Thursday, March 24, 2011

MYTHS


I want to start this blog post with a declaration: nations are built on a sense of pride, or they are not built at all.


I shall shortly be participating in an interesting play by Floy Quintos - ‘Fake’ -which explores three quite recent attempts to create – that is, to manufacture - Philippine history. One of these was the fabrication, by one Jose Marco, of a supposed ‘Code of Kalantiao’, in Aklan province, allegedly dating from 1433. Another involved the creation of a ‘lost Stone Age tribe’ in Mindanao, the Tasaday, by Manuel Elizalde, while the third was the conjuring up of the Marcos medals for alleged World War II exploits in Luzon. All three attempts were later exposed as fakes.

It’s easy to dismiss these inventions as the products of insecure individuals anxious to create hollow monuments to themselves, but this is a shallow criticism: an insecure ego in search of admiration does not hitch its wagon to a national star that has not even risen! There is at least some nobility in the attempt to raise national self-esteem, however that may be accomplished.

The really damning criticism, from the Western viewpoint, was that each involved the manufacture of false evidence for the purpose of deceiving the public. This, in Western eyes, brought more shame on this young nation than its supposed insufficiently glorious past. No sane person, we would say, creates historical events out of thin air, pretending that facts are whatever you want them to be!
In Fake, American historian William Henry Scott relentlessly grinds down each of Jose Marco’s fabricated ‘facts’ until he reaches this culminating climax –

SCOTT There is no evidence! There is no Code of Kalantiao, Mr. Marco! There is no code because he never existed!

Characteristic of one less wedded to objectivity than his guest, Marco’s first defense is not to marshal more facts, but to appeal to Scott’s sense of propriety –

MARCO You are challenging me in my own home!

When this argument is brushed aside his next defense is to summon supporting authority –

MARCO The historians believe me!

To which comes Scott’s swift, academic rebuttal –
SCOTT They haven’t done their homework!

And then Scott voices possibly the core reason for his revulsion at what he considers Marco’s unconscionable perversion of the truth –

SCOTT …Think of all the fine young Filipinos you have fooled! The students of this country believing in a lie.

But to this comes a most unexpected riposte –

MARCO Not a lie, sir… The truth.

SCOTT Define truth, Mr. Marco, because you and me… well, We’ve got different definitions of that word.

MARCO … The truth is a flicker of light we ourselves make in the dark night of our souls. We grope in the dark, wanting light so badly that this… this flicker will just have to do. We will it to become the truth.

SCOTT Blinding you.

MARCO No sir, not blinding. Illuminating our way… We needed to be proud, sir… A proud nation of free men, with codes of law, with heroes… What would you know about not having a past to cling to, a past to tell us who we are and why we should be proud…

SCOTT But it is not the truth, Mr. Marco.

MARCO Then, sir, it should be.

              [Excerpted from ‘Fake’, a play by Floy Quintos.]

Pride, like charity, begins at home. I am inextricably committed to my own existence, of which my sense of nationhood is an extension. What I value is what is best for me. “I and mine are best” is a value hard-wired into all of us, and thus national pride, in a nutshell, means “My nation is best”. This sense of intrinsic worth is as essential to the creation and preservation of the nation state as it is to the daily affirmation of our own existence. Nations, like people, must assert themselves, or perish.

Scott berates Marco for teaching historical falsehood to the future leaders of his country – its students – as if objective facts alone would suffice to perform the essential job of nation-building. But to what external reality can national pride be anchored? We should be very careful of where we stand before we start hurling missiles at the patriotic flag wavers of other countries. A senior Bush aide, generally believed to be Karl Rove, told author Ron Suskind weeks before the 2004 elections "We're an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality." Both Elie Wiesel and Simon Wiesenthal defended the demonstrable lies they told about events in the Second World War – events which led up to the creation of Israel - in exactly the same terms as Jose Marco in the above-quoted fictional account. Said Wiesel 

"…some events do take place but are not true; others are [true] - although they never occurred." [LEGENDS OF OUR TIME (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968)]

Does anyone seriously claim that the history taught in schools – or for that matter anywhere in the world - is the unvarnished truth? What might the unvarnished truth consist of? There is an infinite number of facts from which to select what is to go into the history books, or onto DVDs, but a very limited amount of time available to absorb it all. To have an unbiased historical understanding we would need to know everything. This is not just impossible, it’s literally meaningless. Perspective – viewpoint – is essential to meaning. Where shall we start? What shall we include? What omit?

