Critical Digressions: The Three-Step Program for Historical Inquiry

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

Mapofasia14thcentury_2When we read, especially fiction, we are all aware that that power and perspective have an inverse correlation. First-person narration – “I” – although intimate, is generally said to be “unreliable” (as your grade school English teacher must have informed you when lecturing on Huckleberry Finn or My Antonia or The Catcher in the Rye) while third-person narration is thought to render reality (as you learned in your class on Russian Realism in college). Compare the following: “On Monday morning, I slid out of bed, dull, dead, and only after a cigarette, and after having surveyed 3Quarksdaily, I felt alive, connected in some way to the world around me”; “He woke on Monday morning, wearily slid out of bed, smoked a cigarette, and sat before his laptop, surveying the posts on 3Quarksdaily.” The former employs idioms suggesting subjectivity – dull, dead, alive – with the latter catalogues facts. In a way, reality is measured by the distance between narrator and subject: when narration pulls away, it exerts more control over the subject and the “world” of a novel or story. (Of course, there are exceptions: Lolita and Midnight’s Children come immediately to mind.) But this is just a matter of perception. Both are constructions, fictions (although the wild popularity of 3Quarksdaily is an undisputable fact).

Worldmapcirca1780_1 Historically, the third-person has had a monopoly on reality. History, in fact, has been written in the third-person. But we know that history is also a construction, and has often been a fiction. (Napoleon apparently said, “What is history, but a fable agreed upon…”) We are all aware that in the US, creationists are presently lobbying for the reintroduction of Biblical myths in history textbooks. Indeed for many literal interpreters of religious texts – Christian, Muslim, Jew or Hindu – Darwin’s monkey business is tantamount to blasphemy. Many elementary-school textbooks in madrassas across the Muslim world preach obscurantist Islamism. Interestingly, Pervez Hoodbhoy, the Pakistani physicist and activist, notes that in 80’s Afghan “children’s textbooks designed by the University of Nebraska under a $50million USAID” posed the following types of questions: “One group of maujahidin attack 50 Russian soldiers. In that attack 20 Russians are killed. How many Russians fled?” In India, during the recent tenure of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – textbooks were rewritten to include the fictional “Indus-Saraswati civilization” and exclude “many awkward facts, like the assassination of…Gandhi by a Hindu Nationalist in 1948.” But these are obvious instances of history as fiction. We have to be cognizant of subtler fictions.

In his book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Mahmood Mamdani, director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia, writes:

“When [a 16th] century Italian missionary…brought a European map of the world-showing the discoveries of America-to China, he was surprised to find that the Chinese were offended by it. The map put Europe in the center of the world and split the Pacific, which meant that China appeared on the right-hand edge of the map. But the Chinese had always thought of China as literally the ‘Middle Kingdom,’ which obviously should have been in the center of the map. To please his hosts, [he] produced another map, one that split the Atlantic, making China more central. In China, maps are still drawn that way, but Europe clung to the first type of map. The most commonly used map used in North America shows the [US] at the center, sometimes splitting the Asian continent in two.”

Manifestly, even east and west are entirely subjective locations. And of course, “East” and “West,” are constructions, perhaps even fictions. On the first page of Orientalism, the book (and idea) that shook the grand edifice of history and historicism to it’s core, Edward Said, writes, “The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunted memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” He continues:

“Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the ‘the Orient’ and…‘the Occident.’ Thus a very large mass of writers…poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economist, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind’, destiny, and so on.”

Orientcover_1 You, in the know, may be cognizant of Orientalism’s implications theoretically, but may be unable to apply it to our understanding of other histories or, for that matter, to popular discourse. It takes considerable effort. Earlier in the summer, you may remember, after watching the Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven,” we became interested the series of events that have come to be known as the Crusades, the classic, epic (indeed the first) confrontation between the East and the West. How do you go about approaching the Crusades, events so infused with competing agendas and colored by contemporary events? This is how: you read three different versions – Runciman’s comprehensive, old school, Orientalist trilogy; P.M. Holt’s spare catalogue of events and personalities; and Amin Malouf’s engaging, novel, novel-like The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

Whitmogp You may justifiably ask: why go through the trouble? Because history, ladies and gentlemen, informs notions about ourselves – who we are as much as what has been. For instance, we denizens of the Subcontinent, have been weaned on the Two-Nation Theory, a theory stipulating that Muslims and Hindus have historically been two separate nations. This theory, in various incarnations, has informed the way we have thought about ourselves since about 1857. In the last two decades, however, this theory has been debunked by the likes of Ayesha Jalal, the MacArthur-winning historian at Tufts; Willam Dalrymple, who in White Mughals depicts the syncretistic culture of the Subcontinent; and by H.M. Seervai, the Indian constitutional expert who in Legend and Reality ascribes Partition not to Jinnah but to Nehru and Mountbatten, the last British viceroy.

The implications of these academic inquires permeate popular discourse: when L.K. Advani, the hardline leader of the BJP (a party that instigated pogroms killing close to ten thousand people in Bombay and Gujrat) was recently invited to Pakistan, he proclaimed in an inspired moment that M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan,was not only a great man but a secular one. Although the BJP has since dismissed Advani because of his remarks, debate on Jinnah’s worldview has been reignited in the Pakistani and Indian presses. The idea of Jinnah (or the paradigmatic personae of Akbar and Aurengzeb for that matter), who has been a construct of British historiography and of Indian and Pakistani nationalisms (and, not to mention, of Attenborough’s film, “Gandhi”), is changing. Moreover, our conception of ourselves, of our history, is also changing.

We all have our own, parochial agendas. We need to make them explicit: this is who we are and this is why we read and write. The pretense and conceit of the third-person needs to be reviewed.  And we have to ask: why do we ask the questions we ask?

In the effort to make revise history, we propose a three-step-program for historical inquiry. (1) Labeling system for academia: Like the FDA, which regulates labels on everything from cereal boxes to psychopharmaceuticals, a global agency, the HHA – the Human History Agency – should be orgainzed to checks for idiom, tone and trajectory of history textbooks as well as the author’s background. (For example, WARNING: AUTHOR WORE WIGS AND WAS A KNOWN ANTI-SEMITE. THIS READING OF HISTORY IN STRONG DOSES WILL DISTORT YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE WORLD. SIDE EFFECTS INCLUDE HEADACHE, CONSTIPATION.) The agency would also review history sociologically and anthropologically, addressing questions that may include: why did Dante shove Mohammed in Hell when he borrowed Arabi’s eschatological infrastructure? Or, why is Socrates deified in epistemology when Khaldun, the father of economics, sociology and anthropology, is relegated to the periphery? Or, why is Said being revised? And, why the obscrantist legacy of men with pubic beards – from the Kharijites, Naqshbandiya, Ibn Tamiyah to the Salifis, Whahabis, Bannah, Qutb and Mawdoodi, exerts so much influence on modern Muslim political thought? In a strage way, Wikepedia, the online encyclopedia, plays a role similar to that of the proposed HHA. (2) Due diligence for readers: As we have mentioned, this requires reading at least two different books with competing agendas (for example, Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States should complement any readings in US history and McCullough’s 1776). (3) Travel: By traveling, we get perspective, an outsider’s perspective, a sort of third-person perspective – like the bird-eye view from the airplane – as well as an on-the-ground, insider’s perspective. Note, than when fused, the third-person and first-person is the second-person: you, we.