History and myth in Russian schools, from Novaya Gazeta
This article about totalitarian manipulation of history serves as a critical reminder that 'history' -
not fiction - must be taught in our schools. I attended an excellent high school where critical thinking was taught. Original sources were essential ingredients of history courses. I converse from time to time with the new Head of School at my alma mater. Not so long ago, I told her that I believed the curriculum had sacrificed history by incorporating the subject into 'inter-disciplinary' courses. She told me that if the school were to search for a 'history teacher', there would be no takers because 'pure' subject had not been taught for so long. How can one possibly understand what is happening in Ukraine without having learned history? The American educational system is in crisis.
I feel so cheated by my parochial education of the 40s and 50s. As you stated in "On Tyranny," do not obey in advance. I could not understand that until I read this post. We children were told that the nuns and priests spoke only the truth, and that was what we had to structure our lives on. When the pope spoke, God spoke through him. (That pope being Pius XII, who protected Nazis and other fascists.) So education became the mouthpiece of tyranny and, frankly, by believing it was in fact THE TRUTH, my life was scarred in many significant ways.
Some people want to keep their children from "feeling bad" by suppressing information about slavery in our history. I call that "Critical Stupid Theory." As well as Hate Theory. The only way our species can survive is to inform ourselves about what terrible things we are capable of, and how we can ameliorate the harm we have already wreaked. That is the only basis on which we can go forward.
Unlike the “truths” someone would create to promote their own view of the world be that person Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed religious leader, a social media troll, or a misguided media figure or classroom instructor, real history is immutable. It has already happened, its consequences have already been played out, the book already written, the ending revealed, the last stanza played. Certainly one can write a new story. That author may choose a different starting point, craft a new plot that leads to a different ending. But that new story is not history. It is a new fable, a fiction. We must be careful that fables and fictions tell stories with a valid moral purpose that serves the interests of humanity. Fables that teach false moralities are not to be used to instruct us, rather they are used only to deceive, misinform, and ultimately destroy our possibilities and destinies. But they cannot destroy history. Why? Because history is … well, history. It has already happened, it is immutable and unalterable. Only the future is changeable. Even the present which can be no more than a departure point for the future is unalterable. The lesson for all … Remember the past for it helps explain accurately how we arrived in the present and may instruct us about how to choose a better future.
Note the parallels with efforts in the US to promote myth-based history to justify political agendas and inequality now, and setting the stage for future atrocities.
"Violence on this scale requires taming the past, monopolizing innocence, and creating a false certainty that whatever one's country actually does in the present and future must be correct. We came first, we were always on the defensive, we always helped others, even if they themselves don't always understand that."
A couple of thoughts: (1) Reading the description of the intellectual abuse going on today in Russian schools feels like looking in a mirror at what is happening in US public schools: the trumpist right's weaponization of critical race theory to prevent students from learning hard, indispensable truths about their own history; the banning of books like "Maus" that help teach the young how to be moral human beings. As Tucker Carlson and his ilk keep reminding us, the authoritarian right in America is not very (if at all) different from its authoritarian counterpart in Russia. (2) In the internet age, every citizen is a potential reporter. A young girl in Minneapolis with nothing but a cellphone created the record that brought justice to the killers of George Floyd. There are videos, emails, voicemails, and texts on the cellphones of ordinary people all over Ukraine. Most cannot be accessed now. But the time is coming when these primary documents will be recovered, like the letters and diaries of WW II. Godspeed to all the valiant Russian and Ukrainian journalists, persecuted for telling the truth.
Zizek's recent piece on the war which seems to be consonant with much of what you've said in this regard (this is not always the case!). More curiously (and interestingly) Ivan Ilyin crops up here, don't think I've seen him mentioned before in his writings though I could be wrong. You might very well have a hand in this...
