Friday, 11 April 2014

Internationalise History!

History too important to be left to national politicians as a social engineering project for their ideological or ethnic visions of national identity.

First, the principle. The idea of ‘national histories' should be replaced with the unitary ideal of international history, that all official histories should be compatible with each other as literal facts must be. History is about matters of fact and their true explanation just as science is. Yet, while more or less the same science is taught in schools all over the world (with the exception of a few theocracies), national histories are very often self-serving opinion taught as fact, i.e. propaganda. The result is the dangerous cultivation by governments of the ignorance and resentment of their citizens.

Second, there should be a grievance mechanism that reflects the moral fact that the way history is taught is a matter not only for national governments - democratic or otherwise - but of human rights below and international relations above. The model might be the European Court of Human Rights, to which both individuals and other member states can bring cases about the misbehaviour of national governments. But instead of legal judges we would have a panel of internationally respected academic historians. False, substantially misleading, or unjust official histories and school curricula would lead to binding legal rulings against propagandist governments, including punitive fines and reform requirements.

I. Truth

Some may question whether history is actually about truth finding, or whether it has always been and can never be more than a story-telling enterprise. The extent and durability of disagreements between professional academic historians, even about such well-studied issues as the causes of the first world war, suggests that we cannot expect historians to converge on the kind of definitive consensus we associate with the natural sciences. History faces a particular difficulty as an observational science (like palaeontology  or cosmology) in that it cannot create data and must instead make the most of whatever evidence happens to be available. And of course historians do not produce predictions that would allow us to test their interpretations independently and filter out less adequate accounts.

But the significance of interpretation and debate among historians does not make history unscientific in the sense either of lacking a rigorous empirical methodology or of being uninterested in truth. The natural sciences also require interpretation and internal debate to work  - they are not automated machines for generating hypotheses and testing them against data (the machine learning model). Climate scientists are presently hypothesising and debating over why the global warming effect seems to have paused, but that kind of collaborative rigorous testing of interpretations against observations is exactly what makes climate science a scientific enterprise rather than dogmatism. Nor is history merely a matter of opinion all the way down. As in physics but not as in literature, no one doubts that there are right answers about what happened and why.

On the one hand, the existence of substantial disagreements between professional historians should not distract us from the existence of substantial agreement on many points, not only about what did happen, such as the humanitarian catastrophe of Belgium's kleptocratic rule over Congo or the Armenian genocide, but also what did not happen, such as the convenient myth that the German military would have won WWI if it hadn't been for a Jewish conspiracy within the civilian government.

On the other hand, governments should make responsible use of the persistence of reasonable disagreement between experts about what happened and why. History is not a train you can get off at the most convenient station. National politicians should not be allowed to pick the story they like the best, any more than they should get away with picking the view of climate science that best suits their ideology and immediate political needs. If there really is substantial disagreement within the specialised epistemic community of professional historians that should be treated as a resource not a problem. We should not be surprised that the causes and moral responsibility for big complicated events like wars are themselves complicated, and that clear simple answers are often unavailable. The disagreements of historians can be used within the classroom to teach the limits of historiography as well as facts that deserve belief.

II. Justice

It is as ridiculous to have national politicians imposing their opinions and calling it history as it would be for them to choose what kind of evolutionary theory gets taught in science classes. But it is also a great injustice. The citizens of a country have a right to an official story that is also true, even if that is upsetting or inconvenient for some politicians or dominant ethnic groups. Their children have the right to study the truth rather than propaganda in public schools, to be treated with the respect due to future citizens rather than to be used as pawns in a game of social engineering. The victims of national crimes, whether at Auschwitz or Nanjing, and their descendants inside and outside the country, have the right to have the crimes against them acknowledged in the official accounts. The citizens of former colonies have the right to have the truth of their histories recognised in the histories of their colonisers.

Of course it is reasonable for national governments to decide to some extent which areas of the country's history should be the main focus in schools, just as they decide which areas of mathematics to teach to children and at what age. But this is limited by the demands of justice. Official history (text)books shouldn't lie outright about crimes like the Armenian genocide in Turkey or Japan's war-time atrocities across S.E. Asia, but they must also go beyond that bare requirement. They shouldn't lie by omission - misleading readers about such inconvenient facts by simply not mentioning them, as in supposedly liberal states like America and western Europe where inconvenient or shameful parts of national histories, such as the ghastliness of colonialism, are still skipped over or whitewashed in the curriculum. Official histories must be adequate for the education of their citizens about relevant facts of history. And that requires paying much more attention to the dark side of a nation's past than is usually the case: the oppression of empire, the moral quagmire of occupation, the crimes of autocrats and their accomplices, and so on.

It is exactly because history is so important to national identity that truth is a moral issue. It is one thing for an autocracy like Putin's Russia to impose an official history upon its people that suits the regime's purposes of self-legitimation. That is relatively easy to condemn. But democracies have no better moral claim to use history as propaganda to further a particular national identity among their citizens.

