Does the past have a role to play in an ever changing present?

It is widely assumed that a group must learn from ‘its’ history to not repeat the mistakes of the past. The idea that we live in a ‘cycle’ that we are either doomed to repeat if we do not atone of our past sins or learn of the accomplishments and grandeur of our ancestors is not factual. Most answers needed today and in the future do not lie in the distant past. Parallel nuanced circumstances might be observed between present and past events but a ‘repetition’ of similar results would not necessarily ensue.  

Something that is of common knowledge in Lebanon, for example, is the absence of “one” common historical narrative of the nation-building process and the subsequent difficulties over the years in upholding this common narrative which the 1975-1990 civil war is of utmost proof. The usual process of holding the victor’s narrative to be ‘true’ does not substantiate in this country simply because Lebanon has not had any victors. Lebanon’s founders did not try to bring everyone together, people of the time were not consulted, which has resulted ‘Lebanese nationalism’ in being an essentially Maronite-nationalist endeavor. The power of the Maronite community which they boasted both through facts on the ground (number of members) but also exemplified through western (French) imperial interests on this very ground, the initial ‘victors’ in ideology, is not sustainable for either the Maronites (a minority) or the majority of Lebanese who are non-Maronite, today.

‘History’ as a discipline is one that we know to be as ‘absolute truth’ but is actually a collection of narratives and stories which essentially are all based on certain myths. Our humanity is based on telling stories. Some stories have been told better than others and therefore stories have continuously affected our humanity in different ways since the cognitive revolution of thousands of years ago by our primitive human predecessors. Stories are myths which are made up by an individual who would like to persuade another individual (to in turn influence larger groups) of certain so-called alleged “truths” about their very existence which includes, but is not limited to, their origins. The key to convincing someone else of a certain myth I supposedly came up with is actually believing this myth myself. If my surrounding and I keep repeating this myth over and over again then it becomes “truth”. Oftentimes such myths are harmful to other groups who do not subscribe to this myth — though my intentions might not be to harm but to unite “my own”. As cognitive beings with certain degrees of emotional intelligence, we cannot persuade all people unanimously of a particular myth. This is certainly why certain myths need to be debunked in order to move forward as social and communitarian individuals who live in the fait accompli of living on the same territory, in the same state, with a similar shared destiny through this very construct of national identity. We don’t need to agree on one historical narrative to aspire for the narrative of ‘prosperity’ for the future. The past does not dictate the future. Individuals of the present dictate their own future and can only aspire a certain future for their descendants and ultimately the world. We cannot predict the near or distant future either.

Identity is not dogma. We are social beings indeed, yet the way we adapt to the change in our common humanity is actually to change our narrative every now and then to suit the needs of the present. The world is over two million years old. The mere fact that we are here now, through natural selection, is proof that changing/omitting/creating/imposing certain myths in society has led to our survival. As social beings, we need myths of commonality to survive. I am more inclined to collaborate with someone I, at the least, know something about, than with someone I have nothing in common with. The more identity markers one shares with another person, the likelier the chance of collaboration when the need arrises. As one of 6 million Lebanese living inside the internationally recognized borders of Lebanon, I do not think I even personally know 6,000 people of ‘my kin’, let alone 6 million. When I meet a Lebanese person, say in Paris, we do feel a certain bond — yet we have never met before and the only thing we know of each other is our belonging to Lebanese identity in one way or another. If I were to bump into this same person in Beirut, we might not have befriended one another or even spoken. The identity marker that alienates me from this individual in Beirut, is disregarded in Paris and the search for ‘common’ markers which could be as banal as eating and loving hummus unites us. The fluidity of our identity is very human. You can still strongly believe in a myth and hold it to be true, yet still consciously or not, subvert to the demands of our modern world — and certainly your own personal needs — to suit your present quest to survive; and often make your survival an enjoyable quest. Through the importance of understanding that identity or better yet “belonging” is fluid, we can establish its multipolarity. The world is not inclined to believe in the dichotomy of the “us” and “them” anymore. We can certainly identify with many markers which are of varying degrees of importance to us as cognitive individuals. One can also ‘belong’ to two or more traditionally opposing identities. Modernity forbids us from solely using products created by those who are of our own “imagined community”. We strive, to the best of our knowledge, to adopt the best from all nations of the world. Literature, music, food and technology are but few — very important — products that only inter-national collaboration can bring to fruition. There is not a nation that can isolate itself from the rest of the world entirely basing its existence and continuity on its own ingenuity. 

