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History is a Weapon

Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

History isn't what happened, but a story of what happened. And there are always different versions, different stories, about the same events. One version might revolve mainly around a specific set of facts while another version might minimize them or not include them at all.
      Like stories, each of these different versions of history contain different lessons. Some histories tell us thatour leaders, at least, have always tried to do right for everyone. Others remark that the emperors don't have the slaves' best interests at heart. Some teach us that this is both what has always been and what always will be. Others counsel that we shouldn't mistake transient dominance for intrinsic superiority. Lastly, some histories paint a picture where only the elites have the power to change the world, while others point out that social change is rarely commanded from the top down.

       Regardless of the value of these many lessons, History isn't what happened, but the stories of what happened and the lessons these stories include. The very selection of which histories to teach in a society shapes our view of how what is came to be and, in turn, what we understand as possible. This choice of which history to teach can never be "neutral" or "objective." Those who choose, either following a set agenda or guided by hidden prejudices, serve their interests. Their interests could be to continue this world as it now stands or to make a new world. 
      We cannot simply be passive. We must choose whose interests are best: those who want to keep things going as they are or those who want to work to make a better world. If we choose the latter, we must seek out the tools we will need. History is just one tool to shape our understanding of our world. And every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.

A left counter-hegemonic education project


Comments

Caissa
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Joined: Jun 14 2006

Almost any hisorian would agree with what is written above.


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

Very interesting site. Thanks!


milo204
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Joined: Feb 3 2010

we need a site like that that deals with canada's history...


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

Aside from the fact that we are currently on one of those sites, I think the resources are all there already. It's just a matter looking and, more importantly, thinking critically.

It would be a bad thing if anyone got lulled into thinking all the perspective one needs can be found on one website.

 

 


autoworker
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Joined: Dec 21 2008
Those with superior weapons often write the narrative.

6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

True, though for the most part the rest of the story is hiding in plain view.

Not to say that people aren't manipulated - they are. But they also tend to see what they want to see.

I don't mean to imply that there isn't any groundbreaking investigative work, or uncovered secrets, but I'd say most of it is right there for those who want to see it.

 

 

 

 


autoworker
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Joined: Dec 21 2008
Moreover, banality may be the most potent weapon in perpetuating that narrative.

Sven
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Joined: Jul 22 2005

As a reader or student, I don’t want to read history that is deliberately “used as a weapon” to advance a political goal (whether I agree with the political goal or not).  I want to make up my own mind.  I don’t expect scientific objectivity (that does not exist in history) but I do expect a serious historian or teacher to make a good faith effort to give as open and as honest an account of an event or period of time as she or he can.  Just because scientific objectively cannot be attained, that’s not a reason to make no effort to be as objective as possible.  It would be incredibly arrogant for a historian or teacher to “use history as a weapon” and to deliberately skew a view of history to advance a political goal – rather than to let the historian’s readers or teacher’s students come to their own conclusions.


Fidel
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Joined: Apr 29 2004

Quote:
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of 'history' it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time - and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened."  (Hunter S. Thompson)


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

Not to say that the idea promoted by the myth is wrong... just that it wasn't intended that way:

http://mediamythalert.wordpress.com/2011/06/14/too-early-to-say-zhou-was...

 


Caissa
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Joined: Jun 14 2006

Sven, the issue depends on the les through which a historian views history. Even the argument that something close to objectivity is possible is an ideological lens. An historian constantly has to decide what material and information s/he will privilege.


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

@ Caissa

I agree completely about objectivity, but I also agree with Sven. As in - when your values come into conflict with what you see in front of you, which do you turn to as the truth? Of course we all have biases, but I think a dedicated historian has to try, as much as possible, to put fairness and an open mind above personal bias.

But the propagandist name notwithstanding, I have checked out a few of the articles, and really like the site. That, ultimately, is more important than the name.

 

 

 


Sven
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Joined: Jul 22 2005

Caissa wrote:

Sven, the issue depends on the les through which a historian views history. Even the argument that something close to objectivity is possible is an ideological lens. An historian constantly has to decide what material and information s/he will privilege.

I agree with that (except for your second sentence).  But, I don't think the fact that we cannot obtain absolute objectivity in a historical analysis is a justification for chucking all efforts towards (imperfect) objectivity and shifting to "using history as a weapon" and purposefully skewing history to advance a political objective.  It's an arrogant and patronizing approach to history ("I know better than you, dear reader, and I'm only going to tell you the story that advances my political views and I'm going to do that by purposefully ignoring certain information and views that are contrary to my political views").


