It’s such a strange expression — as if History could take sides. A decade ago, President Clinton used these words to scold the Chinese leadership, President Obama used the same phrase last week. There’s a a couple of things that trouble me about the sentiment. For one, it assumes a single track of historical progress. For another “History” in the service of competing claims in the here and now is a tricky ally, when it is used to forecast the future it can be even trickier. At the very least when history is remembered or enlisted to serve the present it requires the kind of gross simplification and eschewing of nuance that makes most historians cringe.
Today YJ and I were discussing for the 1000th time the Τιbetan question and I suggested that my disdain and distaste for the Party line (and its supporters and parrots at home and abroad) had little to do with their opinion or right to hold such an opinion, but rather that the claims this group tended to make were of a different intellectual tradition than my own. The “Τιbet always has been, always will be part of China” crowd are starting from a point of certainty and proceeding to mine the past to create a narrative in support of that predetermined certainty. Complexity and nuance need not apply.
I’m not disputing the assertion “Τιbet is a part of China” or even “Τιbet was historically a part of China,” just that such assertions are built on unstable ground. The problem of Τιbet involves highly complex questions of sovereignty, authority, national identity, (de)colonization, and the evolution of empires into nation-states. Even the very definitions of these ideas, never mind how such ideas were understood in the past, are subject to discussion and debate. Thus the above assertion on Τιbet isn’t “wrong,” but the glassy-eyed certainty with which it is uttered and the narratives which support it deserve to be unpacked and the constituent parts looked at carefully and critically. For me, the counter to “Τιbet is part of China and history says so” is not “Τιbet is not part of China and history says so” but rather “How can you be so sure? Did you look at it this way?”
This is also not to say that a historian is prevented from ever reaching conclusions based on the available evidence or that we can ever fully be free from the chains of their own world view, perceptions, and background. Historians in the US and Europe sometimes go overboard in calibrating their conclusions to overcome these limitations. A quick glance around my field sees dissertation after dissertation on the destruction of colonialism, the horrors of the African slave trade and its legacy, and the brutal genocide of Native Americans. American graduate students in history seem never so happy as when they can find an available vein and let the blood flow. That said, the history being written today is not designed to promote patriotism (a point which makes more conservative talk show hosts and school board members shake their fist and howl at the moon) or to make people feel good about themselves, it’s about exploring the past, warts and all, so that we can reach a greater understanding of who we are and who we were. Research is done, theories posited and proved, always with the understanding that as new sources and methodologies come to light old assumptions and conclusions will be overturned and Authority challenged. That’s a very different intellectual project than history as done in the PRC.
Back to Τιbet for a moment, I singled out the CCP position because that particular narrative has the full power of a state propaganda machine behind it, but I find the starry-eyed wistfulness of the “Τιbet was always independent and the PRC are evil trolls” camp to be annoying as well. (If your whole position on a particular issue can be summed up in a bumper sticker then it’s time to worry.) The problem is, however, that between CCP histrionics and the overwrought emotionalism of the Richard Gere camp there is precious little room left for moderate voices of academic dissent. To say “Well, let’s think about this a bit…” is taken as slap in the face by partisans of both sides: A problem hardly unique to the China field. In his Gaza Notebook last week, NYT reporter Ethan Bronner described the challenges of reporting on the conflict there:
Abroad, people care deeply about this conflict. That should make it easier for a reporter to cover, because the actors and place names and history are familiar. But it turns out that like the actors themselves, the audiences have utterly distinct and contrasting sets of assumptions. Every time I fail to tell the story each side tells itself, I have failed in its eyes to do my job. That adds up to a lot of failure.
What’s more, the competing war narratives are part of a larger narrative disconnect.
One side says that after thousands of years of oppression, the Jewish nation has returned to its rightful home. It came in peace and offered its hand to its neighbors numerous times only to be met with a sword. Opposition to Israel, this side argues, stems from Muslim intolerance, nationalist fervor and rank anti-Semitism, all fed by envy at the young state’s success. Every time I write an article about the conflict that does not mirror this story line — if, for example, I focus on Palestinian suffering or alleged Israeli misdeeds or quote a human rights group like Amnesty International— I have proven myself to be a secret sharer with the views of the enemy.
As one recent complainer wrote, “To read your paper, all the questions and criticism are directed at Israel, and it is all based on a collection of anti-Semitic organizations masquerading as humanitarians.”
The other side tells a different story: There is no Jewish nation, only followers of a religion. A group of European colonialists came here, stole and pillaged, throwing hundreds of thousands off their land and destroying their villages and homes. A country born in sin, Israel has built up an aggressive military with help from Washington in the grips of a powerful Jewish lobby.
Every time I fail to allude to that story — when, for example, I examine Israel’s goals in its Gaza war without implicitly condemning it as a massacre, or write about Israel in ways that do not call into question its legitimacy — I have revealed my affiliation and can no longer be trusted as a reporter.
Since the war started on Dec. 27, I have received hundreds of messages about my coverage. They are generally not offering congratulations on a job well done.
“Thanks to you and other scum like yourself,” said one, “Israel can now kill hundreds and you can report the whole thing like it was some random train wreck.”
“Bronner ,” said another, “you’re back to your usual drivel about only the poor filthy Arabs — who voted for the Hamas people who got them into this predicament — with incessant indiscriminate rocket fire on innocent Israelis.”
Replace a few key nouns and the parallels to the ongoing online blather matches over Τιbet are scary.
Which brings me to my last point: earlier I mentioned why the phrase “wrong side of history” irked me a bit, but I do think there is another side to the saying worth exploring. In contemporary political squabbles, we should be mindful of whether or not our words and actions echo the rhetoric and deeds of the past. In the last decade, more than one commenter has noted the eerie parallels between the ramp up to the Iraq War and Vietnam. James Kirchik writing in the New Majority warned Republicans to change their position on gay rights and gay marriage or “risk going out of fashion.” Indeed, the rhetoric of same sex marriage and gays serving the military disturbingly resembles the rhetoric against miscegenation and mixed-race army units in the 20th century. Similarly, the suggestions that PRC control of the Tibetan plateau was a strategic necessity, a humanitarian mission of liberation, or a benevolent paternalism which brought “modernity” in the form of hospitals, schools, and infrastructure to the benighted locals is fiendishly close to the justifications used by European and American imperialists in centuries past (and recent years).
This is not an attempt to establish perfect historical parallelism or moral equivalency, only that when the rhetoric recalls the words of days gone by, we are behooved to ask ourselves who said it first, and why.