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'Historical consciousness' can be double-edged sword, historian says

L.A. Cicero James Campbell

History Professor James Campbell, who arrived last month from Brown University, listens as sophomore Tina Branham discusses a reading assignment for his freshman seminar, The Harlem Renaissance.

BY CYNTHIA HAVEN

When Freedom Summer was in full swing in 1964, a political cartoon in a Mississippi newspaper showed three Union soldiers from the Civil War era, one holding a noose. "We'll larn them Rebels some Civil Rights," it said.

The circumstances may be particular, but the phenomenon is international: A few years ago, as mass graves of atrocities were discovered, the Serbians said that corpses had been taken from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and reburied in the Balkans to discredit the Serbs. Only forensic-based science dispelled the widely propagated myth.

Another example: Everyone knows that the 1994 Rwandan genocide left 800,000 Tutsis and their allies dead. But relatively few people know that the violence unleashed in the region since—a reaction to the Rwandan conflict—has been the bloodiest conflict since World War II, leaving more than five times the number of casualties as the 1994 massacre.

All these instances show "the use and abuse of history," and how historical awareness, when flawed or incomplete, can lead to malicious interpretations of the present. In particular, narratives of the past, and especially narratives of collective victimization in the past, "are used to license atrocious conduct in the present," said James T. Campbell, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History. "While most of us regard the study of history as benign and edifying, we also know that historical consciousness frequently manifests itself in malignant and unedifying ways."

"Historical consciousness" can be a two-edged sword, Campbell said, speaking Feb. 19 to a lunchtime gathering in a seminar series sponsored by Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. Campbell joined the History Department last month from Brown University, where he had headed the university's Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to consider black reparations.

Campbell suggested one of the stumbling blocks to peace could be the "hateful national narratives" and the complications that ensue when people in the present appropriate the suffering in the past, often mistakenly. Might this process be reversed, and might "the dissemination of more even-handed accounts of national pasts" mend strife? "In short, can we promote historical reconciliation by reconciling histories?" he asked. How does one create a "shared narrative of a contested past" while "dispelling public myths" that claim to be "historical legacies"?

Campbell cited the example of the highly publicized U.S. settlement to the 100,000 Japanese Americans who suffered in World War II internment camps—public acknowledgement after decades of silence—as "the most successful redress initiative in U.S. history." We do learn from history, he noted: After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, "there was no attempt to round up Arab Americans," he added.

Campbell pointed to the surge in "truth commissions" that have caused a "fundamental shift in international political culture." While they were a "novelty" in the 1980s, they are now an accepted part of transition in overcoming national crisis.

These are among the examples of what he called "trying to alter the matrix of political possibilities in the present."

Such movements have attracted critics as well: Campbell pointed out that conservatives "decry the endless rehashing of past injuries as yet more evidence of the fraying of America." Even the left has worried about the political being subsumed by the therapeutic.

Some cases have even backfired: Congress' resolution demanding that Turkey formally acknowledge the Armenian genocide was scuttled after Turkey threatened to retaliate by cutting off American military supply lines to Iraq. "Insert your own joke here," Campbell said.

Despite America's own failures to confront history, Campbell said the United States is still "a bellwether for global reconciliation," and slavery "remains the acid test of historical reconciliation." In 2002, the Liberty Bell was revealed to be yards from the demolished smokehouse that George Washington used to house slaves. Controversy erupted over how to treat the two narratives of America's past before the stories were eventually woven into a joint history and joint recognition for tour groups.

During the discussion that followed Campbell's talk, someone asked about the case of Rigoberta Menchú, the Nobel-awarded memoirist whose account was widely embraced but found to be less than truthful.

Campbell noted that Menchú's writing illustrated what has become known as "symbolic truth": Many Guatemalans felt it to be their story, even though it may not have been Menchú's own experience.

But, he said, "this work is precisely to undo that," and hinted such narratives may have a short shelf-life, when he noted that he and others had lost interest in fanciful memoirist Carlos Castaneda when it was discovered that he was not a secret source of Yaqui knowledge.

With any new movement, there are bound to be "lots of sharks in the water," he warned.

For example, "entrepreneurs of memory" may arise to "don the mantle of the aggrieved group." Recognition and political clout may accrue to them rather than the aggrieved group.

Other issues arise with long-ignored recognition and redress. "Time itself doesn't erase responsibility," said Campbell, noting the burgeoning number of public apologies for long-past events. Yet this notion of accountability can be manipulated to promote further conflict: When confronted with the rape of 20,000 Muslim women in Bosnia, Serbians cited what the Ottomans had done to them in 1389.

However, imposing a statute of limitations on suffering—for example, to include only living victims—can provide "incentives to perpetrators to 'finish the job.'"

The passage of time brings other problems: "the success of new victors, telling the stories," said Joel Samoff, consulting professor at the Center for African Studies.

"Who gets to participate in the writing of history?" he asked. Newcomers "have an agenda as much as anyone else." One story can trump another.

Campbell cited the example of the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide: The West has been relatively disinterested in the subsequent atrocities that have destabilized the entire region.

"Nobody gives a crap about that. Hotel Rwanda is the story," he said.

Campbell said that we may not be able to reach full reconciliation, but, quoting writer Michael Ignatieff, added that "we can at least narrow the range of permissible lies."