The Uses of the Past   /   Summer 2007   /    Essays

Trouble with the Past

John Torpey

Segregated movie theater entrance in Belzoni, Mississippi (1939). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Why has the past come to play such a prominent role in contemporary poli­tics, and with what consequences? How much do choices and events from the past determine what we do, and can do, today? We seem to have considerable trouble with the past, or at least we think we do (which amounts to much the same thing). The past troubles us today in the sense that a variety of unsavory pasts have lately been brought to the fore for closer examination, reflection, and (some­times) redress. The past troubles us as well in the sense that it may be more frequently conceived than before as a burden from which we cannot escape—a predetermined horizon, a foreordained destiny, a fate. Whence this sense of the past as trouble? In what follows, I first discuss the ways in which past injustices have come to trouble our contemporary sense of who we are and how we should respond to the past. I go on to explore the ways in which a fairly distant past—though one not necessarily conceived as unsavory—may act as a distressing constraint on our current options.


Troubling Pasts


Shortly after World War II, Hannah Arendt wrote presciently,

we can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition.11xHannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1976) ix.

Arendt was on to something significant, but it would take some time for that something to emerge on the world stage. One of the forces that would lead to the surfacing of sub­terranean history was the worldwide process of de-colonization that gathered steam in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. The decline of colonialism abroad went hand-in-hand with movements for greater recognition of minorities at home, producing a global revaluation of the position of non-whites relative to dominant white elites.

At about the same time, historical scholarship moved sharply away from its traditional emphasis on the doings of the powerful and prominent, and toward the study of “his­tory from below.” This approach, which eventually took the various forms of social history, labor history, and postcolonial and subaltern studies, was captured vividly in the English historian E. P. Thompson’s stirring claim that he wanted “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.”22xE. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Penguin, 1980) 12. The lowly were now to have their due when it came to the writing of his­tory, even if they were not to be its guiding force. In a sense, and as Arendt had antici­pated, Thompson was already beginning to move beyond Voltaire’s famous dictum: “To the living we owe respect. To the dead we owe only truth.” Increasingly, it seemed, the dead required respect as well, substantially upgrading their traditional status and that of the past more generally.

But the growing centrality of troubling pasts in the contemporary world could not have occurred without the ascendancy of the Holocaust in our historical consciousness. The process of “coming to terms with” the Nazi past unfolded over several decades above all in three places—Israel, the United States, and Germany—that helped make it the chief touchstone of the way that Westerners now think about the past. The enshrinement of the Holocaust as the quintessential human evil is reflected in the memorial at Yad Vashem, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and now the field of blank stelae that comprise the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (appropriately enough, the field is bounded on one side by a street named after Hannah Arendt). Countless other memorials have been erected elsewhere as well, and no other historical event has received the same degree of attention across so much of the world.

Despite the fact that the Holocaust was carried out chiefly in Europe, it has become a kind of universal human possession, a permanent admonition regarding human beings’ capacity for cruelty towards one another. Holocaust consciousness is not as well-devel­oped in other parts of the world, including the areas of Eastern Europe that fell under the communist yoke after World War II, which have had their own historical disasters and controversies to deal with. The Holocaust nonetheless bulks large even there as a template for historical evil. The warning “Never again!” hovers over all that we now do (or fail to do, as in Darfur).33xOn the significance of the Holocaust in contemporary Dutch debates about multiculturalism and Muslim integration, see Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance (New York: Penguin, 2006). The spread of Holocaust awareness has been the project of many who wish to ensure that the future will be an improvement upon the past.

The final factor that has made the catastrophic past more central to contemporary life is the decline of the future-oriented visions that stoked previous social reform move­ments. When the future collapses, one might say, the past rushes in. This is particularly true of scenarios of a socialist stripe; these were widely discredited with the fall of the Soviet imperium, which despite its many shortcomings helped to sustain the horizon of a possible socialist future for nearly three-quarters of a century. For substantial seg­ments of the world’s population, the vision of utopia has since moved strongly towards other-worldly variants embodied in enthusiastic religion, often involving faiths that previously had hardly a foothold in the regions now embracing them. Meanwhile, those less attracted to a spiritualized version of their hopes have found in the injustices of the past a wide field in which to pursue a brighter future.

The result has been a growing catalog of groups and organizations addressing one or another aspect of the project of coming to terms with the past—with “trauma,” “(col­lective) memory,” “healing,” “transitional justice,” “reconciliation.” Special lectures, journals, conferences, and non-governmental organizations dealing with these subjects abound; leading foundations pour money into undertakings devoted to examining these issues both in theory and in practice. These activities may make important contri­butions to resolving contemporary conflicts, but the extent and increasingly normalized character of the concern to come to terms with the past is worth pondering.

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