“The older the nation, the more legitimate its demands” is a baseless argument because all nations are products of modernity regardless if common ethnic markers among a group existed in the pre-modern period. We certainly do not view our identity and belonging to a ‘nation’ today the same way our ancestors did in the 17th century to the same ethnic variant of the respective nation of today, for example. The “I was here first” argument is as baseless as the legitimacy of our claim to “territorial integrity”. First, borders are “soft” and fluid, and second, humans have been mobile individuals in the grander history of our evolution. Modernity, the inventor of the nation-state, imposed the necessity of having a sovereign territory internationally recognized by other nation-states with ‘sovereign’ territories. This brought new problems such as who will be part of this nation-state and who will be excluded (thus determining who does and does not benefit from the welfare state for example…) and the obvious territorial disputes which often lead to very tragic wars. Modernity prohibited us from enforcing the mobile and migratory aspect of our very natural being. We have therefore been inclined to mostly cooperate and interact with, not only those who look and act like us, but with those who are just that and who reside inside the borders of our supposed sovereign state. With the advent of the internet, we live in a more globalized and inter-connected world indeed. Let us not forget though that not all 7 billion of us on this planet have access to the internet or can afford the financial and administrative constraints of obtaining legal documents (passport/visa/permit) to move to another state. As someone from Beirut, the hurdles I have to face to move to Copenhagen are greater today than they were before. In fact, in most cases, it is practically impossible as the legal mechanism of moving to Copenhagen from Beirut does not exist. The modernity of modern states of the world, thus serves the wealthy states better than the unfortunate ones. 

We never learn from the past, and I do not think we should give the past the agency of controlling either our present or our future. Evil doers today are not subject to answer to historical justice, but to the consequences which would arise in the present thanks to the laws and treaties that are upheld today, if evil is to be done. When a state values economic growth at the expense of others and the planet, wages wars and invasions, disregards laws and treaties of the present, etc, then it simply does it for its present interests; even if “in the name of the past,” it does not necessarily have anything to do with the past. Historic post-modern wrongs might be amended with respect to mass atrocities (slavery, colonialism, ethnic cleansing, genocide) only if it has resulted in a significant established disparity (wealthy descendants of imperial states vs impoverished descendants of those whose resources were stollen for centuries in the past); the mechanism of greater cooperation based on trust through mutual respect and understanding, monitored by national and international established checks and balances, is the way forward and which the present and near future must be based on.  

The artificial nature of nations, states and nation-states, does not discount their necessity for the modern world. We are never going to agree on a global supra-nation with a global government. We need cooperation between states on the basis of trust (rather than common identity markers for example) to better our world and solve problems only regional and global cooperation can achieve, such as climate change. Mind you, I don’t need to “love” you to “trust” you. Again, there must be mutual guarantees, but also checks and balances. The more successful the cooperation, the grander (or more genuine) the trust, thus establishing a new myth for future generations which will then possibly be adopted as historical narrative (if the current modern trend continues). The initial steps are the hardest. The threat of “tribalism” which is the disintegration of our existing nations due to division is much greater than the prospects of a global citizenship where nations are merged and new supra-nations are formed. 

We must ask ourselves what world we want to live in. It’s all about priority. For example, diminishing the tragic impact of climate change on our planet creates the opposition between the essential problem of so-called ‘economic growth’ and national interests against the undermining of this growth for the sake of our common humanity on this planet. It is important to note that economic growth alone does not determine the power or prosperity of a nation or state, as the myth of capitalism tells us to believe. 

