[In this piece I am going, first, to question that historical memory/commemoration is always a 'public good', in that it often succours myth and national-identity-politics, and perpetrates and naturalises historical oppositions. On that basis I will discuss the apology for the Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar massacre (1919) and its shortcomings, and suggest some ways in which pleas for forgiveness might be better than apologies in bringing about closure.]
It’s generally held that historical memory is a straightforward ‘good’. Most of the standard justifications for historical study operate on that premise, combined with the nation that one needs to know about certain things – events – from the past (quite which ones being the subject of debate). Historical knowledge allegedly keeps us from repeating the mistakes of the past, though it’s difficult to imagine a more empirically-obvious falsehood than that. Most societies did not record or commemorate their history in anything like that sort of ‘factual’ way and yet functioned perfectly well, or at least no worse than those that did do so. If ‘history’ existed in such societies it did so in other forms more akin to myth. Myth plays an important role in society but it does so not on the basis of the kind of factual, empirical knowledge about what did or didn’t happen upon which the sorts of modern justification of historical study just mentioned are based. Whether or not battle, war, king or queen X ever existed is irrelevant to the point of a story that serves principally to illustrate concepts of honour, shame, loyalty or courage. The claim that society needs historical memory (as understood in the modern West) is a very long way from being established and seems to me to be difficult to sustain.
That may be an odd thing for a professor of history to say. Odder still might be my suspicion that we might not be worse off to let historical memories slide out of popular consciousness. I am probably not the only person who has got more than a little sick and tired of all the Second World War nostalgia being spouted by Brexiters (none of whom, let’s remember actually fought in it or, in most cases, was even alive during it). The idea that ‘we’ won the war is of course easily challenged. Leaving aside the considerably greater roles played by the USSR and the USA, even ‘Britain’ was not simply ‘us’ in a Second World War context: ‘British armies’ contained large contingents from ‘India’ (that is the pre-partition South Asian sub-continent), Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada, as well as the sizable contributions from Free French, Greek, Norwegian, Czech, Polish and other forces in exile from their occupied homelands. There’s obviously a role for historians, broadly defined, in stepping in to confront these narratives, just as in the States historians have tried valiantly to combat the rewriting of the history of the southern Democrats, which has attempted to make the Democrats the party of racism.
But there are limits. Contrary to one recent newspaper opinion column, the historian is not, and has better things to do than being, simply the guardian of the national narrative. As I have repeatedly argued in this blog the importance and value of Historical study lie ultimately in the doing, not in the knowing. More importantly, the combat of history and myth can be hopelessly unequal. Facts are a poor instrument with which to combat myth, for the simple reason that, as I said earlier, facts are not important to myth. The importance of myth lies in the feature of contemporary/contemporaneous society that it seeks to render natural and immemorial. Transposing some elements of Žižek’s critique of responses to racism/antisemitism (and it’s the same problem one has in dealing with conspiracy theories), facts operate in the register of the Symbolic (things as they are; representation; the signifier) but Myth operates in that of the Imaginary (the ideal, the how things should be; the signified). If the mythic element of this kind of quasi-history seeks to eternalise an opposition between plucky Britain/England (plucky Scotland and plucky Wales have their own myths) and oppressive continental Europe, which is somehow foundational to the identity of a generation of mostly English, mostly white, mostly male Brits, then simple facts are going to find displacing that a tough battle. Something transcendent about that ‘Britishness’ will always escape the ‘facts of the matter’.
The problem is the very identification with a past; the ‘we’ in the ‘we won the war’ (there’s a good Mitchell and Webb sketch that mocks those sorts of first-person plural identifications of people not involved in something with people who were). A few posts back I discussed the then-recent furore over Winston Churchill’s reputation or legacy. The reason why that discussion is always so heated is because it lies in the same region: the interplay between ‘factual History’ on the one hand and identity and ‘Myth’ on the other. A challenge to the idealised figure of ‘Winston’ is seen as a challenge to the very identity of a particular kind of British citizen; it’s to cut them adrift from some sort of fixed point of ‘pluck’, defiance, heroism, etc. Alas many of these kinds of fixed point involve a ‘them’ as well as an ‘us’; and thus eternalise and naturalise an opposition (see WWII). This is why think that one of the things that History should do should be instilling the idea that the past, even the recent past, is irredeemably ‘other’. We are not them; they were never us.
