Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal, part 1: The amazing power of the history book

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” – James Joyce

Your memory is too good for your own good

From the 15th century until the 20th, European powers directed some of their resources to conquering the world beyond Europe. The economic and political consequences of colonialism are still being debated, but one thing remains clear: people remember and they are still angry. I can understand certain cases where colonialism has led to poverty that continues to this day—ask, for instance, native Americans, decimated by the original illegal immigrants. But in the cases of Africa and Asia, people still feel anger and pain at something that happened to their great grandparents. How can you “remember” something that ended before you were born?

You cannot. What you can do is read history books. Contrary to popular wisdom, history is not written only by the winners. It is written by everyone, and there are no winners because history is not over yet. Government appointed historians write government approved textbooks to show the most nationalist perspective a child will believe. History teachers then get to say, “you see, this is why we are a poor country today,” simplifying history and taking all blame away from the government; or, “this is why we are the best country in the world”, whitewashing the country’s past crimes. When we do not learn real history, when we do not understand cause and consequence, when we heroify people who did bad things as well as good, we learn whatever the elites want us to.

Historian Parker T. Moon in his Imperialism and World Politics makes the following point about language.

Language often obscures truth. More than is ordinarily realized, our eyes are blinded to the facts of international relations by tricks of the tongue. When one uses the simple monosyllable “France” one thinks of France as a unit, an entity. When to avoid awkward repetition we use a personal pronoun in referring to a country–when for example we say “France sent her troops to conquer Tunis“–we impute not only unity but personality to the country. The very words conceal the facts and make international relations a glamorous drama in which personalized nations are the actors, and all too easily we forget the flesh-and-blood men and women who are the true actors. How different it would be if we had no such word as “France,” and had to say instead–thirty-eight million men, women and children of very diversified interests and beliefs, inhabiting 218,000 square miles of territory! Then we should more accurately describe the Tunis expedition in some such way as this: “A few of these thirty-eight million persons sent thirty thousand others to conquer Tunis.” This way of putting the fact immediately suggests a question, or rather a series of questions. Who are the “few”? Why did they send the thirty thousand to Tunis? And why did these obey? (http://www.cato.org/pubs/policy_report/cpr-18n5-1.html)

Such simple language has us thinking in generalisations and anthropomorphising countries and cultures. Simple language leads to simple thinking that determines the course of history.

In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy met with Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The purpose of the visit was to improve political and economic ties. Upon arriving, however, Bouteflika informed Sarkozy that, before there was to be any deal, Sarkozy must apologise for the crimes France committed in its occupation of Algeria. There is no doubt that the killing of many people throughout this period, and the refusal to give people independence are serious crimes against humanity. But what did Sarkozy have to do with them? What did today’s French people have to do with them? Are today’s Algerians the ones who were killed in 1945? Some living Algerians remember seeing killings, or lost loved ones. But is it not better to let them forget about the pain than to bring it back to the surface? How can someone who had nothing to do with a killing, on behalf of a group that was not present, apologise to a group that was either also not present or would probably just rather forget about it? Perhaps as a white man, I could never understand.

The origins of collectivism

But what we learn in our history books stays with us. While collectivism at the band or tribal level—150 people or fewer—is a logical invention of circumstance, it is harder to see where collective identities of millions could come from.

Historian and professor James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong”, debunks the myths about how the Americas were discovered, conquered and founded. He contrasts American high school history books and what almost all his students believed was true with what is much more likely the case, as good historians do. He gives one reason (among several) for the Europeans’ conquest of the Americas that is little acknowledged: the nation state. “[I]t’s more powerful than the airplane, it’s more pervasive than the telephone, it’s more dangerous than the atomic bomb; and in fact, the atomic bomb could never have been built without the nation state… once your neighbour gets a nation state, you’d better get one really quick, otherwise you’re going to get killed.” The existence of one nation state necessitates the creation of others, and that is how we came upon these countries. The nation state is the most dangerous manifestation of collectivism. Its creation has nothing to do with race or culture, and everything to do with power. How could such big groups feel kinship? The answer lies with the elites.

