History Bites

My column in the current issue (September 12) tries to show that decisions made in 1919-1920 at the Versailles peace talks did not settle all the issues thrown up by World War I. They simply set the table for new rounds of conflict. Today's Ukraine-Russia, Israel-Palestine were my examples. As we see everyday in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, history is never past; sometimes it is simply very quiet.

I thought this quote at Pat Lang's site (on the coming Scottish vote for independence) succinctly summed up the power of history in national stories and imagination (ironically the essay is focused on Arabism and Islam.)

“The historical memory of a nation is not merely a repository. Our vision of the past channels our vision of the future by constraining options, but also it plays a proactive role.

This memory is actually a very important factor in struggle…. If one controls peoples’ memory, one controls their dynamism…. It is vital to have possession of this memory, to control it, to administer it, tell it what it must contain. Collective memory is the tool shed, tomorrow’s ideological arsenal, from which political concepts and symbols are selected, reinterpreted, and manipulated both by established governments and opposition groups. It may wait for decades, patiently dormant, only to be reactivated suddenly as an explosive contagious force.”

“Memory is the Collective Tool Shed,” Dr. Christine M. Helms, McNair Paper 10, “Arabism and Islam: Stateless Nations and Nationless States.” September 1990.




Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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