What is this ‘history’?

Some people have read some of my updates and have read my ‘about’ page, and wonder about this ‘history’ that I write about. It’s ‘just what happened in the past, right? Ancestors, history, the past, all that we know about it.

First, I want to say that I feel history to be active. It is not static. History, for me and others who understand, history is not located in a morality play or self-hatred.  The reason I mention this is that when many people read history and look at the overall picture, the reality of the violence of history hits them. Those who believe that ‘humans suck’ will never be empowering or healing even if some of their ideas are good. In the end, those people will disempower things, make it fail. I believe that core beliefs influence our actions. I also think core beliefs are not ‘us.’ They are deep and relentless, perhaps, yes. But they are learned. Conditioned into us through our participation in cultures, nation-states. This means everyone. I do not believe we are all ‘good’ either. As I said, we are not morality plays. We create them, however. That’s another topic I’ll cover some other time. In this case, I feel that we have some power to move and change and grow things, as much as the power to disempower. Our commitments decide what to destroy or not.  Therein lies the issue.  If one aspect of a culture or people are not to our liking, how will we move? It’s not that simple. History will not change the fact of irreconcilable difference. I’m not advocating holding hands across the universe. Not right now anyway. History needs to be looked at, and made alive in the present to change the present for the future. I don’t believe that humans are inherently good or bad. We just are certain ways through how we’ve developed, coupled with our dispositions and our cultures and experiences (history).

If we think about it calmly and reflect, every moment is history. It’s not just ‘past.’ These words you are reading now, are history as you read them. They’ve past. So when I mean history, it is about the past in the present, now. What and how is the past in the present? If we ask this question, and think about it carefully, we begin to understand that there isn’t just ‘one’ but a multiple series of pasts of people, cultures, institutions, legacies, memories, desires, emotions, actions, communities, etc. that come together for a moment that we choose to look at.

My ‘history’ should be called ‘histories.’ And even that is not, perhaps, what I want to impart with the meaning.

My ‘history’ can be called: ‘the history of power relations and the strategies and processes used to become dominant and therefore more popular and pervasive; and what has been excluded or annihilated.’ In short, my take on history is the questioning of the term ‘history’ itself, and then re-working it in that vein with my commitments. Remember my commitment is social change, social justice, advocacy, etc. right? So if we take what is above, history is not ‘what happened’ by itself, it is how and why and through what processes? How was what we know now, made into a single version of what happened and how? Some of us understand that the victors write the history books. But in our own investigation, do we search for a ‘true’ version of history, trying to fix it?

I do not advocate, or perceive history in this light either. Taking my Zen training into my words, along with my rigorous intellectual and practical training in the Social Cultural Anthropology department at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and struggling with these coupled with experience in intercultural training and immigrant community activism, to advocate for social justice would mean a re-thinking of that term as well. ‘Justice’ is not a balancing of the scales or a revenge–which I think are the mainstream ways of looking at revenge. From a predominant liberal point-of-view, justice might mean to gain un-received rights within a state or global structure

I do advocate for us pushing states and transnational institutions and forms of governance, to give rights. However, some of these ‘rights’ need to be re-worked and re-worded. Why does someone or a group of people need to ‘ask’ someone if they can eat or if they can have shelter? If they can lie down on sidewalks when there’s nowhere else to go? It is easy to focus on history as a continual fight to ‘right’ the wrongs but it may be necessary to re-work what is ‘right’ as well. But we cannot know how, unless we look at the construction of those laws: the times in which the policies were made, what events were going on, what the interests were of the various leaders, what was put into place, who benefited, etc. When the struggles for whatever became dominant have become a wide map of different forces and timelines and positions, we begin to figure out what may be done differently in the present and how one should formulate strategies for change. Remember, I am speaking of collective commitments. Social change and social justice is only effective when done collectively. I am not speaking of a lone individual going out and working alone in this way. Individualism is cleverly used against people, as we know, who become a real threat to established powers working to maintain themselves. This points to another factor of how historical relations of power, when studied, can be useful.

When we know the terrain of how things developed, we know who resisted, how and why. We know who dominated, how and why. We know which were the people in the middle, more or less, and for certain reasons. We will know better how to work with the forces that will gather once action is taken. Strategy must take the possibilities into account. The elite powers struggling for dominance and maintenance do these things already. It is my experience that resistance groups are poor at doing this, if they do it at all. Usually, I have found that in leftist groups in the Global North, it is a morality war of being ‘right’ and ‘good’ against the evil, not understanding how all of us on whatever sides we put others and ourselves, act out those qualities of ‘good and bad’ according to who is the victim of actions pursued.

