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writing for godot

Allow me to deconstruct the idea that the masses have been the agents of history.

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Saturday, 08 August 2020 15:30

Human rights: Food for deconstructing a thought   ‘HR: acknowledging past realities’


Human Rights Reader 539



-History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups have never given up their privileges voluntarily. (Martin Luther King)

-Fake news are not new. In the past, they indeed generated ‘fake history’ that often still feeds into textbooks and into the steady flow of current fake news. (Alfred de Zayas)


1. Throughout history, laws were and have been all too frequently manipulated by rulers, becoming a kind of ‘dictatorship through law’, where people were and have been robbed of their individual and collective human rights (HR) so that the law itself did (or has become) the main instrument of people’s disenfranchisement. Experience has taught us that laws do not have the same boundaries or meaning than justice and that legislation has been and can be enacted and enforced to perpetuate abuse and cement injustice. Accordingly, any appeal to the rule of law should be contextualized within a human-rights-based and historical framework! The argument that "the law must be obeyed" has, therefore, been challenged by HR heroes for thousands of years.* (A. de Zayas)

*: …Although HR proper have only existed since the late 1940s.


2. The history of human thought reminds us of the oscillations of a pendulum that actually go back for centuries. After a long dream period comes the time to wake up. It is then when thought liberates itself from the chains those with an ulterior motive --rulers, legislators, clerics-- who had kept free human thought in bondage. New thought breaks away from those chains. All that had been learned from history is critiqued to unveil all the political, legal and religious prejudices under which the affected had been ruled. People look-for and discover previously unexplored avenues that enrich their interpretation of history --even coming up with new science. (Pierre Kropotkin)


3. In short: a) It is men who make their own history, but they cannot make it just as they please. (Karl Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) b) History goes only where we take it. History does not repeat itself; it is us who repeat history. (Carlos Warter) c) So, if progressive leaders and thinkers (we) are weak and feeble, history will continue to go against our aims. (Cornel West)


4. [So, you see? War heroes’ monuments do not tell us who was right; come to think of it, they should tell us who was left… No wonder, then, that only dogs have the intelligence to see most of these monuments from the point of view of their utility. (Karl Kraus)].


In order to move forward in more useful directions, it is helpful to look back critically


5. When looking back in history, we can identify distinct eras of thinking which dominated for a time and then changed.** They define the dominant assumptions valid at the time. This defines what kinds of questions can/ought to be asked so that certain issues become especially salient  while others become invisible (HR…?). Understanding the historic shifts that have shaped history does shed light on how the discipline has encouraged us readers-of-history to think. Though there are differences in interpretation of the past, certain eras’ omissions are evident across many of the historical periods, e.g., the neglect of HR…

**: Only for a while can the forces of status-quo live in symbiosis with the system that will eventually replace them; ultimately, they will not survive when change comes. (Louis Casado)


6. In another example, in the post-WWII era to the 1970s, an international focus on malnutrition and hunger in colonial and post-colonial countries was evident. Indeed, written historical accounts are only those that conventional historians chose to write, and that then made it past some kind of peer review (or did they not?) and into publication; it is notable that all of the available versions of the history of malnutrition are written by practicing historian-academics, rather than by sociologists or political scientists reviewing the field from outside --thus colonialism per-se having been left outside as the main cause.***

***: Difficulties in countries rendered poor were historically due to the plunder and control by colonialism and/or the imperialist ambitions of the super powers that forced a one-sided-single-product-economy that historically extorted super profits.


7. And as for religions, conventional history has successfully established itself as the unquestionable authority; a robust criticism of the not-so-pious episodes in the history of religions is necessary and thus needs to be responsibly exposed.


This Reader has said so before: The picture that conventional history paints determines our perception of reality, it somehow drives our behavior shaping our life stories

-History purportedly happened the way it did, because of what we believed about the past as per our history books --and unfortunately what we believe today risks how we write the story of our future. (Tim Urban)


8. Serfdom in the Middle Ages was a brutal system that generated extraordinary human misery, yes. But it was not capitalism that put an end to it --as conventional historians make us believe. As the historian Silvia Federici demonstrated, a series of successful peasant rebellions across Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries overthrew feudal lords and gave peasants more control over their own land and resources. The fruits of this revolution were astonishing in terms of peasant and workers wellbeing. Wages doubled and nutrition improved. It was a period of dramatic social progress by the standards of the time. The nascent capitalist class actually organized a counter-revolution to this. The rise of capitalism then generated a prolonged period of pauperization and misery in the XIX century.**** (Not to talk about slavery in that same century…).