Caissa
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Joined: Jun 14 2006

 I'll repeat,the concept of objectivity existing is an ideological one, Sven. Historians are not trying to discover some abstract truth Smith.  At best they are trying to understand what happened and why. There lenses influence the questions they ask, the material they examine and the type of answers they offer. Other people, and other historians, may differ. My thoughts are based on 12 years of university history studies in my younger days. They are only one lens. Van Ranke and Carlyle, to name but two, would definitely disagree with me.


Sven
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Joined: Jul 22 2005
Caissa: On what basis is an objective approach to knowledge "ideological"? Can you give me some illustrations?

Caissa
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Joined: Jun 14 2006

To start with it has an ideology that argues that something that can be objectively known happened. Beyond a mere statement of "facts" it doesn't get us very far. Even then one has to decide what "facts" they think are important and deal with what "facts" have been preserved through artifacts. Historians don't make objective choices; they make subjective ones.


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

Caissa wrote:

 I'll repeat,the concept of objectivity existing is an ideological one, Sven. Historians are not trying to discover some abstract truth Smith.  At best they are trying to understand what happened and why. There lenses influence the questions they ask, the material they examine and the type of answers they offer. Other people, and other historians, may differ. My thoughts are based on 12 years of university history studies in my younger days. They are only one lens. Van Ranke and Carlyle, to name but two, would definitely disagree with me.

I'm not talking about abstract anything, Caissa, certainly not any notion of a perfect truth.

But if the argument is that it is all perspective and shifting sand then your position and my position is no more valid than those we call down. If that's the case then why pay attention to anything? Just tell me what to do and I'll believe it.

(And I sure hope this isn't going to turn into one of those discussions about there being no such thing as facts)

I am saying that a historian should try to be fair enough to accept the historical record even when it is uncomfortable andconflicts with what he or she sees through those lenses you are talking about. Especially when it does not support one's own perspective.

Is it perfect and objective? Of course not, and I never claimed it was. But it is far different than actively making history a slave to ideology, and I'd say that was part of Sven's criticism.

 


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

As a literary/cultural critic who nonetheless is involved in historically based research, I come to this question slightly differently, but when I tell my students that any critical approach, even the ones we think are based in common sense or objectivity, are ideological, a frequent response, even amongst my peers, is that this means "all interpretations are equally valid." It doesn't. There are still measures with which you can evaluate different approaches, and the one I usually start with is to ask yourself what is at stake in your interpretation: cui bono?, etc.

Our understanding of objectivity is rooted in eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophy. This discourse is historically grounded as an emerging class asserted its ethical and political authority in the face of a decaying aristocracy and religious hegemony. When you say it's "ideological" it doesn't mean "invalid" or "bad," it just means ideological: it's based in a certain ethical framework which views the world in a particular way. That is, it's based in the consciousness of a white, middle-class bourgeois man in the Cartesian/Kantian mode. They believed, rightly, that humankind was in the throes of a "self-imposed tutelage" and deliberately sought to break that tutelage. That's ideological, even if it was the right move at the time. However, if we begin to think of such a move as "natural" rather than ideological, we surrender our critical faculties -- ironic, given the impetus of the Enlightenment in the first place.

The easiest way to see objectivity as a mirage is to look at the documentary lens. We think of photography, video, etc. as "objective" because the "camera doesn't lie." But of course, it does. Even CCTV cameras, which appear to have no subjective input whatsoever were placed by a human hand which influences the story they tell. That's what I mean by "ideological": it doesn't deny the images of the CCTV camera, but it acknowledges that they were produced by a unique historical -- and human -- condition.


Slumberjack
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Joined: Aug 8 2005

Sven wrote:
But, I don't think the fact that we cannot obtain absolute objectivity in a historical analysis is a justification for chucking all efforts towards (imperfect) objectivity and shifting to "using history as a weapon" and purposefully skewing history to advance a political objective.  It's an arrogant and patronizing approach to history ("I know better than you, dear reader, and I'm only going to tell you the story that advances my political views and I'm going to do that by purposefully ignoring certain information and views that are contrary to my political views").

The political leaders that some of you people routinely help elect to office, along with the corporate media, do precisely that on a daily basis. Take for instance the Oka Crisis and the history of the claim to the area under dispute at that time, which still remains unresolved to the benefit of those who chose to ignore history as their weapon of choice, wielded against the Mohawk people and their claims.


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

Catchfire wrote:

As a literary/cultural critic who nonetheless is involved in historically based research, I come to this question slightly differently, but when I tell my students that any critical approach, even the ones we think are based in common sense or objectivity, are ideological, a frequent response, even amongst my peers, is that this means "all interpretations are equally valid." It doesn't. There are still measures with which you can evaluate different approaches, and the one I usually start with is to ask yourself what is at stake in your interpretation: cui bono?, etc.

