Procrustean History

By David Solway on August 7, 2008

The crisis in which the West now finds itself is largely one of its own making and is rooted primarily in the false relation it has entered into with history. Its response to the tangled exigencies of the contemporary world is grounded in a willful and Procrustean tendency to reconfigure the past in such a way as to decomplexify or distort the issues which confront and surround us. In effect, we lay the past upon the iron bed of our received assumptions and preconceptions and then proceed to adjust it to the bed’s dimensions. The past is consequently made to conform to the mold of the West’s majority prejudices while at the same time appearing to offer an explanation for the complexities of the present—which for this reason remain unamenable to our best efforts at understanding and amelioration. The process by which we manipulate the historical annals is twofold, involving on the one hand a selective bracketing of episodes and periods in the life of a nation and on the other a deliberate rewriting of the dynamics at work in the life of a people, that is, history is either politically truncated or mythologically stretched beyond the lineaments of the actual—the Procrustean options of the simplifying sensibility. And this double process has proven highly effective in creating a climate of obscurity and misapprehension from which, barring a crucial change of mind and heart, it seems unlikely we will emerge.

There is no doubt that the United States is reaping the harvest of its sullied past. Many Americans who came of age in the revolutionary 60s still see their country sub species Vietnamis, refusing to allow that its foreign policy and its projection of power may have changed in the intervening span of time. Other countries persist in exacting revenge for America’s past sins. Greece, for instance, still cannot forgive the United States for its misguided support of the military Junta between 1968 and 1974 and the Iranian Ayatollahs continue to link the Great Satan with the long-deposed Shah. The list of grievances cherished by the Muslim nations, whether justified or not, is so extensive only the past is large enough to contain it and the future to nurture it. Europe as a whole has conveniently forgotten that it owes its liberation and economic recovery to the very country it condemns for the continental depradations of Manifest Destiny. Under the ideological leadership of pre-Sarko France—and with some backing from current pseudo-scholarship—the United States it chooses to remember is that of a renegade British colony that ruthlessly suppressed the indigenous populations in the territory it aggressively claimed as its own. That such means of colonization are common to the entire “civilized” world, including America’s most persistent critics, is of course never taken into consideration.

Times change as do official government policies, yet America gets no credit for ending the despotic regime of a mass murderer like Saddam Hussein, attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan and scrubbing out the al-Qaeda bases and training camps which threatened an entire world, or for coming to the defence of Muslim populations in Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo. That the United States is the largest contributor to the budget of the United Nations and shouldered the lion’s share of the relief efforts in tsunami-stricken Thailand does not absolve it from universal disdain. In restricting America to one or another given period in its evolution as a nation and so assigning it a fixed narrative identity, the so-called “enlightened” free world cannot accept that America has opened a new era in global strategy, making its interests approximately identical with its values, and that it now represents the free world’s only hope of survival in a war to the finish with a theocratic antagonist that will use any and every means at its disposal to ensure victory, including the deployment of chemical and radiological weapons and the deliberate targeting of blameless civilians.

The fact is that America is needed and relied upon by nation after nation, yet it is ubiquitously condemned for whatever sins it may have committed in the past. As Albert Camus insisted with respect to France and its brutal and shortsighted campaign in Algeria, “Problems must be seen in relation to the future, without endlessly going back over the errors of the past.” What he calls a “policy of expiation” is, in his view, utterly pointless. But this is a world so mortgaged to its singular and preferential view of the past that it cannot envisage the future which is rapidly foreclosing—and for which America is held responsible. As Mark Twain quipped, “To my mind, this is irregular. It is un-English. It is un-American. It is French.” Only, in today’s political milieu, it is also quite English and, for that matter, quite American Left. And very, very mainstream Canada.

That which has no existence on the historical plane has come to assume a central place in the collective imagination of mankind as a veridical record of hypothetical events, substituting what we may call a homiletic allegory of evil for a factual account of what actually occurred. So ingrained has this mutilation of reality become that even what actually did occur is often dismissed as a partisan illusion: for example, the Holocaust never happened.

This is where we find ourselves today, plying between two ideologically forged conceptions of the historical archive, two systematic forms of mnemonic self- deception. There is the limited past which one is not permitted to escape or transcend even though the present may have little in common with it. And there is the fabricated past to which America in particular, and the West in general, has been consigned, leading to the uniform misrepresentation of the present. It is these two strictly contrived versions of the past, one operating as a specific constraint and the other as a widespread counterfeit, which have deformed the present and compromised the future, to the cost of all of us. This is how either selective memory or artificial memory deprives us of the ability to make authentic sense of the contemporary world. The exemplary abridgement and the precedent fiction always serve as the condition of the current subterfuge. Whether as cause or effect, bad history walks hand in hand with bad faith.


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