History Matters

History Matters

by

Howard Adelman

There is an irony that I find, one which Friedrich Nietzsche failed to address when he wrote his short book, The Use and Abuse of History. History is subject to severe abuse when agents wish to rewrite history. It does not matter whether one is writing heroic history and acclaiming that the glorious record of the past has produced the wonders of the present that will guarantee a magnificent future (progressive/heroic history) or whether one has a dystopic view of the immediate past and puts forth an argument that the past betrayed an idyllic beginning so that the course of history needs to be radically altered otherwise the current trajectory will carry a nation into the dustbin of history (dystopic history).

There are two other possible pure patterns, only one of which can be found in frequent practice. Unlike the two models of history above running from an idyllic past either to a heroic or dystopic future, one possible model traces history directly from a heroic past without blemish to a heroic future. I can think of no concrete practice that follows this pattern. However, I do find histories written in terms of an immoral past which continues to corrupt events leading to the horrors of the present and to future shock – unless, of course, we lift up our moral game. This is not simply an historical account to which values are applied, but a historical record molded and cast in terms of the ethical format applied to the case. In this case, ‘corrupt” has a double irony, both applied to the record offered and to the moral mold applied to interpreting history.

The four patterns of history, which are not patterns of actual history, can be represented as follows, the first having no cases so it is listed first and separately:

Nil Examples of Heroic History: Heroic Past to Heroic Present

Actual Examples

  1. Heroic History: from Idyllic Past to Heroic Present
  2. Dystopic History: from Idyllic Past to Dystopic Present
  3. Corrupt History: from Horrific Past to Dystopic Present

Yesterday, Donald Trump once again gave witness that he was a member of the dystopic school of abusers of history. He ran on a slogan, “Make America Great Again,” which carried the message that America was once a great nation, that it had seriously declined, but could be saved and restored to greatness once again. To make that case, he has repeatedly deformed the immediate past, whether he was making claims about individuals – Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. – or whether he was making a general statement about a collectivity – Blacks live in decrepit crime-ridden neighbourhoods. He did not say that rundown and crime ridden neighbourhoods were often populated by Blacks and Hispanics – itself somewhat of a distortion since the opioid epidemic is currently flourishing in small town white America.

However, yesterday he made a counterfactual claim about the past when America was not so great, when America had deteriorated into civil war.  In an interview with Salena Zito of the Washington Examiner, when referring to the portrait of Andrew Jackson that hangs on the wall of his office, he posited the thesis that the Civil War would not have happened if Andrew Jackson had been president in the 1850s rather than two decades earlier. This was a Republican president denouncing the founding president of his party (Abraham Lincoln) for being an inadequate leader and one who helped bring about the civil war that ravaged America just over a century and a half ago. The edited transcript reads as follows:

[Jackson] was a swashbuckler. But when his wife died, did you know he visited her grave every day? I visited her grave actually, because I was in Tennessee…had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

Even though this is a counterfactual hypothesis about an alternative path that history could have followed, the speculation entailed several historical falsehoods – about Frederick Douglass and about a non-existent Civil War battle. In the above quote, there are the claims about Jackson’s character: he was a swashbuckler, very tough but with a big heart. This is a matter of interpretation, and certainly apparently outlandish with respect to Jackson having a “big heart” considering his initiative at ethnic cleaning of the Cherokee and other tribes in the incident known as the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern U.S. to the western plains. However, to assert, in absolute certainty, that, had Jackson been in the presidency, there would have been no Civil War is an exercise in dogmatic retrospective futurology when the one lesson history teaches is that, if the path of history is notoriously difficult to predict, retrospectively rewriting the past in terms of a specific alternative is a virtual impossibility.

The statement that Jackson “saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War” and said, “There’s no reason for this (my italics)” is also preposterously and demonstrably false. Jackson died in 1845, sixteen years before the war started. Further, if anything, Jackson helped set the groundwork for the Civil War when South Carolina threatened to secede – the first state to make such a threat – not over slavery, but over the new tariffs Jackson had imposed as a mercantilist opposed to free trade. The export of the products of South Carolina were very adversely affected. But when has Donald Trump ever been stymied by the realities of history?

Last week, in an interview he opined that, “There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians — none whatsoever. So we’re looking at that, and we’re also looking at the potential of going to Saudi Arabia.” Other than the difficulty of trying to decipher precisely what this statement means – is he suggesting that he is looking towards the Saudi plan to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? – the claim that “there is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and Palestinians” goes even further than utopian progressivists in Scandinavia and elsewhere who argue that the explanation for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that Europe decided to resolve its “Jewish problem” by exporting that so-called problem to the Middle East.