There has to be a narrative. Historical events are not chosen at random. What, then, will be the guiding principle behind the narrative that we choose? What, in fact, is the purpose of writing history in the first place? Jose Marco, Karl Rove, and Elie Wiesel know the answer, and it isn’t what our scientific upbringing tells us to expect. It is that history is there to make us feel good about ourselves as part of a larger cultural grouping. There is absolutely no point in teaching a national history that makes us ashamed, unless our purpose is to destroy the culture upon which that history is based. And to claim to teach a history that’s “objective” – that is, one that is based on facts – is disingenuous, or at best na├»ve.

A plague has descended upon us in the West, and its name is objectivity. Value cannot be derived from a study of objective “facts”. Facts are selected – are you paying attention? – on the basis of their value to us. Facts do not generate values; we have the entire train of events backwards! If, as it is said, history is written by the victors it is because they must feel good about what they have done. They select and interpret historical events so as to generate this result. 

Subsequent historical revisionism does not present a “more objective” picture, since it must face the same infinite mountain of possible facts as did those whose interpretation it seeks to supplant. It, too, must select. It, too, must develop a narrative. The meaning that allows it to do this comes from the value system behind the writing, and the resonance that the result finds with its audience depends on their receptivity to the writer’s theories. None of this – none of it – is deducible from the material world, from the world as object.

Jose Marco would readily have grasped this point. We, with our scientific upbringing, not only have the greatest difficulty in doing so, but – using the very same in-built credo that I and mine are best – scoff at his Third World lack of grounding in reality, feeling, as we do so, the swelling of that very same pride that we would deny him. Why? Because we claim to be objective! We claim thereby to have direct access to the truth!

Not for as long as our egos, our desires, are involved, we don’t. And it is precisely our egos – our needs and desires - that cause us to select one set of facts over another, even as we falsely (or merely blindly) claim objectivity in making precisely this selection.

“But,” I hear you say, “Marco – and Elizalde, and Marcos – fabricated history! They didn’t just select and interpret facts, they created events and histories out of whole cloth!”

And what, I counter, have we done? Our national histories are nothing if not exercises in self-aggrandizement. Note, I did not say “nothing but”. We should not belittle this effort. This exercise is an evolutionarily necessary boot-strapping operation as we laboriously build our way towards the understanding that we all are brothers. But you can’t miss out any of the steps. To transcend national pride you must first believe in it. To get a foot on the first rung of that ladder was the mission of Marco, Elizalde, and Marcos. To undercut that effort with well-meaning appeals to objectivity is to misunderstand the primary purpose of historical interpretation, which is first and foremost a matter of the heart. (To be sure, we may rise above this to study history as academics, but this is merely to enter a new battlefield, where egos clash over theories, rather than over territory.) As Karl Rove said, “We create our own reality.”

This activity is universal, and is how we build our historical ”myth” *. But in case you think we’re above all that, I invite you to listen to the linked video (below) for a small sample of history-currently-in-the-making among some of our Western democracies. As you watch the video, ask yourself what is fact and what is fiction. According to William Henry Scott you should have no difficulty distinguishing between the two, yet what comes across clearest of all in this video is the robust way in which all appeals to evidence – to facts – are resisted by our political leaders and opinion makers as we chart our course into the future. History – our history - is quite clearly being manufactured, right now.

Pablo
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* Where I use the word “myth”, in the video clip Anthony Lawson uses the word “legend”.