I should, not least because I left that outrageously long comment yesterday, also clarify something a bit further. Because Zizek too brings it up here. I'm not trying to suggest that 'Great Powers' ought to decide the geo-political contours of the globe. No one could reasonably argue for this. However -- and precisely because imperial and colonial history haven't entirely vanished (including therefore the older variants) -- we cannot simply assert the principle that every nation has a right to 'desire' what it will. The other point that you make about the war (in this case) not just being about the US and Russia and that there are other imperatives and national passions that matter is I think much more salutary. we certainly need to enlarge our imaginative frames in this sense. Otherwise even as we speak a post-WWII Western liberal language we leave a certain 19th century Great Power logic implicit in our claims. Now this too isn't accidental inasmuch as (and again for reasons you too have delved into) that post-War liberal-democratic project, for all its admirable goals was (and still is) implicated in certain notions of history and politics that are predicated on various colonial or new-colonial archives and ultimately on race. But this last is perhaps a debate for a different time and place. But again we need to stop thinking of the world only in terms of Washington and Berlin and Moscow and Beijing or what have you. For all this though we cannot just wish away these histories. Only in this sense do I mean that we have to account for these other national narratives that might well be exploited by the Putins of the world in various contexts but that have deeper resonance than that. It's true that many citizens in those countries might be against one war or the other, one kind of government action (against part of its own citizenry) or another but they might also be invested in notions of their country's past, present or future greatness. It's always this kind of 'lite' support that tends to be a problem, and this is borne out wherever there are elections. At least these days.
Now of course one could nonetheless assert such a principle. The idea that whoever wishes to can join NATO. But then one should be willing to put everything on the line to defend it and thereby alter the global order in some substantial way. So yes I too think that Ukraine should be invited to NATO immediately. If one wishes to alter existing dominant narratives on any side one must also be willing to die for them. Here I should also add that I am not a naive believer in 'Western values' above all but, and with Zizek, I think that the Western liberal-democratic model, for all its problems, all its difficult histories and legacies, remains a better option than the Russian vision put forth by Putin or even more importantly the Chinese one advanced by Xi. Today this seems true.
As a final point I think it's also important to remember that the Ukrainians are in a way privileged victims. Zizek used to say this about the Palestinians. The point simply is that in certain crises or wars or occupations the victims seize the imagination of the world for reasons that are not simply about the obvious factors (resistance, heroism, solidarity, brutal domination etc) but are also about the ways in which these very events are 'produced' and sent to the top of the news cycles. This happens when significant powers are involved or when old global rivalries are stoked and so on. My point here isn't to lessen the horror of what's going on in Ukraine. I've already indicated the West ought to consider proper military action if that is otherwise a feasible option. But for all this there is a problem inasmuch as it's precisely 'Great Power' politics that decides what's important. So once again we have these legacies. Given that we do we can't forget them when considering other national narratives also tied to the same great powers. NATO expansion or whatever. And again I'm still not suggesting this war is 'about' the latter.
I just wanted to share information. Some former intelligence people in Washington think the chance of having a cyber Pearl Harbor-like event is inside the realm of possibility.
CBS News Sunday Morning
Title: Confronting Putin: What can Americans expect?
I'll let you decide for yourselves what you want to do with it. Potential impacts might be banks, credit cards, travel, nearly everything connected to the internet. Maybe people might want to think about their potential impacts and have a backup plan.
This piece seems very appropriate here and for multiple reasons but also the online presentation here is quite extraordinary :
This smoothing out of the past, whether in the U.S. or in Russia, makes history boring for students. History is so very complicated. It is full of contradictions and unexpectedness, and is sometimes downright weird.
But history as myth is also dangerous, because when reality is forced to conform to an idealized past, everything that doesn't conform must be destroyed. Nothing that is rough around the edges, including human beings, their institutions, and their writings, can survive. Which means that history as a discipline could not survive. Historians ask questions. The great and long, long dialogue between historians both alive and dead, including all of their disagreements! would cease to exist. No more questions, no more contradictions, no more weirdness.
I saw a report on one of the cable news outlets, CNN (I think), a day or so ago. The reporter speculated that Putin’s lies are generally accepted by Putin’s own generation in Russia. She said that the younger generations are more skeptical of his pronouncements. I question this. In the US, gullibility seems more of a problem in rural America than in the cities. Do we have hard data about this in present day Russia?
Today's article about Putin's obsession with history and myth, also on the dangers of anticipating in advance that you described in On Tyranny.
From the article: "...I described the phenomenon of the 'collective Putin' — the way his entourage always tried to eagerly anticipate what the president would want. These cronies would tell Mr. Putin exactly what he wanted to hear. The 'collective Putin' still exists: The whole world saw it on the eve of the invasion when he summoned top officials, one by one, and asked them their views on the coming war. All of them understood their task and submissively tried to describe the president’s thoughts in their own words."
Thank you for this article. Very sad what’s happening