First, obviously, merely because the majority of citizens in a country find some version of history more agreeable doesn't make it true [previously], especially where citizens depend to a large extent on the government to provide their understanding of history in the first place. Facts require specialists trained in appropriate methods to track down, unlike opinions about the meanings of facts which are appropriate for general debate by ordinary citizens.

Second, while a democracy can make more legitimate choices than an autocracy about the meaning of history for the present, this is still limited by the facts. Suppose a democratic regime has the laudable aim of uniting the country in shared national pride about its achievements and therefore tailors the official accounts of the country's history to exclude certain awkward facts of history that impede that. Such an exercise is self-defeating. Facing up to your country's shameful past is a necessary part of what real national pride requires [previously]. Deliberate self-deception will haunt a country as the portrait of Dorian Gray haunted him from the attic. And in any case, this kind of national pride rests on the shaky foundations of informational control, which are rather difficult to maintain in these days of Wikipedia. (Indeed, Wikipedia can claim much credit for internationalising knowledge, the rather obvious idea that facts, to be facts, should be the same whatever country you are viewing them from.)

III. Peace

Peace may be the greatest pay-off of internationalising history because historical relativism is at the root of many contemporary political conflicts between nations and between ethnic groups. Most armed conflicts are fuelled by popular moral tribalism not the realpolitik of cunning statesmen: a shared faith in the righteousness of your group's cause and a belief that the other side are monsters. Various explanations for this tribalism have been advanced, but they are generally some version of a deep conflict between different, incompatible value systems. The New Atheists, for example, like to blame religion, since religions supposedly generate ultimate value systems that are backed up by divine metaphysics and hence brook no compromise. Such accounts suggest that moral tribalism is caused by differences in abstract ideas, i.e. people are ready to kill each other for eating pork, or for having the wrong beliefs about obscure metaphysical issues like the relationship between father, son and holy spirit in the holy trinity.

I have never found this very convincing. First, since religion in most of the world is still a matter of inheritance rather than individual conscience, the value-clash account doesn't add much to the general perception that the fault-lines between warring groups tend to be ethnic ones, especially in civil wars. Second, religion seems to work more as a marker of group identity, for example as a shibboleth that is hard for outsiders to fake - as 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' labels work in Northern Ireland - than as a driver of conflict itself. On the whole, religious affiliation seems to have more to do with determining which tribe you fall into, or which you will fall back into when the chips are down, than it does in generating the conflicts themselves. The real roots of many conflicts - though not all - lie in contradictory beliefs about the way this world works rather than about the divine world, and an important part of that are the very different histories told in each tribe about how they and other tribes have thought and acted in the past.

In the Ukraine, for example, Soviet era history painted a picture (continued in current Russian propaganda) of Ukrainian ethnic nationalists' intimate collaboration with Nazism and the murder of Jews, Poles and Russians. While under the nationalist government of Viktor Yushchenko (2005-10), Stalin's crimes took centre stage and the leader of a gang that carried out mass murder, Stepan Bandera, was officially declared a ‘Hero of Ukraine'. Virulent mistrust is a natural consequence of this use of government authority to perpetuate self-serving tribalist narratives, fuelling both the Maidan revolution and the illegitimacy with which many in the east of Ukraine see the new government.

Likewise, the simmering crisis between Japan and China has much to do with the nationalistic propaganda taught in schools and little to do with the geostrategic significance of a few uninhabited rocky islets. In China the hardly communist any more CCP sought a new pillar for the legitimacy of its rule after crushing the China Spring of 1989, but in the process has unleashed a tide of grievance based nationalistic aggression among its young people that it struggles to hold in check. (Younger Chinese are far more antagonistic towards Japan than the generation that actually suffered Japan's genocidal occupation.) In Japan the failure of schools to clearly and unequivocally explain the manifold crimes of the short-lived Japanese empire (in contrast to Germany) has allowed an aggressive nationalist movement to flourish that portrays Japan entirely as a victim and demands repeal of the pacifist constitution.

It is often these divergent distorted histories of victimhood and blame-transference - rather than the usual suspects, moral relativism and religious fanaticism - that create and sustain dangerous moral tribalisms. By connecting present politics to past betrayals they perpetuate stereotypes of the homogeneity and monstrousness of the other group; and they drive people further into their own sectarian identity in search of security and united by a sense of grievance, at the expense of their other, broader identities as citizens or as human beings. Historical relativism is thus directly relevant to modern politics and especially the dramatic failures of civil politics that lead to armed conflicts between and within states. International history addresses this root cause of distrust between groups not only by giving people more confidence in the truthfulness of official histories, but by putting history itself beyond the domain of national political contestation.

IV. Prudent Politics

Finally, international history can be justified as a defence of sovereignty itself. True patriots should demand truthful history because delusionary history endangers the nation they love. History may not repeat itself exactly, but it does rhyme. Without a generally shared truthful understanding of how things really happened it is easy for a country to fall back into the same old dangerous patterns, such as the seductive allure of war or autocracy in times of political crisis. A knowledge of one's national pathologies is of great use in defence of one's national values and institutions.