This point is in my view absolutely crucial to emancipatory, ethical historical practice, and it applies across the political spectrum. Thus, I think it not only applies to national or ethnic associations with the past but also to other types of identity: racial, gendered, sexual. The problem with applying modern classifications to the people of the past is that it naturalises and eternalises those categories, and the differences and oppositions inherent within them. As Emmanuel Levinas (to whom I have returned lately) said, to see the other in terms of the self is to view it in terms of mastery and totality. The ethical approach recognises the unmasterable infinity of the past, and the lives and experiences of it. That means letting go of the desire to recognise ourselves in the past. This is not to disavow the politics inherent in the study of the past, but to relocate them in a different part of the project. Now, as I have said before, that’s easy for me to say. As a cis, hetero, able-bodied, western, middle class, white male I have pretty much a full house in privilege bingo. For many other people there are as yet battles to be won concerning the recognition of a past. Nonetheless I think that that is the horizon that historical study should strive towards. I also think that one of the ways in which the battles I just referred to can be won is by those like me actively stressing that the population of the past was not ‘just like us’, not just in terms of norms or majorities but at all. The thought here is that by first evacuating the past of its dead white (straight, able-bodied) males who look like us, people like me might create a space for a more diverse and different past that seems not to belong to anyone. That the whole of the past should be of interest to all, equally, regardless of whether or not you see yourself in it (which is similar to what the early Fanon argued, before he realised that that was easier said than done). This would be my contribution to decolonising the past in western European/Mediterranean history. Perhaps this is naïve. I think it is worth an effort though.
All of which brings me to the topic of historical apologies. This has been in the news recently in relation to the British Government’s apology for the massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar (Punjab), which occurred 100 years ago. I am not in general a big fan of historical apologies, at least for periods where the principals are all dead): I strongly believe that apologies tend to be cost-free, empty political theatre. Furthermore, they perpetuate the idea of past representatives of a modern country are to be seen as ‘us’ or ‘them’. There’s an inconsistency in demanding apologies for the actions of past governments, armies, employees, agents or citizens of a country as though the responsibility still lies with the citizens, agents, government of that country and it is this: if one is expected to feel shame for the actions of one’s forebears, then one surely can feel pride in their achievements too. But if that is the case then it becomes difficult to critique the likes of Mark Francois (or Marc François as I like to call him) and his War Studies bluster. If ‘we’ committed the Amritsar massacre, then ‘we’ won the battle of Waterloo too (and if ‘we’ at Waterloo were actually mostly Germans and Dutch, then ‘we’ at Amritsar were – partly – Ghurkas). If the crimes of the British past, the Atlantic Slave Trade, say, are ours to bear, then are the achievements of the British past not somehow exclusively ‘ours’ too? We are back where we need to start finding reasons why people other than white Brits might ‘also’ see this history as theirs. If the exclusive Britishness of those achievements can be mitigated then so too can the Britishness of the bad stuff. There’s no logically sustainable reason to distinguish between the two. If you insist that a past crime be ‘owned’ by a modern national category (or an ethnic or racial, or gendered category, or a combination of these) then, in the parlance of the lawyers in the Law and Order franchise, you ‘open the door’ to the ‘ownership’ of the ‘glories’ too. You end up back with the ‘balance sheet’, at best. This is why it’s more important to think about the event than the participants.
As other people have argued, one problem with the historical apology is that it somehow allows the dominant myth – in this case of the British Empire – to persist. There’s no real facing up to the imperial past. None of this was avoided by the language of the apology which, by repeating previous disavowals, allowed the idea to persist that the Amritsar Massacre was some sort of aberration. It permits the ‘balance sheet’ to go unchallenged. Some Indians felt that the language of ‘deep regret’ didn’t really go far enough. It’s the equivalent of ‘yes, well, admittedly mistakes were made.’