I'd agree with that.

And I think my test is congruent to yours - if something has the ring of truth even if it does not benefit or even discredits your values and beliefs, do you reject it or do you  consider it?

In any profession where one has to try to get at honest answers, that's a critical question, IMO.

As for the notion of objectivity, I think the most significant recent change happened in the 1920s, when media was concentrated into a few (more often a single) interpretation of the truth. Before that, most people knew that when they were reading a newspaper that it was an interpretation of the basic information, not the absolute truth (and many Canadian cities had scores of dailies and weeklies) .

(edit)

... and of course there is the ultimate test. That if you manage to have everyone convinced you are wrong, you are probably right.

 


ygtbk
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Joined: Jul 16 2009

Catchfire wrote:

Our understanding of objectivity is rooted in eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophy.

Catchfire, is this meant to be a true statement (i.e. describing something that is just unproblematically historically true), a false statement (not so describing), or a statement based on ideological assumptions (since after all it's about history)? If it's based on ideological assumptions, what are they?

I'd say it's false, since the idea of objective truth predates the eighteenth century.


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

ygbtk wrote:
since the idea of objective truth predates the eighteenth century.

Yes, of course it did. But before the Enlightenment, objective truth came from the mouths of kings or gods. That's why "our understanding of objectivity is rooted in eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy."


ygtbk
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Joined: Jul 16 2009

@ Catchfire:

I think Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and the rest of that crowd might want to have a word with you ;-)

But when you say "of course it did", aren't you acknowledging a standard historical timeline? If I said, "Nonsense, our understanding of objectivity is rooted in the wise teachings of the Venusian space ponies who landed their flying saucers in 971 AD", would you buy that?


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

I guess you're playing undergraduate-level games with me. I will address any serious attempts at conversation, but these kind of gleeful gotcha pranks don't amuse me when they come from entitled first-year students, and they don't amuse me now.

Yes, I am telling a story of philosophical geneologies dependent on my own worldview which I base on my experience, my knowledge of our received literary histories and the legacies of those histories. I can defend my worldview in many ways that your bullshit premise about space ponies which insults this conversation and me cannot.


ygtbk
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Joined: Jul 16 2009

@ Catchfire:

Please calm down. I picked an absurd premise not to insult you but to emphasize that there are things that are true and things that don't even pass the laugh test. I apologize for offending you.


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

Yes, and none of that had anything to do with what I said. Believe me, I'm perfectly calm. You can reread my first paragraph at post #18 if you think it will keep you from posting the bullshit you think is funny or eye-opening. What you "emphasized" was that you either have no idea or no intention of understanding what I am writing, catch-all catalogue of Greek philosophers notwithstanding.


6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

Just thinking about equality a bit more, CF. I agree differing perspectives are not all equal in terms of benefit and value (though none are perfect) . And my "shifting sands" comment was intended to point out the difficulty in using the perspective argument against others.

That said, what does equalize us is our capacity for error and self-interest. For that reason, I think it is important to focus on proper methodology - the tool that anyone who is serious uses to try and minimize the inaccuracy of perspective.

After all, while benefit is one of a number of things which colours our perspective, to assume a direct relationship would be to assume that we are all intellectually dishonest (and I know you weren't making such a strong statement).

 


Sven
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Joined: Jul 22 2005
With regard to "intellectual honesty": If no element of objective truth exists in the study of history, then neither "honesty" nor "dishonesty" in the context of studying or writing about history has any meaning. A statement can only be honest or dishonest if the veracity of the statement can be shown to be true or false.

6079_Smith_W
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Joined: Jun 10 2010

@ Sven

Not necessarily. I understand and agree that there is no such thing as objectivity, and history is not a hard science, so not all of is it yes or no.

Dishonesty is ignoring inconvenient facts, or using facts in an unethical way.

 


jjuares
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Joined: Jan 21 2012

Catchfire wrote:

ygbtk wrote:
since the idea of objective truth predates the eighteenth century.

Yes, of course it did. But before the Enlightenment, objective truth came from the mouths of kings or gods. That's why "our understanding of objectivity is rooted in eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy."

I find this quite a Euro-centric comment. Every society has had its dissenters who did not accept the nonsense of the ruling class as any sort of truth. This of course doesn't even include those who did not believe in the ruling ideology but were afraid to speak up for fear of the consequences to them or their families.  It isn't just western  enlightenment society that had a belief in objective truth.


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