Patriotic politicians too have good prudent reasons to give up their power to propagandise history and accept the jurisdiction of an international tribunal. Doing so actually enhances the sovereignty of national governments. The common sense conception of sovereignty is of a government's 'libertarian' power to decide matters of tax, war, justice, education, etc for itself, unconstrained by other agents, whether those be citizens, laws, or foreign governments. But another conception of sovereignty concerns the positive ability of governments to act effectively, and it is this real power to get things done that most politicians care about. It turns out that there is a trade-off between these two conceptions, in that the greater the degree of discretion governments insist on retaining the less able they are to get important things done in the modern world.

That is firstly because the modern world is multilateralist and rewards cooperators more than exceptionalists. Renouncing some sovereign rights makes a country better off in terms of its ability to achieve valuable goals; for example, joining the World Trade Organisation and accepting its trade rules and adjudication mechanism leads to more trade and more economic prosperity. Maintaining a delusional self-serving history imposes significant costs on a country's international standing and relationships which renouncing historical exceptionalism can remove. Compare how well Germany gets on with all its neighbours nowadays, and even Israel, as a result of explicitly accepting the international account of its history, with the persistent suspicion felt by Japan's neighbours because of its evasiveness about what version of history it accepts. Such suspicion undermines the scope for mutually beneficial trading and security relationships because who can know which values a nation really endorses now if it is still in denial about its crimes then. Who can trust the promises of a country that prefers to live in a fantasy world rather than the one everyone else lives in?

Renouncing certain sovereign rights also reduces the volatility and ferocity of domestic political contests. Examples of this include the constitutional separation of church and state, the rule of law (independent judiciaries), and the peaceful transition of power by regular democratic elections. And these may be doubly backed up by signing on to binding international treaties to make compliance more difficult to evade, as in the case of the European Convention on Human Rights (with 47 parties). 

The general logic is that putting some powers permanently outside the scope of political contest, like ruling out some methods of making war, benefits all parties by making national politics more moderate, stable, and successful. A winner-takes-all model, such as in Ukraine, where political contests end in prison terms for the losers and new official histories that delegitimise their supporters is not conducive to the long term flourishing of the country (or its politicians!). When so much is at stake political factions do not politely concede defeat merely because something as trivial as a vote count goes against them. The winner-takes-all model undermines the exercise of sovereignty since it may so increase the ferocity of the contest for power as to undermine the effective power to rule of whichever side does eventually manage to take over the government. Far sighted patriotic politicians recognise that the state is actually stronger when it renounces the 'sovereign' right to throw government opponents and critics in prison. They should also recognise the benefits to their country of taking history out of politics.

Notes and further reading
This is a revised and extended version of a column I published on 3 Quarks Daily

Akim Reinhardt has a friendly critical discussion of my proposal over at The Public Professor

There have been some efforts at international history already - e.g. this jointly written French-German textbook.

The BBC Documentary 'Missing Histories' explores the present international problems caused by different national histories of the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-45.


  1. Dear P.B., good history lesson! Some of your early points pressed my button so for what it's worth: History is story-telling based on both apparent and documented events. It purports to deal only with facts, which are tiny pieces of unknowable truth, the infinitely large ball of facts constituting reality. A fact is only a fact. Here's one: Jimmy hit a double. Another: It hit a bump and bounced over the shortstop's head. Another: Bill the groundskeeper didn't roll the diamond this spring because he's ill. Another: Heart problems run in his family. And so on until all reality gets involved. How did I meet my spouse? Well, Hitler invaded Poland and delayed my college entrance - no, it started long before that, with
    Bismarck, no, even before, with............

  2. Thanks for commenting!

    1. All the sciences do this kind of conjecturing beyond the immediately known facts, but most do not use the narrative form that history does (although palaeontology does, I believe). So if that is an epistemological weakness it isn't limited to history.

    2. Causation is tricky indeed - there is a special branch of philosophy now dedicated to it. It becomes especially difficult in the social sciences because agency plus sociality produces far more complexity than physics, say, has to deal with. Anyway, the short answer is that historical research requires the development of expert judgement about how best to weigh causal connections. That can be explained to third parties, but only really justified to other professional historians.

    3. In any case, neither line of scepticism can help the propagandist government who are the main targets of my proposal. The propagandist needs citizens to believe in the methodology of history in the first place or it will not be possible to persuade them to accept the self-serving propaganda version of what happened.

  3. History is contentious with a lot at stake- that is, it's highly charged politically. What's the track record for international organizations like the UN, to stay neutral and to follow through on its authority?
    In the case of say the Arab Israeli conflict, it would or may incite further conflict- and it would seem to me that disputes don't center on factual differences but on interpretation and from following debates in gyms and on TV, people invent their own facts and believe whatever suits them

    1. Plenty of UN and other international institutions are respected neutral arbiters of factual disputes. The various international legal institutions for example such as the International Criminal Court, International Court of Justice, European Court of Human Rights, etc.

      Moral claims often depend on factual ones. 'It's our land because we were here first' for example. To the extent that you are arguing in good faith, and trying to persuade people of your case with good reasons, the truth of those factual claims does matter.


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