Isn’t the logic of my argument therefore that it would have been better if there had been no commemoration and no apology. Mostly, yes it is and ideally that would have been the way it ought to have been. However, in the case of the Jallianwala Bagh, I think that some kind of public act by the British government could have been important. One of the problems of modern British society is that Britain hasn’t faced up to its imperial past, something which explains many things, of which Brexit is only the most obvious. Not confronting that past has allowed its persistence as myth. When I wrote about the referendum on the eve of the vote I tried to say that there was a visceral tug at the heart strings that even I might feel at footage of the Grand Fleet, of the might of the Empire manifested in battleships in line astern. People thought I was defending the Empire and I probably didn’t make my point clearly enough. What I was trying to say was that, while I appreciated that nostalgia (it was a cack-handed attempt to 'reach out' to the Brexiter), you had to think beyond the visceral, the mythic, to appreciate two things: that that world had gone and was never coming back; and also that the Empire and the global exploitation that enabled those battleships had hardly been a good thing in any case.
Many nations have a difficulty facing up to pasts that have become mythic bases for identity. Apparently it’s Confederate History Month at the moment, for example. Italy has never properly faced up to its fascist past. As a German friend of mine who lived in (and loved) Rome said to me ‘you have to remember that Italy won the war’. The change of sides by the Italian Republic has allowed the Fascist state to somehow be put to one side. You can see the myth of the ‘liberation’ of Italy from German occupation. Fascist epigraphy is all over the place in Rome. The result is the myth that somehow Italian Fascism was ‘nice fascism’. The trains ran on time (actually they didn’t). And so Mussolini’s descendants represent Far Right parties in Italy (can you imagine any putative descendants of Hitler still bearing the family name, let alone standing as candidates for AfD?). For many, many years France was in a similar position, thanks to the convenient Republican myth that portrayed the Vichy State as an illegitimate interruption in the lineal descent of the French Republicanism (it wasn’t; the powers vested in Pétain were voted to him by the Assembly). Thus it was not until Chirac that the responsibility of the French state for its involvement in the Shoah was finally acknowledged. France has a way to go, as far as its record in Algeria goes, but it seems to be getting there bit by bit. Countries like Poland have if anything rolled back any admission of involvement in Nazi atrocity. The Imperial heritage remains untouchable in the UK; as the failure to remove statues of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford a couple of years ago revealed.
All of the examples above show abundantly that attempts to confront the mytho-historical bases of national identity produce sometimes violent kick-backs. Enough with the guilt, say AfD. The French right-wing writer Pascal Bruckner has been arguing that the West has been subjected to the ‘Tyranny of Guilt’ since well before AfD came on the scene. I am (unsurprisingly) not sanguine that historical education in the usual sense (educating people about ‘the facts’; teaching them about different heroes from the national narrative) helps, at least in the short term. Over the long term perhaps it will; I am not sure. To confront the myth, does one require something that steps outside the world of facts? Do we require something more than apology?
Let me try out an idea. I am not 100% sure it really works or even that I have fully thought it through but here goes. The historical apology, I said earlier, is usually an empty gesture that costs little and achieves as much. The demand for an apology is frequently the same: a simple act of political theatre aimed at a base, as is the theatre of publicly staying away from the ceremony or rejecting the apology. An apology, once given, rarely settles an issue. I often think the discourse goes like this.
You owe us an apology
No. A proper apology
We are very sorry.
No. You weren’t sincere.
We deeply and sincerely regret these actions and the damage done.
Your apology needs to go further than that.
And so it goes on, essentially keeping alive a grievance, rather like a feud. Periodically it is reactivated so that people can line up behind the viewpoints that are in conflict (yes, I am thinking of Jacob Black-Michaud’s analyses of – especially Cyrenaican - feud as social structure, from the ‘70s). The dispute rumbles on with no hope of a solution but continues to serve a political purpose, on both sides. One wonders whether an apology can ever really put an issue like this to rest. Rather like a blood payment in true feuding societies (again referring to Black-Michaud), it does little more than signal a time-out, at best. The problematic ‘memory’ is kept alive, like picking at a scab till it bleeds. We continue to concentrate on the relative guilt, goodness and evil of the perpetrators and the victims rather than on the event and its general human significance. As I have argued before, the latter is what I think the object of the historical study of events like massacres should be.
