Features

You are here

How Harper is killing the peoples' history


April 3, 2013

In 1940 Walter Benjamin, a Marx-influenced theoretician associated with the Frankfurt School, wrote his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Like many such endeavours at the time it is often more poetry than rhetoric, but at its centre was an important observation: that “historicism,” a conservative outlook on history, was a distortion of the use of history that reduced it to a cause-and-effect story of direct relevance to the “victor” of history. On the other hand, historical materialism--while also open to malformation--was interested in the complexities of history and could be used in the service of revolution:
 
“If one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathize... he answer is inevitable: with the victor. And all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them. Hence, empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers. Historical materialists know what that means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.”
 
Reshaping history
In today’s Canada, ruled by victors who have been attacking history and culture to reshape in their image, Benjamin’s words seem relevant, even if they are over 70 years old. Benjamin is taking about the ruling class and its use of history. He wants us to save it – for our own sakes.
 
Stephen Harper is only the latest in a long line of ruling class victors in Canada who have used history for their own devices. But his attacks, coming as they are so fast and furious, and unrelenting, have a character about them that can seem inevitable. But the fact is, when resistance is strong, history can support it.
 
Take the US War on Vietnam. Using rhetoric about communism and dictatorships, the US government flung bombs, napalm, and men at Vietnam for almost a decade. But the US could not keep its war going when resistance began, most importantly in Vietnam, but also at home. The new movements against imperialism, sexism, racism, and for civil liberties rose up. As a result, the war in Vietnam is remembered by most Americans as a defeat. Therefore, in mid-2012 President Barack Obama, in what could have been one of his last feats in office, launched a plan to reclaim the war in Vietnam for the Imperialists. In a festival of warmongering fervour, Obama waxed on about the war and its glories. Notably, the US government announced a huge budget for commemoration events. Sound familiar?
 
Rewritting 1812
The Harper government has wasted $30 million on commemorating the War of 1812, attempting to claim it for “Canada”, a concept that barely existed at the time, and certainly had little meaning for those who were forced to become refugees and lost their homes on both sides of the skirmishes. In turns out it had little meaning for today’s Canadians, either: a Nanos poll recently showed that people actually care more about the anniversaries of women’s suffrage and medicare than the war of 1812, or the Diamond Jubilee. It’s no accident that these opinions prevail in the era of Idle No More and the Arab Spring.
 
But the attacks are not over, and they are not only taking place through militarization of history. In the first Harper omnibus bill, the government cut heritage in the Parks of Canada, at Library and Archives Canada, and in museums and archives across the country. The result of these cuts will be felt for decades. We are likely to see oversimplified, non-contextualized exhibits and displays, and gallery, museum, library and archives projects aimed at pleasing government in order to glean from recued coffers. The dumbing down of history will only benefit the conservatives.
 
The fact is that the War of 1812 should mean something to Canadians. But it is not a story of glory and the beginnings of a great nation. It is one of colonialism and imperialism. That story needs to be told, because it is our story, and it continues to today.

Section: 
Geo Tags: 

Featured Event

Recent Videos

Toronto Steelworkers join solidarity action in Trois-Rivières
Thousands gathered to support workers locked out by ABI, a smelter owned by ALCOA.
Rally outside Morgentaler Clinic January 28, 1988
With mounting attacks on access to abortion, a look at the fight that led to a historic victory in Canada
Visit our YouTube Channel for more videos: Our Youtube Channel
Visit our UStream Channel for live videos: Our Ustream Channel