Monday, January 30, 2012

False Historical Narratives

The next time you hear some ignoramus out there prattling on about competing narratives in the context of the Palestine/Israel 'conflict', along the lines of the old cliche that there are always two sides to every story, recall the following, lucid analysis of the false historical narrative by evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers from his important new book, Deceit & Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others (2011):

"False historical narratives are lies we tell one another about our past. The usual goals are self-glorification and self-justification. Not only are we special, so are our actions and those of our ancestors. We do not act immorally, so we owe nothing to anyone. False historical narratives act like self-deceptions at the group level, insofar as many people believe the same falsehood. If a great majority of the population can be raised on the same false narrative, you have a powerful force available to achieve group unity. Of course, leaders can easily exploit this resource by coupling marching orders with the relevant illusion: German people have long been denied their rightful space, so Dass Deutsche Volk muss Lebensraum haben! (German people must have room in which to live!) - neighbors beware. Or the Jewish people have a divine right to Palestine because ancestors living in the general area some two thousand years ago wrote a book about it - non-Jewish occupants and neighbors better beware. Most people are unconscious of the deception that went into constructing the narrative they now accept as true. Nor are they usually aware of the emotional power of such narratives or that these may entrain long-term effects.

"There is a deep contradiction within the study of history between ferreting out the truth regarding the past and constructing a false historical narrative about it. As we have seen in this book, we make up false narratives all the time, about our own behaviour, about our relationships, about our larger groups. Creating one for one's larger religion or nation only extends the canvas. Usually a few brave historians in every society try to tell the truth about the past - that the Japanese army ran a vast, forced system of sexual slavery in World War II, that the United States committed wholesale slaughter against Koreans during the Korean War and against Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotians in the Vietnam War, that the Turkish government committed genocide against its successful sub-group of Armenians, that the Zionist conquerors of Palestine committed ethnic cleansing against some 700,000 Palestinians, that the United States has waged a long campaign of genocide and murder against American Indians, from the nation's founding to the murder by proxy of more than a half million in the 1980s alone, not counting before or after, and it has sought through military means to determine the fate of the entire New World for well over a century. But most historians will tell only some version of the conventional, self-aggrandizing story, and most people in the relevant countries will not have heard of (or believed) the factual assertions I just made.

"One noteworthy fact is that the younger the recipient of the knowledge, the greater the pressure to tell a false story. So we are apt to tell our children a heroic version of our past and reserve for our university students a more nuanced view. This of course strengthens the bias, since views learned early have special power and not everyone attends college, or studies history if they do. Fortunately, the young often appear naturally to resist parental and adult nonsense, so there is at least some tendency to resist and upgrade. Just the same, there are strong pressures on professional historians to come up with a positive story, in part to undergird what is taught more widely.

"Make no mistake about it. People feel strongly about these matters. One person's false historical narrative is another's deeply personal group identity - and what right do you have commenting on my identity in the first place? Many Turkish people may well feel that I have slandered their country regarding its Armenian genocide, while I believe I have merely told the truth. The same may be true (though less strongly) for some Japanese people regarding their country's practice of sexual slavery during World War II. Most Americans could hardly care less. So we wiped out the Amerindians - so what? So we repeatedly waged aggressive war on Mexico and stole nearly half their country. They probably deserved it. And, yes, since then we have fought a staggering series of wars ourselves and by proxies - even recently supporting genocide in such diverse places as Central America, Vietnam, Cambodia, and even East Timor, while blocking international action against it in Rwanda - but so the hell what? Only a left-wing nutcase would dwell on such minor details. Isn't that what great powers do, and aren't we the greatest?

"Israel is no different from any other country or group in having its own false historical narrative, and Israel's is especially important because it exacerbates a set of troubled international and intergroup relations. The narrative is also one that is accepted almost wholesale in the United States, the most powerful military nation in the world. As the old joke goes, why doesn't Israel become the 51st state? Because then it would have only 2 senators. Again, feelings run high. Some regard as anti-Semitic any attack on the behavior of Israel (or its underlying narrative). I regard this as nonsense and follow instead what seem to me to be the best Israeli (and Arab) historians - and their (largely Jewish) American counterparts - in describing a false historical narrative used to expand Israel at a cost to its neighbors by waging regular war on them to seize land and water (with near-constant US support), all in the name of fighting terrorism, while using state terrorism as the chief weapon. The narrative inverts reality: Israel wants only peace with its Arab neighbors (from as early as 1928), who to this very day reject peace at every turn and seek the total destruction of Israel and its Jewish population.

"But what are we to do? Yes, feelings run high, but false historical narratives are a critical part of self-deception at the group level, often with horrendous affects on others - if not on those practicing them. To discuss the subject we need examples. Are we to leave out this important topic because on any given example feelings are easily bruised and controversy aroused? I see no sense in this. A theory of self-deception is not of much use if it can't be applied to cases of actual human importance. Of course, I am more likely to be biased on these topics than on, say, the immunology of self-deception, but for me the risk of appearing foolish, indeed self-deluded, is preferable to the cowardice of not taking a position." (pp 215-218)


Anonymous said...

False historical narratives......hmmmm,
do you mean like Ahmed Shukeiri in 1957, the first head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, who in the United Nations declared to all nations, that Palestine does not exist---it is all southern Syria!.

or is it the Arafat narrative that ,,wait for it,...Palestinians, are the decendants of the Philistines!!!
Yep Arabs from Jordan, Egypt, current Israel and Syria too--those not southern Syrians that is, are not really semites at all, but the long lost European progeny of the Trojans and Hellenized bronze age warriors of Asia Minor,.They flourished for 400 years and then disappeared from history only to resurface in Arafat's imagination.

But what about the narrative that the Israelites were the Jews of today, and that the Christian Phalangists in Lebanon were not actually Arabs genetically, but the descendants of the Phoenicians.
Funny how recent genetic studies show the closest correlation between Israeli Jews and lebanese Catholic Maronites.
And that the language of the Maronites most closely resembles Hebrew, much more so than the southern semitic Arabic.

Merc, your knowledge of ancient to current history of the Middle East and its connections is woeful.

You are the last pereson to be able to poo poo other culture's narratives.

MERC said...

Sorry, the Palestinians don't need a historical narrative, false or otherwise. The simple fact of the matter is that they were living in Palestine BEFORE the political Zionists began moving in and throwing their weight around under the protection of British bayonets. End of story.