We are talking about speech acts and, as Derrida famously said, speech acts are problematic because they are iterable. The sarcastic apology can be identical to the sincere one and because of that the sincere apology can be heard as a sarcastic one. No one can ever prove that a sincere apology wasn’t sarcastic or vice versa (here we are back to the history of the lie). Perhaps the issue with the historical apology is that the initiative rarely if ever comes from the representatives of the perpetrators. It usually comes from the (historically at least) weak to the powerful, from the heirs of the victims to those of the perpetrators. You don’t see demands for apologies from Britain for, say, the Kanpur Massacre – not least, of course, because Indians paid for that at an exorbitant rate of interest not just in the late 1850s but, as Kim Wagner has demonstrated, for generations afterwards. That’s a bad example but I hope you get my general point. That dynamic, surely, keeps alive the original power relationship. In a world (such as may in some views not be all that far off) where powers in the ‘global south’ have come to dominate the West economically it’s difficult to imagine the discourse over the Jallianwala Bagh taking its current form (in that hypothetical future, if that form of global imperialism replicated its precursors – though there’s no necessary reason to suppose it would – we would be more likely to see statues of Tatya Tope and the Rani of Jansi outside British factories than demands for apologies).
The demand for apology and the condescension to offer one replicate past power-relations and for this and other reasons is unlikely to bring closure. What might? One thing that might, might be a unilateral statement of forgiveness by Indian authorities. This isn’t, of course, for me, a white British male, to argue for but it is possibly worth thinking about. Forgiveness, like true love, asks for nothing.* Only the unforgivable can be forgiven, as Derrida said (incidentally a character on the rather good BBC drama The Victim said this, which was interesting). True forgiveness, as an act, cannot be dependant on getting anything in return. The advantage is that it reverses the power-relationship. We forgive you your many sins. As I said though, it’s not for me to argue for that. It could justly enough be seen as the white man saying ‘you Indians: couldn’t you just get over it?’ [I hope it’s clear that it’s not that, but it would be fair enough as a response.]
Let me then suggest something slightly different. Rather than apologising, perhaps what we need is a public act of asking for forgiveness from India. Just as the act of forgiveness cannot be conditional, the act of asking for forgiveness cannot be dependant upon expecting to receive it. Such an act however does reverse the roles; it puts Britain in the role of supplicant. For that reason and others it therefore costs more than the simple apology. I suggest that it is therefore possibly a better way of confronting the Imperial past and uprooting it from its mythic position (where the signified of the British Empire is the British government as supplicant asking forgiveness). As an act it has, I think, greater potential to unite the two parties. Unlike demands for apology, demands for forgiveness can’t go on and on being repeated without their force being entirely undermined. In the face of asking for forgiveness, demands for apology cannot be endlessly repeated either. The plea for forgiveness and, if granted, the act of forgiveness, are one-offs. For that reason, it just might bring about something like closure. We can then think about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre as an event, typologically, in its general human context rather than being distracted by issues of blame and guilt that are rooted in political myth. As I argued before, historical events, unlike dead historical actors are something that historians have to judge ethically, as well as explain (in this regard I disagree with Kim Wagner). In that way, I would like to argue, we can think with the past in the present, while breaking free from the chains of myth and identity.
* I would just like to pause at this point to suggest that this might be the first time where allusions to Derrida and Stevie Wonder met in the same sentence.
As well as tweets and links provided by Priyamvada Gopal, Kim Wagner and others on Twitter, my thinking here has been influenced in particular by:
Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (trans. Mark Dooley & Michael Hughes). London. Routledge, 2010.
Richard Holloway, On Forgiveness: How Can We Forgive the Unforgiveable? Edinburgh. Cannongate. 2002.
David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting. Historical Memory and its Ironies. New Haven, Conn. Yale University Press. 2014.