Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
Category Archives: Historiography
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
by Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunters.
Editorial: It may help to accept as axiomatic the notion that history is a worthwhile pursuit that produces a useful product. I can wrestle with the fairness of this statement later. For now I consider the idea that history is written by the victors. Other posts that dance around this topic include quotes from Orwell, Faulkner, and Kundera.
Do a nation and its writers create a history that justifies the rightness of its actions? Well, after smashing through Tunisia and creaming their enemies the Romans could (and did) portray the defeated Carthaginians as miserable barbarians. We don’t know how the poor (dead) historians in Carthage would have told the story. We see the same imbalance in the narratives about the colonization of the Americas, where European destruction and domination were repackaged as discovery. As we have been taught by Subaltern Studies this does not mean there are not alternative histories that undercut the dominant history, for example feminist history, class history, ethnic history, etc. The joy in looking at this closely is in being able to suss out the public and private mechanisms that serve the purpose of promoting the central history and burying the marginal histories: nationally standardized systems of education, production of state ceremonies and pastimes, state systems of accounting and archiving, and ginormous news agencies. Keep that in mind next time you look at a high school curriculum, watch a helicopter land at the White House, sit down for Thanksgiving, file your taxes, or read a newspaper. It is all quite deliberate!
And you should not be astonished or incensed, for this is the most obvious thing in the world: man is separated from the past (even from the past only a few seconds old) by two forces that go instantly to work and cooperate: the force of forgetting (which erases) and the force of memory (which transforms).
It is the most obvious thing, but it is hard to accept, for when one thinks it all the way through, what becomes of all the testimonies that historiography relies on? What becomes of our certainties about the past, and what becomes of History itself, to which we refer every day in good faith, naively, spontaneously? Beyond the slender margin of the incontestable (there is no doubt that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo), stretches an infinite realm: the realm of the approximate, the invented, the deformed, the simplistic, the exaggerated, the misconstrued, an infinite realm of nontruths that copulate, multiply like rats, and become immortal.
The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (2005), “The Novel, Memory, Forgetting”
- Above all, it serves as a case study for the way contemporary empire operates, exploding the myth that the United States differs from its British, Spanish, and Roman predecessors by eschewing both the brute conquest of land and the dispossession of those unfortunate enough to get in the way. […]
- In Vine’s persuasive telling, it is from the expansionist instincts of the military services, rather than the conscious decisions of civilian policymakers, that the imperialist project draws much of its energy. It is the military brass’s reflexive empire-building that builds an empire. […]
- Vine’s evidence casts a fresh light on the ongoing debate over whether or not the US can be said to constitute an empire and, if so, how it might compare with its historical predecessors. It had previously been fashionable to regard the US empire as exceptional, a break from the past in that its influence is almost entirely indirect and economic, since it refuses to join the Romans or British in ruling over colonies directly. […]
- Thanks to the work of scholars such as Chalmers Johnson and now Vine, we can see the weakness in that argument. The latter estimates that there are one thousand US military bases and installations “on the sovereign land of other nations.” This “base world,” as Johnson calls it, is presented benignly, as the product of voluntary, bilateral pacts between the US and those states that agree for their land to be occupied. But often this presentation is, in the idiom of that British official, a “fiction.” Behind the veneer can lie the crude expropriation of land and the callous dispossession of some of the world’s weakest people. That is how it used to be in the old days of empire, whether under Rome or Queen Victoria. And that’s how it was in the Chagos Islands not much more than a generation ago. […]
The New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 9 · May 28, 2009
‘A Black and Disgraceful Site’, by Jonathan Freedland
A review of David Vine’s ‘Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia’ (2009)
What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.
From ‘Good Old Neon’ (2001)