Escaping from history Editorial
Stabroek News
November 22, 2001

"All nations depend on forgetting: on forging myths of unity and identity that allow a society to forget its founding crimes, its hidden injuries and divisions, its unhealed wounds. It must be true, for nations as it is for individuals, that we can stand only so much truth. But if too much truth is divisive, the question becomes, How much is enough".

In the last chapter of his book 'The Warrior's Honour' from which that quotation is taken, Michael Ignatieff argues with great insight that in divided societies, the history of the society or versions or myths of that history are present in the minds of the various groups as part of current reality. This obsession with the past (Irish Catholics still remember Cromwell's bloody slaughter),this perpetual reliving of history, makes an accommodation between the groups and stable politics difficult as old battles are always being refought in the mind and old grievances nursed.

Dealing with historical myths, Ignatieff writes: "Resistance to historical truth is a function of group identity: nations and peoples weave their sense of themselves into narcissistic narratives that strenuously resist correction. Similarly, regimes depend for their legitimacy on historical myths that are armoured against the truth. The legitimacy of Tito's regime in Yugoslavia depended on the myth that his partisans led a movement of national resistance against the German and Italian occupations. In reality the partisans fought fellow Yugoslavs as much as they fought the occupiers and even made deals with the Germans to strengthen their hand against domestic opponents. Since these facts were common knowledge to any Yugoslav of that generation, the myth of brotherhood and unity required the constant reinforcement of propaganda".

The problem that has exercised many Guyanese since at least the sixties is how can one achieve some sense of reconciliation between the factions. Ignatieff argues that the desire for revenge is an important part of this problem. He writes: "The chief moral obstacle in the path of reconciliation is the desire for revenge. Now, revenge is commonly regarded as a low and unworthy emotion, and because it is regarded as such, its deep moral hold on people is rarely understood. But revenge--morally considered-- is a desire to keep faith with the dead, to honour their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between generations; the violence it engenders is a ritual form of respect for the community's dead-- therein lies its legitimacy. Reconciliation is difficult precisely because it must compete with the powerful alternative morality of violence. Political terror is tenacious because it is an ethical practice. It is a cult of the dead, a dire and absolute statement of respect".

There is a naive belief in some quarters in Guyana that our case is somehow unique and that our politicians are peculiarly backward or stupid or meanspirited. In other quarters, with equal naivete, the other side is seen as wholly to blame. What might well be argued convincingly is that our politicians are victims of group identity which they are unable or unwilling to transcend. They are unable, as James Joyce put it speaking of Ireland, to escape the nets flung at them by history to hold them back from flight. "History" as Joyce had Stephen Dedalus say in Ulysses "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake". Our politicians are overwhelmed by the baggage of history, they cannot fly by the nets.

Let Mr Ignatieff have the last word: "Joyce's great rebellion was against the idea of history as fate, compelling each generation to reproduce the hatreds of the previous one because keeping faith with the dead -- honouring their memory-- seems to require taking up arms to avenge them. Reconciliation built on mutual apology accepts that history is not fate, that history is not to blame. Nor are cultures or traditions --only specific individuals whom history must name. This last dimension of reconciliation --the mourning of the dead -- is where the desire for peace must vanquish the longing for revenge. Reconciliation has no chance against vengeance unless it respects the emotions that sustain vengeance, unless it can replace the respect entailed in vengeance with rituals in which communities once at war learn to mourn their dead together. Reconciliation must reach into the shared inheritance of the democracy of death to teach the drastic nullity of all struggles that end in killing, the unending futility of all attempts to avenge those who are no more. For it is an elementary certainty that killing will not bring the dead back to life. This is an inheritance that can be shared, and when it is shared there can be that deep knowing that sometimes comes when one wakes from a dream".