Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Scattered history

A spiffy and well put-together short about a man who murders history in the near future.

The premise of this film is about ten or fifteen years too late to work as far as equating paper with history. Especially in an age of online archiving. Still, it's an interesting meditation on the means that the past uses to define us as individuals and as cultures, and the frictions these processes can generate.

For many, in many parts of the world, the narrative of "who we were" acts as a bleak source of emotional gravity. One that almost invariably draws groups into bloody collisions with neighboring communities of race and religion every few generations. In others places, the stories told by popular history hold tribes, villages, and nations in a constant low-level field of mutual antagonism.

One of the major experiences of my adult life was going to a country where people had just finished killing each other over faith and ethnicity. Just one of many such episodes over the past few hundred years in that region, all of which have left the locals with a very dark and intertwined sense of history on both sides.

For me, this came not long after standing watch in another land where the inhabitants had killed each other in staggering numbers during a clash of secular mid-twentieth ideologies that played out in the post-colonial vacuum. That conflict wasn't about history. Or at least not about old history at first, but the situation seems to have settled down into something akin to it over these past sixty years.

Not surprisingly, I tend to think about these things a lot. At least on days when I let myself. It's not any sense of trauma that sets me to keep these thoughts compartmentalized. Rather it's that they're so important that everything in daily life can feel faded and threadbare and unimportant when sharing mind space with them. And as much as I love the big picture ideas, and as important as the questions raised by those experiences are, daily life is the life I'm actually living. Bills gotta be paid, groceries bought, lights kept on, and novels written.

Still, I do keep coming back to them.

One of the uncomfortable realizations from over a decade of reflection on all this is that diversity can be a curse. Or at least cultural diversity has been a dreadful burden in many parts of the planet. There're so many mass graves and so much ongoing bad blood at the world's crossroads. Oceans of tragic history in the places where overlapping waves of peoples settled in close proximity to one another, and still till this day can not get along.

It's also been problematic in the places I've lived in Western Europe, where homogeneous populations without much experience at diversity have largely tried to sweep the problems that have accompanied recent immigration under the rug. Problems like a lack of jobs and opportunities for the newcomers, and the informal systems of discrimination and discomfort that have helped cause this.

If there's anyway my homeland is truly exceptional these days, it's in how relatively well we've dealt with having a diverse population. Especially over the past sixty years.

The Earth Belongs to the Living

So would obliterating history work? Would it help us get along with one another?

Not erasing it on paper, surely. I know a number of people here in the US and abroad who have strong and profoundly ignorant notions of history. People whose narratives of the past drive a fair amount of anger and serve to reinforce their image of who they are held against a picture of others who embody the traits they dislike.

I doubt very much that the disappearance of original source documents that these people have never seen - or even heard of in most cases - of would affect them or their ideas in the least. No matter how valuable that material is to historians and people interested in our best efforts to reconstruct and interpret the past.

So how to deal with history then, when its popular manifestations seem to have such awful consequences for the living?


It's a terrain I'm still exploring, along with many others.

More on that later. 

No comments: