Of History and Petty Tribalism

As you know, I’m a bit of a recovering nationalist. There was a time (when I was approximately 14 years old or so) when I believed that Canada could do no wrong, neither in the present, nor in history. Oh, there were a few slip-ups, I might acknowledge: the Residential Schools chief among them, but be we were very sorry for that, and in any case, it was mostly the churches’ fault. This is actually a pretty productive (I’m not going to say “good”) attitude to have when you are a high school student, from an academic perspective. It is, of course, the attitude that whoever drafted the curriculum wants you to have*. But it has the effect of warping your understanding of the world. It is difficult to break-out of the trap, but it can be done, and I will explain how:

If you want to learn the lessons of history, there is one very critical fact that you must first accept: Your ancestors, countrymen, or predecessors were not on the morally correct side of every issue.

Once you accept this–once you acknowledge that your great grandfather might have been a racist asshole, or that some of your nation’s wars might have been criminal enterprises, or even that your ideological or religious fellow travellers may have committed some very dubious acts in the name of their stated ideals–your view of the world will become vastly simpler and far more accurate. You will able to examine context which you had previously ignored for being inconvenient, and you will able to dispose of all of those ridiculous ideological scaffolds that you have built-up in your imagination to justify or explain-away those things which do not fit neatly into your worldview.

It goes without saying that you will have a better picture of the past; but history is continuous, so it will also give you a more accurate view of the present, and very likely of the future as well, at least in a general sense. Somewhat less obviously: you will also become a better person.

Let me justify this last claim. If you do not have a well-defined concept of yourself as an individual, then you will most likely strongly associate yourself with one or more group identities, if only as a means of understanding who you are. Nation and religion are always popular for this purpose, but any old identity will do**. You will naturally tend to claim the virtues and accomplishments of this group as your own, whilst minimizing or denying their vices***. This, of course, is what motivates a distorted view of history. But breaking yourself of the idea that your forebears were tautologically on the side of the angels can be a first step in breaking yourself of the idea that present members of your group are tautologically on the side of the angels. And then you will have no choice but to seek out your own virtues.


*If you believe that your country doesn’t teach even a little bit of propaganda in its history classrooms, then I am very sorry but you have probably inhaled a lethal dose of it.

**There are a large number of people, in fact, who associate themselves with that most paradoxical of group identities: “Individualist.”

***A good example of this phenomenon in action, at the time of writing, is the white Americans rallying around Darren Wilson, the cop who killed an unarmed black teenager in Missouri. They support him because acknowledging the racism of the act hurts their group identity.

About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
This entry was posted in Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s