Through the existing mechanisms of our current reality, one must strive to build a sustainable future for all inhabitants of the world. We need not to forget our numerous narratives of the past, but to know of their mythical nature and the harmful impact on the world, and subsequently on our respective nation, most myths about the past have on the present if we consciously or not subscribe to them today. Not all myths are essentially bad. The myth of “money” has done quite good for the world, so has the capitalist economic system and the welfare state of socialism. Traditional religions have propagated myths for centuries to advance certain interests. It does not matter if ‘religion’ is good or bad, we must recognize the importance it holds in people’s lives and the power it has in controlling them which subdues the ‘bad’ and turns into a force to be contended with. The fact that religion is less important in more advanced societies, proves that the natural course of our world will indeed interpret religious texts (both ancient and modern) in modern terms. The most conservative and traditional Catholic belief today was once considered liberal and reformative sometime ago. The dichotomy of liberal vs conservative does not deserve the importance and attention it is getting. We are wired to change, transform and reform things we don’t like. The only ‘problem’ conservatives pose is that they hinder change to arrive more quickly. The grandest conservative nationalist demagogue is actually quite a globalist in that he/she tends to cooperate with other nationalists in other countries quite at ease with the simple goal of attaining power in his/her state, which then leaves him/her to face the varying differences once power is obtained. Liberals accuse nationalists of ‘dividing’ us, but in fact, they are just “poking in an existing wound” (Yuval Noah Harari). When the wound is cured, then the xenophobia, racism, isolationism and harmful myths of nationalists would have no basis in policy making. Liberal lawmakers must not give in to the nationalist demands or even tones in the opposition, instead trying to close the wound with new myths that serve the interests of the state (and in turn the nation) in a globalized world better. Myths such as ‘democracy’, ‘(universal) human rights’, ‘justice’ and ‘money’, though fluid, are but few examples of common myths needed today.  

It is quite interesting to study history and recognize the different narratives, events, processes and outcomes of certain decisions. This does not mean that the distant past has a natural effect on our lives today or will do tomorrow. Its influence on the present is based on myth and is only being recognized as ‘truth’ because of those who believe this myth to be true are many (including those who are actively loud or passively/quietly agreeing). Today’s poverty, famine, economic inequality, sexism, hate crime, religion-induced intolerance and ethnic conflict are almost entirely problems caused by the modern period. For example, what caused poverty in the distant past, might not even exist today therefore the reasons for poverty today are because of modern phenomena. The simple definition of “poverty” remains the same, but the causes and solutions are different. 

Politics is the quest for power through different means; the end goal of wanting it is the same, but the methods in obtaining it rely on change which might also cause other changes (nothing is absolute). We should strive for our modern perception of ‘justice’ and hold leaders (the elite) accountable, but ultimately, ‘justice’ is still an unnatural myth whose understanding might (and should) change over time. Change does not have to be either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ exclusively. Grand changes simply exist and the natural course of evolution will select those beings who either accept the change or are lucky enough to survive otherwise. Our leaders (and the elite), regardless of political ideology, have the interests of the ‘nation’ as a priority and the beauty of democracy is voicing these different views, where the population (all the while respecting minority representation…) have a say. Looking back, we can observe that people often — democratically — make very wrong decisions, even when a better (or less often, the best) option was present. We know this because of the ramifications of past decisions have affected the present day where this concern is being uttered. This is all part of a game called ‘life’ where the mission is to survive. Indeed, individuals, collective groups, institutions, nations, states, etc, have ‘survival’ as their main concern — this is how we are wired as human beings and the issue simply translates in different ways on different people in different periods in time. My choices will affect future generations indeed, but there is nothing this future generation can do to ‘fix’ past wrongs done by me today. It is up to the generation concerned to ‘fix’ the present they are in which I have contributed to with my mistakes today. In other words, historic decisions affect the present, but only looking to the future in the present can we solve ‘problems’. Looking back and using history as a tool to solve the supposed problems is wrong, unhelpful and a waste of time (if not dangerous).  

Not everything is “artificial” or “unnatural.” A source of reality is actually ‘suffering’ (as tragic as it sounds). Understanding, diminishing or stopping ‘pain’ is what should guide us in our decisions both national and inter-national. For example, the transformation of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is ‘sad’ but the status and use of a building does not cause suffering, neither to the building itself, not to its historical significance, nor to the people who would not want it to be turned into a mosque. The argument against turning it into a mosque is thus the lack of respect towards the sensitivities of people’s (often valid) emotions which contributes to a lack of ‘trust’ which, as I explained earlier, must be the basis of cooperation between different nations (in this case the Turkish/Islamic one vs the Greek/Christian one). Another example is letting asylum seekers engage in perilous journeys to reach safety while we build walls, de-humanize them and criminalize their will to survive. We do not have an ‘obligation’ to ‘help’ these migrants. We should however ‘help’ migrants and welcome them in our countries because they are ‘suffering’ — the one thing that is real. If the arrival of migrants affects the (imaginary) social composition of the (artificial) state, then so be it. Diminishing an individual’s suffering must be of utmost importance, much higher than preserving the myths and stories of ‘racial purity’ or the so-called traditional way(s) of life. We are more than capable of creating new realities which best serve our interests through the existing mechanisms of national politics but also global cooperation. 

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