****: So you see? It is not thanks to capitalism that we are living longer, but thanks to progressive politics.


9. Industrial growth through the XIX century actually triggered, not an improvement in life expectancy, but rather a striking deterioration thereof. It was precisely where capitalism was most developed that this disaster was most pronounced. Whole populations were dispossessed by the capitalist class and reduced to servitude in the sweatshops and plantations of the industrial revolution. And yet little of this appears clearly in conventional history books. Conventional history does not tell us that, in the absence of these progressive forces, economic growth has quite often worked against social progress, not for it.


So, ignore the usual fairytale. Democracy, unions, healthcare and education: these are the forces that matter (Jayson Hickel)


10. The examples go on and on:

  • Historically, power and domination have involved violence, conquering of land and subjugation of others by invading hoards, capture, enslavement, torture and murder. As is true today, such early power-wielding depict what has been a patriarchal, machista domination. (Hazel Henderson)
  • Corrosive, racist ideas do persist in pseudo-history. Take for example the pseudo-historical notions that ancient white people colonized America before indigenous people; this is vox-populi with conventional historians. (Douglas Hunter)


Narratives that are virtually omnipresent in conventional history, structure our interpretation, i.e., how we make sense of the world (Charlotte Dany, Katja Freistein)


11. Our ways of perceiving reality are thus changed by conventional history since we are told these narratives are the ones that carry ‘historical significance’. They do this by drawing on our deep-seated beliefs about the nature of how we should perceive past reality.


12. Historical myths***** thus usually link the past, the present and the future through references to certain versions of the past events, written as desirable ends to make us believe-in. Continuous repetitions in this process, over time, establish the myths. Ultimately, historic myths are often made to appear ‘historical’. By the loss of the historical accuracy of conventional history, historical facts lose the memory of what they are supposed to chronicle-on.

*****: Myths do not deny facts, on the contrary, their function is to talk about them; simply put, they ‘purify’ these facts making them innocent, giving them a natural and eternal justification, giving them a clarity which is not that of an explanation, but that of a statement of fact (Roland Barthes).


13. A myth follows a certain pattern of narration and usually includes a certain configuration of protagonists and antagonists. The impact of past struggles ultimately generates political myths that create protagonists often away from the communities affected by HR violations in the course of these struggles. By excluding certain groups, historical myths turn the subjectivity of storytelling into a collective experience to be shared and believed --and they exclude alternative renderings of reality.


14. Furthermore, historical myths have indeed been employed to legitimize political systems. They still rely on powerful proponents and a continuous practice of telling-and-re-telling for the sake of stabilizing political systems and supporting a certain social order --with HR falling by the wayside as collateral damage. Historical myths also have a distinct depoliticizing-of-history function; their constant reiterations and re-actualizations make them seem factual instead of what they are: political or politically motivated narratives that ultimately create social acceptance; they make us interpret historical facts in a certain (seemingly) coherent way; they veil the reliable nature of past events. Bottom line here: Is it that, in order to make the world a better(?) place in the future, mythical actors are needed who are endowed with special responsibilities to steer history in a certain direction? (C. Dany, K. Freistein)


Progressive historians affirm that the two main engines of change in history are and have been greed and fear. We enter the decade of the 2020s with both. Worse, many analysts believe we do so with hate. (Roberto Savio)


15. We live among the ruins of many of those unsung heros’s names and many of those accumulated social defeats so scantily covered in history books and often not even living in the historical memory we are taught. When such foundations crumble, they become ruins. When everything appears to be in ruins, we should not only look among the ruins for memories lost, but look at what made the foundations crumble. Such a process calls for transforming the dead ruins into living ruins. Only this will allow HR to become an instrument to transform desperation into hope. (Boaventura de Sousa Santos)


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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