History is not looked at in order to be pure. It cannot be looked at in order to ‘know’ what is right and proceed. It must be done with the constituencies it affects. How will we know unless we know the history of the terrain into which we plunge? We all know there are plenty of groups and leaders and national governments and institutions, who make decisions for others without ever taking those people that they are deciding upon, into account.

I must also add that this is not something you do, then put to rest. At every turn there is more work. Just speak to those who already work this way. It is grueling and tedious. Since most of us want easy answers, it is even more difficult to work with people who don’t want to do the difficult work, yet want to be on the ‘good team.’ Once strategies are put into play, we cannot stop to ask: ‘what are the effects of what we are doing?’ Does it match what we propose to do?

Let me give an example. This is a true story. In the early 90s, a conference was held at Harvard University, of Native American history in the academy. The academic organizers and faculty, all being White-American and good-intentioned, felt that in order for the conference to really take into account the Native perspectives, they wanted to join with a council of elders from several tribes of Native Americans. So they were invited and the Native American elders were excited to be invited to the first ever such an event where the elders and academics would discuss together. At the end of the second day of a one-week conference, all of the Native elders, walked out of the conference, never to return. Do you know what happened? No one said an ‘unkind word’ to them, they said. “What happened?” they thought.

The entire first day of the conference and the second day, whenever a time and date were discussed, of a certain event, the Native Elders were continuously told that their version of historical times and dates and places, were ‘inaccurate.’ The faculty and organizers relied on the dates of their research and books that were ‘real’ history, recorded in the books. This is one of the top academic institutions in the world, why would they do that? They were not doing it to be ‘mean,’ they were trying to ‘set the record straight.’ One of the alternatives, one professor brought up, was to ‘humor’ the Natives and listen to them and agree with their version. But in panel discussions, they would say things such as “but we can only go by what is in the books. If not, these times and dates would be meaningless.” For the Native-Americans, the professors were practicing a domination of written history over oral history, of western version of events that suit the idea of progress as opposed to the resistance and memory and genocide of their communities in US history. It was a continuation of the genocide for the elders, at this conference.

The whole point they were making, was that yes, your version of history may be meaningless because the times and dates and events were not including the Native American version. The faculty were maintaining certain ideas of history, even if they were not meaning to exclude. What were the faculty committed to? What were the Native Americans committed to? Do you think the academics considered the Native americans to be ‘equal’ to themselves? The professors’ commitment to the conference was not about social justice was it? And their view was that they were discussing history with the Native-Americans and so this was ‘including different histories.’ What were they missing in their ‘practice of history’ which many activists including myself, would advocate?

To give an example of specific questions on power relations that would come up in looking at ‘the’ history, or best said; the histories, of looking at the events recorded in western historical records in relation to Native accounts, would be such things as: how did the US historical records come about? Who wrote and confirmed them as ‘official?’ Why did they make these official? For what purpose, what were their commitments? To what and to whom were their actions show commitment to? What would this say about what they recorded? What were the effects of those official records? What were the Natives committed to during those times? Were all the Natives for or against these official records? Were they considered? Why or why not? What struggles existed between different tribes and individuals during these times? Why? Would these change the way these accounts of rendering one ‘Native-American’ people? Would it help to do so? What were their versions? In what ways could we NOW, today, work together to provide, perhaps, revisions of the texts?

History is not a static thing we have read, in the way I am using the term. Examining and re-locating histories in their power-relations, will bring new aspects. When this is done, everything will be out in the open: Who is unwilling to go there? Why? What would be the effects of this action or that action? Who is committed? Who is somewhat committed? Who is committed for another reason? What strategies were used by this US government army group and this other individual in the US army to bring about what effects? Can these different factions work together for certain issues but not all the way? etc.

In doing history this way, through examinations of power and process, we can build an archive of predominant strategies used by the different sides, to build an archive of how to subvert and maintain specific ones, to build an archive through which we can assess what ways to formulate new possibilities. History is a beautiful tool for practicing, for justice. It will no longer be, in this system of proceeding, a static thing controlled by those who had written ‘it.’

Two creatures in the stream of history (Photo by fisserman-flickr.com)

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