Many elites (the ones I refer to in this series) are concerned solely with attaining and maintaining power. And long ago, when states were being formed, the elites knew they would need the support of the people they ruled. They knew about loyalty within families, so they gave them vague ideas of kinship—this is your family, your shared ancestry—that would apply to everyone incorporated into the state over time. They told the people, this is your land, and if anyone tries to take any of it away, the security of your family is in danger. You must be willing to sacrifice yourself for the greater good. Thus, loyalty to the land became the first way to control people.

The elites made the masses think they had special powers. They invented heaven and then said that heaven sent the emperor and his friends to protect them. They wrote books said to be written by god to prove heaven’s existence. You must do what we say to please heaven, and you must please heaven or you will not be able to enter. We must not let anyone end our dynasty or we will be letting heaven down. With our religion, we have higher civilisation than those barbarians. The elites had added a second layer of collective identity: religion.

Religion being the self appointed decision maker for all matters right and moral, and people liking to be told they are right, those who followed the religion that they grew up with were told their whole lives they had chosen the right path. That left many possibilities open for creation of evil doers. They come from a different place, which means they are a threat to our place. They worship a different god, or worship him in a different way. They do things differently, so you should be suspicious; or alternately, we should conquer them to teach them how great our ways are. Do not worry: we, the state, are here to protect you. By monopolising the means of violence, not only had the state protected itself against insurrection; it also became what you had to depend on to survive. This helplessness turns into a kind of Stockholm Syndrome: the people being held for ransom are the ones who end up admiring and loving their “protectors”.

In case this was not enough, the elites portrayed themselves as the protectors of all that was good in the world. We stand for justice; they stand for cruelty. We stand for freedom and sometimes we need to take yours away to protect it for everyone. We will give you prosperity if you pay our salaries. The enemy is portrayed as a thief, a rapist, a killer of children and a destroyer of all that is good in the world. The heroes (that’s us), on the other hand, are the shining white knights that the evil ones fear, ready to rescue women and children from the clutches of the enemy’s long bony fingers. Dehumanisation of the enemy made it all the easier to kill for the collective. We uphold peace and are willing to send as many of you to die as necessary.

Because the elites were essentially giving the people what they wanted anyway: the feeling of belonging, the protection of a group, pride, pursuit of the greater good, belief in one’s own cause, and a way to direct their violent impulses, the spread of collectivism soon no longer needed to be top down. The people would teach each other to be nationalists and so on; they would create their own statues and paintings and enlist for war of their own accord. And they would write history books to teach their children to be good collectivists.

As collectivism perpetuates itself, it becomes a commodity. Many of the most popular Chinese movies and television programmes show Japanese soldiers tormenting innocent Chinese people. Chinese people get a little of their collective hatred from each episode, they hate the Japanese a little more and resolving issues between the two countries gets a little harder. Most Americans believe the purpose of US foreign policy is selfless and generous and highly beneficial to the rest of the world. So Americans are exposed to movies and television with American heroes waving American flags, fighting American enemies for US foreign policy buzzwords like democracy. Everyone gets a little prouder of their country’s good deeds, they put less scrutiny on their government’s foreign adventurism, the truth slips further away and then everyone gets surprised when angry arabs kill 3000 Americans one morning in September.

Self serving elites are nothing if not resourceful; and they had new ideas to justify loyalty to the collective. They got creative with purposes and gave them stirring names like promised land, manifest destiny, king and country, bushido, jihad. These clever inventions have led countless millions to kill countless more, all the while serving the purposes of the powerful. The elites also knew that a win for their side was a way to prove to simple minded people that they were god’s people, and at the same time helping them to satisfy an inner bloodlust. Why do we have collectivism? Because individualists make lousy soldiers.

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