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These old stories

Here's a pretty old legacy post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 20 years ago, in 2004, on the World Wide Web.

It’s all coming down to the last few days before The Election now; and in all the (understandable! sympathetic! important!) rush and clamor it’s important to remember that we live in a wide, old world and that there has been a lot more before this November and there will be a lot more after every last one of these men and their works on the earth has crumbled into dust and ashes. So it’s hard to say just how glad I read a beautiful, moving article by Alina Stefanescu on living in history–on history, and living memory, and making our way in the midst of horror and hope.

History inspires, as it legitimizes and shames. The Bush administration has attempted to legitimize the Afghan and Iraqi transition to a democracy by involving historical institutions assumed to resonate with the local public. The extent of Russian and Chinese liberalization is constantly conveyed as a grappling with history– scholars resort to descriptions of strong-man rule and reverence for authory as stumbling-blocks in the path to free societies. Dale Richmond even goes so far as to define “South Eastern European values” entirely with reference to historical political institutions in the area.

While government-oriented institutional theories prove effective in short-term comparisons, their comparisons are often limited to explaining the political behavior of elites. Truly effective institutional paradigms would encompass social and non-governmental institutions, for it is these institutions which act as incubators of social change, creating classrooms of oral history and legendry, encouraging the laboratories of revolution. You don’t have to be a radical deconstructionist to acknowledge that the tale told by history textbooks is often a politically-motivated one, which sustains and reinforces current political arrangements. And you don’t have to worship Howard Zinn to acknowledge that the most crucial history for transition states is “the people’s history”– the one that legitimates and supports regime change.

Clausen’s includes a moving quote from one of my favorite authors, William Faulker. In “The Jail” (1951), Faulkner channeled the memory of a Alabama Civil war soldier’s widow to unveil the vividness and poignancy of historial memory:

“so vast, so limitless in capacity is man’s imagination to disperse and burn away the rubble-dross of fact and probability, leaving only truth and dream…there is the clear, undistanced voice as though out of the delicate antenna-skeins of radio, futher than the empress’s throne, than the splendid instantiation, even than matriarch’s peacful rocking chair, across the vast instantaneous intervention, from the long long time ago: Listen, stranger, this was myself: this was I.”

Who am I? Who were “we”? Must the “we” be delegitimized to make room for the repentant “I”? Every time I return to Romania, I silently observe the reckonings of individuals seeking to reconcile their present conceptions of morality with their past communist complicity (or lack). The older generation brushes off such difficult reflection with statements like, “It was better then..” or “Who cares? Politicians are all the same– I just did what I had to do to put food on the table”.

How we justify past horrors is the cornerstone of future political arrangements. How governments obscure past and present horrors can be exhumed through an analysis of propaganda. The stories we tell to hold our worldviews and self-images together cannot be discounted, especially when the stories don’t quite match the official explanation.

You should read it all. I’ve talked a lot, especially over the past year or so, about history and its importance, but I couldn’t hope to say why I do it better than Alina already has. All I can add is how much her post reminded me of another remarkable talk about history, from Utah Phillips, recorded on Fellow Workers (one of his collaborative albums with Ani DiFranco). The album–you really ought to get a copy of it, now, if you don’t already have it–is a passionate, moving, and often very funny collection of stories and songs from the anarchist workers’ movement of the early 20th century. And along the way, Utah Phillips muses on history, memory, and coming to terms. I couldn’t hope to duplicate in print that achingly earnest passion or that long, steady rumble of his voice. But here it is; listen to it some day, as soon as you have the chance:

The old songs, these old stories… why tell them? What do they mean?

When I went to high school–that’s about as far as I got–reading my U.S. history textbook, well I got the history of the ruling class; I got the history of the generals and the industrialists and the Presidents who didn’t get caught. How about you?

I got the history of the people who owned the wealth of the country, but none of the history of the people who created it… you know? So when I went out to get my first job, I went out armed with someone else’s class background. They never gave me any tools to understand, or to begin to control the condition of my labor.

And that was deliberate, wasn’t it? Huh? They didn’t want me to know this. That’s why this stuff isn’t taught in the history books. We’re not supposed to know it, to understand that. No. If I wanted the true history of where I came from, as a member of the working class, I had to go to my elders. Many of them, their best working years before pensions or Social Security, gave their whole lives to the mines, to the wheat harvests, to the logging camps, to the railroad. Got nothing for it–just fetched up on the skids, living on short money, mostly drunk all the time. But they lived those extraordinary lives that can never be lived again. And in the living of them, they gave me a history that is more profound, more beautiful, more powerful, more passionate, and ultimately more useful, than the best damn history book I ever read.

As I have said so often before, the long memory is the most radical idea in America….

–Utah Phillips, The Long Memory, Fellow Workers (with Ani DiFranco)

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  1. Discussed at www.radgeek.com

    Geekery Today:

    He who controls the past, controls the future; he who controls the present, controls the past

    In case you’re wondering what recent development demanded a debunking of the neo-Confederate myth that Robert E. Lee opposed slavery, the answer is: nothing. Lack…

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