Via Basel: A Perspective on the Past

Julie Mehretu

I have a confession to make. I believe that I’m seen as forward looking, planning ahead and being an activist concerned about our country and the planet’s future from a variety of perspectives, social, economic, and environmental. I also practice and teach mindfulness with its focus on the present moment. But in fact it has been the past that has been the most fascinating to me to read and explore and of course eventually to connect to both present and future. Getting older and more nostalgic may also have something to do with it. I devour well-written history, especially on a grand scale, and over the last few decades developed a special interest in our own United States history.

A lot has been discussed lately regarding the removal of confederate statues demanded by activists and the “Cancel Culture” or “Erase History” response. I will not wade into the argument directly, but please indulge a few comments from somebody born in a part of the world where  written history originated, Mesopotamia.

These days I find reading and discussing history more grounding than pondering an abstract future, as well as a reprieve from the depressing present and general malaise in the air. The truth is that the past can be exhilarating and horrifying at the same time. Churchill’s biography by Roy Jenkins shows his inspiring oratory and great leadership in WW2 along with his early military failures and his moral ones in dealing with Gandhi and the aspiration of the Indian peoples. There is also nothing solid about it because our memories cannot be fully trusted and the written word can be intentionally or unintentionally misleading since it comes from the vantage point of a victor, and a male one in most cases. A case in point is the controversial historian Bernard Lewis from Princeton, an expert on the Middle East whose numerous publications are accused of bias against the Arab and Islamic peoples. His influential writings may have had an influence the US decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

The historical past is both dynamic and shifting all the time, depending on when and how it was written and read. It demands careful detective work to discover the kernels of truth among the confusing chaff. Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 is a large 1000+ page book filled with events, statistics, and political figures. What most attracted my attention was the role of a few fervent activists like Clarkson and Wilberforce in changing Britain’s policy in a short time from being a participant to an enforcer in abolishing the slave trade against the economic interests of many in its own parliament. Written history can be awe inspiring or deceptively manipulated for a malevolent cause such as the interpretation of  Aristotle the Greek philosopher’s comments on slavery as a natural condition, used by pro-slavery proponents in the American South. The idea that history is fixed is a misconception planted in our mind because it is easier to perceive a simple static concept than a complex dynamic one. It is constantly being reinterpreted as humanity moves on towards a higher moral ground in concepts of justice, equality, and just basic human rights. Context is essential in presenting the past to the reader. Because no author can be completely free of bias, it is imperative for the reader to seek other and contrasting perspectives before settling on his/her final opinion.  

Dealing with any past history, personal, communal, or national, is a complicated issue with a lot of potholes and detours on the way. It can lead to unintended consequences and requires courage, humility, and authentic letting go. It cannot be erased factually, but can certainly be exposed from a different perspective than the presently accepted one. I love this quotation regarding the past from a mythical fiction, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” the last line in the first short story in Ted Chiang’s Exhalation:

Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.

Finally, a preview of my next post coming  soon: a masterpiece combining History, Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology and other disciplines that weaves the past into the present onto a glimpse of a potential future.

Basel Al-Aswad, father of EIL founder Christopher Al-Aswad, is a yogi trapped in an Orthopedic Surgeon’s body. His loves in life include reading, writing, hiking, enjoying nature, meditation, and spending time with his large Iraqi family, and now, semi-retired, he is exploring new avenues in medicine, education, and social engagement.

Via Basel: Dreamlike Reality

Scott Klavan: In Defense of Statues at EIL

Hamid Dabashi on Bernard Lewis via AlJazeera


British Library Newsletter: Origins of Writing in Mesopotamia

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