The Myth of Objective History

Published in the Express Tribune on  Aug 10, 2015

Hegemony refers to domination of various kinds, often by one state or group over others. The definition given by the Italian Marxist, Gramsci, leads to deeper understanding: it is the success of the dominant classes in presenting their view of the world as the only acceptable one. The importance of shaping minds, as an essential component of modern warfare, has received recognition under the name of ‘soft power’ and current US Army manuals devote considerable attention to it. The importance of the hard power in the form of weapons, soldiers and technical support in the Iraq war is obvious. However, the essential enabling role of the soft power required to convince the US public that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, that al Qaeda was somehow present in Iraq and that Iraq posed a danger to the world, often escapes attention. Similarly, a massive propaganda effort magnifies the terrorist threat out of proportion to reality, in order to allow trillions to be spent on ‘security’ when millions are homeless and hungry in the US.termdefinition

One of the most useful tools in the arsenal of the hegemon is the myth of objective history. This is the widely believed idea that there is only one objective version of history, and hence all versions which deviate significantly from this are just plain wrong. Once the hegemon constructs the dominant version, there is no need to waste time in contradicting or arguing with alternatives — they are simply assumed to be wrong, and not given serious consideration. To free our minds, it is essential to understand why there can be no such thing as objective history. Currently, there are about seven billion people living on the planet. A complete objective current history must include the unique life experiences of all of them. Including the past multiplies the problem many times. Of all the events that have occurred since the dawn of time, only a very small percentage have been recorded. There is every reason to believe that this record is highly biased, since most writers who record events do so because they have some interest in them. Even discounting this bias, the extant historical records would fill several buildings and it is not possible for any single human being to absorb them even with a lifetime of study. Necessarily, what reaches us from the historical record is a very, very small fragment. Many startling conclusions flow from our inability to grasp more than an extremely tiny percent of the historical events which have occurred.

First, nearly any concept can be given historical support. Given any thesis, we can always find a few events which support this thesis, and hence ‘prove’ it historically. Of course, opponents can also find events going against the thesis. The hegemon argues that all such events are ‘exceptions’ to the general principle. Given our vast ignorance of historical records, such claims are accepted on authority. Second, and perhaps even more important, we choose our past by highlighting certain historical events that we choose to call our past. For example, some Egyptians launched a project of identifying with the Pharaohs of Egyptian history, in addition to their Islamic heritage. As part of a deliberate effort to separate Muslims within the Russian Republics, cultures, histories and even languages were created for the Tatars, the Bashkirs, Chechens, Ingush and other Muslim republics. Identity politics refers to how identities can be created or modified by political concerns.

Given that our past is not etched in stone, and that our choice of a past has a strong impact on the potential futures available to us, how should we choose our past? The hegemonic historical account is strongly Eurocentric, creating the impression that rational thought, democracy, science and all good things originated exclusively in Europe. Students in Pakistan learn this history from an educational system devised by Macaulay to reinforce these lessons. As a result, they despair of making significant achievements or contributions to human knowledge. A history which highlights the contributions and achievements of Islamic civilization in terms of human excellence, restores hope and creates the courage, idealism and vision required for great accomplishments. Such a history is not ‘biased’ but ‘purposive’ — aimed to counter hegemonic accounts in order to achieve certain desirable educational goals.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 10th,  2015.

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