A return to history


As History with a capital H makes a comeback, would we return to studying history?

History is an endangered discipline now. There are those who believe study of the past is rather meaningless, when we can just create - with the power of technology - the future. 

And, then, there are those who use history all the time - or rather, make it up - to further their own goals. For them, unlike the historians, the lure of the past is due to its obscurity, its uncertainties and tentative nature. Instead, they confidently create the narratives of the past that they want - shaping and controlling it in their bid to own the future. 

However, history as political propaganda isn't really that new, but it's not history. At the core of history, there is a search for truth, even when such truth may be unknowable. It's true even the best of history writing is a narrative, an interpretation of what happened, and there are inevitably a lot of missing parts. But what distinguishes history from propaganda that seeks to take its place is the commitment - to find truth, to try to tell as it really was - as against being preconceived in the service of those who tell it. The uncertainty, the competing interpretations, the missing evidence and the guesswork make history; the 'history' that's preached to us from the podiums of Washington, London, Moscow and Delhi isn't.

 Of course, this doesn't exonerate those dusty and disconnected practitioners working away in academic departments, churning out unreadable tomes and ever-more-indecipherable arguments. It's rather their failure to establish history in the public consciousness while the politicians and the journalists ate their lunch. For them too, it's the embarrassment of acknowledging how much they did not know that undermined the sanctity of their method. They, as much as the politicians, treat the laymen as children, eager for simple facts and nothing more. Unlike the politicians, they stopped speaking to the public, therefore, ceding the space to our charlatans. 

But as we stopped caring about it, history showed up on our door. Our earlier generations, informed by the catastrophes of wars and revolutions in the last century, built an elaborate global edifice to maintain stability. Somewhere down the line, though, we let the initiative pass to those who would like an unrestrained pursuit of more, perhaps with the false sense of security that from now on, human affairs will be a strictly logical pursuit, driven by the locomotive of technology. And, then, we arrived at our own train wreck.

A virus ravages our way of living, as ice sheets melt and talk of war among major nations make a comeback. Populists rage with their made-up history and claims of past wrongs and fears for the future. Black men are shot at the slightest pretext - on the streets of the most advanced nation on earth - and all logical explanations of those acts, captured in vivid detail through the means of modern technology, fail except a historically-determined one. Suddenly, as we see, history was everywhere, even in who we are and who we could be. 

From this point, there are two divergent roads ahead of us. One is strewn with speculation, popular among our business leaders and bankers, to dream up new solutions to problems that do not yet exist. The costs of failed experiments are enormous - this is a well-understood fact - and the trick is to be able to pass the cost onto others. The other is to return to a study of history - accept that human progress, however astonishing, is just a blip in the time of the universe and the collective wisdom of our species can be just as informative as our individual memories of the previous day. This is a hard road, of course, perhaps slower and even less rewarding, but this is the moral one: There is no passing of costs to others. If we choose to walk this road, we remain true to our species-being and accept our role in the universe.

Of course, choosing this road would demand courage. Courage to eschew the game of riches, of building portfolios and of finding the easy life, and to give up on the lottery that has become synonymous with success. But it is - so I believe - the way of preparation for that day when the penny will eventually drop and we will all be called to face History. Indeed, our time may indeed pass before that comes. But, equally, it may not.   

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