowledge elsewhere: that for much of history we were an aggressively racist and expansionist force responsible for violence, injustice and war crimes on every continent.” And that’s where the real challenge lies, not just in Britain but in most nations. History can be quite easily manipulated by leftists, rightists, whites, blacks, conservatives, liberals, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, capitalists, socialists, communists, fascists and virtually every other group. The purpose, of course, is to erase their past sins or to glorify their own deeds. Removing statues will not correct flawed historical narratives.

History is always seen as part of a liberal arts curriculum. The word ‘liberal’ comes from the Latin word ‘liberalis’ that means ‘free’. The end of World War Two resulted in several western democracies that called themselves liberal. The values encompassed within the broad term liberalism included individual rights, democracy, free markets, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, gender equality, racial equality and separation of church and state. Unfortunately that blue-blooded progeny of liberal arts, history, rarely talks of the contradictions within the liberal narrative.

While preaching liberalism at home, America was supporting dictatorial and monarchial regimes in the Middle East that supressed women’s rights, killed homosexuals and punished non-Muslims. Great Britain was teaching the world about liberalism while it drained 45 trillion dollars from India during 173 years of colonial rule. France gifted the Statue of Liberty to America (the ultimate gift symbolizing liberalism) while colonizing Algeria and Indo-China. Mahatma Gandhi, the messiah for equality and religious tolerance was happy to support the Khilafat Movement ostensibly aimed at reviving the Ottoman caliphate. Liberals let down liberalism. What we got was illiberal liberals.

The rise of illiberal liberals was accompanied by a rise in fundamentalism. So let us ask ourselves this question: what is fundamentalism? I see fundamentalism as the attempt to impose a single truth on a plural world. In that sense one can see fundamentalism in all walks of life. Religious fundamentslism is the most obvious example. But political fundamentalism or historical fundamentalism are no less dangerous. Liberalism was meant to be a solution to fundamentalism. Alas, liberals spawned their own fundamentalists. Preventing differing historical narratives or deriding alternate political discourse are the outcomes of such fundamentalism.

We are often advised to avoid treating something as the ‘gospel truth’. But when the four gospels (not even considering the gnostic ones) of the New Testament cannot agree on a single narrative on Jesus Christ, which version will we consider to be the ‘gospel truth’? French author Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, famously said, ‘What is history but a fable agreed upon?’ History is a version of events and the version that is penned by the victors tends to gain credence over time. As the Nazi Joseph Goebbels famously said, repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. History is always coloured by loyalties, beliefs, prejudices, power and politics. All history is distorted by the lens of the observer. And that’s why I call it ‘distory’. Distorted history. Each set of historians peddles their own narrative and repeats the errors of the group that preceded it.

What is the solution? As it turns out, the solution in the matter of both statues and history is the same: don’t be selective. Let thousands of statues stand. Let thousands of historical narratives flourish. Allow history to be understood as an inexact narration of events often coloured by the sensibilities of the narrator. Allow all sides to have their say. It is possible that Churchill saved England from fascism; but it could be equally true that he allowed millions of Indians to starve to death during the Bengal Famine (an act no less horrendous than genocide). The Mughal Empire may have been extremely wealthy and powerful in absolute terms; but it is equally possible that India’s share in global GDP actually fell during that period.

The problem, as I see it, is selectivity. When we say ‘black lives matter’ but use fairness creams, that is selectivity. When my sympathy for the lynching of a Hindu monk is less or more than my sympathy for the lynching of a Muslim cattle trader, that is selectivity. When the Kashmir issue is a problem but the clampdown on Uighurs is not, that is selectivity. When Azaan on the loudspeaker is a problem but the DJ on a Ganapati truck is not, that is selectivity. When private control of churches or mosques is fine but private control of temple trusts is not, that is selectivity. When soldiers’ deaths on the India-China border are not a problem but boycotting Chinese goods is, that is selectivity. When prevention of cruelty to animals is noble but veganism is unnecessary, that is selectivity. And we are all guilty of that selectivity in different ways, no matter how much we may spin the narratives to soothe our own conscience.

George Orwell said, ‘He who controls the past, controls the future. He who controls the present, controls the past.’ While politics determines control of the present, history determines control of the past. It’s about time that we freed both from the shackles of one-sided narratives. History should have taught us that. Alas, in the words of Hegel, the only thing that we learn from history is that we never learn from history.