• Stephen Balogh

Mono-narratives in a multi-polar world

While the wars over the histories of the nations of Europe and their blight on the world still rage hot, it’s always interesting to listen out for underlying assertions about what was beyond Europe in the era of Before Europe (let’s call it “BE” here).

History is of course a fiendishly complicated thing. The necessary acts of interpretation and retropolation mirror their future-looking soothsayer equivalents of prediction and extrapolation. Construction of a narrative helps create a sense of coherence and clarity of explanation but takes time, effort and intent both to expound and to hear, hence the ever-present temptation towards simplistic, reductive accounts. Especially accounts that brook no further challenge.

For me, other than perhaps the literally visceral case of Hungary, I have no dog in any fight over history. (No, I don’t buy into theories of collective historical guilt though I do passionately believe in non-coercive social justice.) I simply desire honest, even-handed, temperate debate, devoid of dogma, hypocrisy and, as far as possible, partisanship. OK, perhaps the negation of partisanship is too much to ask, but the rest must be at least a strong aspiration for any decent enquirers.

I am going to construct a historical narrative of my own, which relates to what used to be called First World and Third World. (There would have been something analogous between the First and Second Worlds but for the inconvenient fall of Soviet communism). It is that, over the last six of seven decades, there has been roughly a two-track approach to the revising of history into a narrow progressive mode. It has been characterised by such an absurd reductiveness that it makes “1066 and All That” seems a masterpiece of nuance.

What are the two tracks? Well, very broadly, the first track is the expunging of contention and angst from the non-European world in the BE era. No wars or collateral human spoils of war to speak of, no genocides, no slavery, no butchery, no adventurism, no despoliation of nature, imperial hegemonies that were only benign and civilised and, don’t you know, thoroughly proto-socialist in application if you squint slightly. Even if there did exist a teeny bit of bother from time to time, none of it was the fault of any tribal favourite of the progressives, oh no indeed.

The second track is, you’ve probably guessed, the absolute Heart-of-Darkness demonisation of all things and people European and especially Anglo Saxon (with perhaps the necessary exception of the Belgians under King Leopold). Whilst much of it is warranted, the lack of nuance and the inferred transmission of intergenerational guilt acts to undermine the case.

The result is a beautifully simple, tidy mono-narrative that successfully cuts Europe (by which I mean Western Civilisation generally) down to size, even allows its destruction down to its foundations, its treasures to be carried off and its present and historical lands all sown with salt à la Cathage by the Romans (at least reputedly). The multi-polar world can thus emerge unmolested by erstwhile European bullying and domination and interrupted utopias resume.

Yes, of course I am caricaturing it, but there are surely some seeds of truth in this description (at least, unless these two are salted out of existence).

The only thing is, I don’t think this endeavour is going entirely to plan. Historical narratives in the BE era simply aren’t allowing themselves to be superglued in place, and two recent examples reinforce this for me.

The first example was a verbal exchange between someone advocating financial reparations for historical slavery relating to the transatlantic slave trade and a North African-born academic, whom he might have assumed would support such a proposition. The academic paused, reflected a little and responded (I paraphrase slightly): “Well, yes, there was also a lot of Barbary piracy in the Mediterranean and the likelihood is that your European forebears would have suffered. How much do I owe you?” She didn’t need to say more. (For a readable but sobering account of the sheer scale of human slavery created by the Barbary pirates, see Giles Milton’s “White Gold”.)

The second is the battle now in progress in the Indian academy over the narratives of Indian history, for a long time a leftist monopoly. Whilst British rule is of course universally reviled, it is the what happened before that is being freshly fought over and, in particular, the role of Islamic conquest. To say the least, this is a bit awkward for the acadogmatics used to their hegemony over historical truth in the subcontinent, especially those in thrall to the (Edward) Said school of anti-Europeanism.

I’ve already written about this once or twice, my interest particularly pricked by having Indian in-laws who are neither Hindu nor Muslim (see for instance What the acadogmatics missed about India), but a newly minted article by Vikram Sampath reinforces and furthers this counter-narrative agenda. You can find this article at https://www.news18.com/amp/news/opinion/leftist-history-negates-indias-civilisational-greatness-underplays-bloody-islamic-conquests-4321322.html.

It would be far too flippant to start wondering about reparations in that theatre of historical conflict, as it is in virtually every other. Perhaps one of perhaps many positive aspects of a shift to genuine, unspun, multi-polar historical narratives will be the (re-)discovery that life BE was not quite as some would want us to think.

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