Playing with the Past

By discipline, I’m a historian and as such, I tend to spend a fair amount of my time thinking not just about the past, but how it is written about and how we use it. Such uses, in particular, stick in my mind.

As historian Margaret MacMillan states in her 2008 book, The Uses and Abuses of History:

“History is called in…to strengthen group solidarity, often at the expense of the individual, to justify treating others badly, and to bolster arguments for particular policies and courses of action. Knowledge of the past helps us to challenge dogmatic statements and sweeping generalisations. It helps us all think more clearly.”
Recently, from the racism of John A. Macdonald to the geopolitics of Palestine, we’ve experienced some pertinent examples of calling upon the past to justify such policies and courses of action. Yet, as a historian myself, I cannot but find myself deeply concerned as folks overreach–justifying future action, rather than working to understand the context of the present.

In the context of Macdonald, local politicians urge their colleagues (and us, as residents) to simply ‘get over’ the wider implications of the past. Yet, in the same breath, called for remembrance of Macdonald and an apparent moral obligation to do so. In essence, this asserts a singular vision of history — one where Macdonald’s views are forgiven for an affection of the State and the man who is given credit, in the most laymen of senses, for founding the nation.

Indeed, honouring the nation’s first Prime Minister in the city’s most prominent train station is much more important than reviving the intergenerational damage created by Macdonald’s belief that Chinese workers, as part of “a semi-barbaric, inferior race”, were so critical to his schemes that he once stated that “[a]t present this is simply a question of alternatives – you must have this [Chinese] labour or you cannot have the railway”. But, how can we relate this supposed honour to an actively negative impact to the community or to differing histories?

Similarly, the historic erasure of distinct nations and peoples–be they located in Palestine or upon Turtle Island–reflect our willingness to collapse the multiple narratives of history into a singular, definite view of the past. Such a view, mind you, fits our immediate political necessities. This mire of manipulation of the past grows and twists, not to serve the truth, but to advance dogmatism and particular interests. In the meantime, such erasures of the past only create greater pain for those affected communities and marginalize further those who ought to be better served.

Rather, in another context and place, the varied and interconnected narratives of the past could uplift and affirm all peoples within our current society, rather than shove people to the margins. In our political arena, no matter the topic, it seems we seek to avoid the clarity of thought that MacMillan might hope that we would find through history.

For myself, as a relatively new writer with the Toronto Media Co-op, this is a thought that echos in my own mind when writing for this place (and any, really). We too, as conveyors of narrative and information, are bound to reflect not just the convenient narratives, but those which aim to uplift and affirm those who would otherwise not be.

Be it from a politican or from a writer, like me, you should expect more from us on matters like this. History can justify much in the world, but it can also keep us sharp and critical of our surroundings. For myself, I quite prefer the latter.

All the best,

– Brad.

Photo by Astrid Kopp, Flickr.
Released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Licence.
Originally posted on Toronto Media Coop.


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