The latter is known as the “Dumping Thesis.” The problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes back to European antisemitism. The later version of the dumping thesis was that Europe, because of guilt over the Shoah, supported the creation of Israel. Europe displaced its Jewish problem by supporting Zionism and the movement of Jews from Europe to the Middle East.

I was reminded of this thesis when Gregory Baum very recently sent me his memoir called, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: The Story of My Theological Pathway. (I will review the book, specifically its marriage of Augustinian and liberation theology, in a future blog.) I first met Gregory in 1955. I was hitching a ride at the corner of Lawrence Avenue and Bathurst to the University of Toronto where I was enrolled in the premedical program. Gregory was driving his beaten-up old Volkswagen from the Augustinian monastery in Marylake in King City north of Toronto off Keele Street. The thousand acres once belonged to the estate of Sir Henry Pellatt who built Casa Loma, a current popular tourist attraction two blocks from my home for the past fifty years. Gregory was a priest. He lived in the monastery at Marylake. By the time we reached the university, we had become friends.

Gregory is a beautiful man truly with a great heart. His broad smile lights up a room and he credits his “inner smile” to the warmth and love of his mother, on the one hand, and his “blindness” to the horrors of the world on the other hand. He was born in Berlin fifteen years before my mother gave birth to me in Toronto. His family had been prosperous industrialists in Germany and his father, a nominal Protestant, died when he was a year old because of the aftereffects of wounds he suffered as a German army officer in WWI. Gregory’s father had in part been responsible for the gas attacks on the allied forces and had received the Iron Cross. He had also been an assistant to Dr. Fritz Haber, also a nominal Protestant, but of Jewish origin. Haber received a Nobel Prize in 1919, awarded in 1918, for his innovations in chemistry, in particular, “the synthesis of ammonia from its elements.” He was also the inventor of the cyanide-based gas, Zyklon B, used in the extermination camps in the Shoah.

Though Gregory’s grandparents on both sides had been Jewish, he had been raised celebrating Christmas and Easter in an avowedly secular home. German culture had been the religion of his family. However, when Hitler came to power, he was designated as a Jew because his mother and grandparents were Jewish, but he escaped Germany with his step-father who had international business connections, first to Britain, where he was part of the children’s transport. Subsequently, he was interned with many other German Jews in Canada during the early years of the war where he became a close friend of Emil Fackenheim who supervised my MA thesis on Hegel and Nietzsche.

As students, we shared the anecdote that Rabbi Fackenheim had been responsible for converting Gregory Baum to Catholicism because Emil had introduced Gregory to the Mediaeval Institute at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. Gregory’s memoir destroyed that ironic anecdote for me, but it was true that his education in the Canadian internment camp for “German citizens”, from which he was released in 1942, woke up his intellectual probing.

Gregory Baum was baptized in 1946 and would go on to become a leading figure in the Catholic Church in liberation theology. He was a seminal figure in Vatican II initiated by Pope John XXIII that convened between 1962 and 1965 when it was closed by Pope Paul VI, who was a participant, but subsequently systematically set out to subvert many of its reformist measures, though not its call for holy renewal or the introduction of vernacular languages in the church services. Gregory was a peritus, a mavin serving as theological adviser at the Ecumenical Secretariat.

In 1976, Gregory was forced to resign from the priesthood and the Augustinian Order, but for awhile remained a professor of sociology at St. Michael’s College before he moved to Montreal and McGill University. It was during that period that we had a long argument in my home study near Casa Loma. He and Cranford Pratt, who passed away last year, along with John Burbidge (a fellow Hegelian and member of the Toronto Hegelian group with myself) and William Dunphy, had authored a pamphlet entitled, “Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation in the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Christian Perspective.” None of them were either historians or philosophers of history. Cran and Gregory had come over to my study to discuss a draft they had written and had forwarded to me and to get my reaction. The argument we had did not change their minds. They did not change mine.

The central debate concerned their contention that Europe had a prime responsibility for the Israeli-Arab conflict and had dumped its problem with the Jews on the Palestinians in the Middle East. When I read his memoir, I was sorry to learn that in all these years he had never corrected what I considered to be major historical and factual errors in the Pamphlet that he and Cran Pratt had come to discuss back in the seventies.

Tomorrow, I will analyze Gregory Baum’s version of Israeli history. While Trump offered us a dystopic view of the American past, Gregory offered the world a horrific account of Israeli history. He wrote corrupt history. Both Trump and Baum interpreted history with a cavalier approach to historical facts.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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