30 December 2006

It's Not History Until It's History (CS)

I appreciate my comrade's editorial on the Hussein execution. But there was one comment that really struck me as unwarranted, where he described Hussein as (italics my own):
the man who experienced one of the most humiliating and public falls in world history
Hyperbole is par for the course in the blogosphere, but I couldn't help being a bit irked by this. I don't entirely mind the linking of Hussein's death to the ongoing war in Iraq. I don't even mind speculation that Saddam might have been quickly silenced to keep certain information from coming out that would villanize America. But I'm always a bit wary of when editorials try to historicize and many of the editorials on the execution leaned toward exactly that.

Executions are inextricably linked to justice. The historical record is also considered a matter of justice. If history held no importance in this regard, it's unlikely historical or archival ethics would ever be a concern. Through this sense of justice, history becomes terribly relevant to how we choose to set up our world. For example, Israel's existence is predicated on the history of the Jewish people and particularly the history of the Holocaust. A recent attempt in Iran to discredit Israel's right to exist was enacted through an (alleged) historical conference.

It's no wonder, then, that with its relevance to current politics and foreign events and policy that writers would try to situate this event into a much grander scheme. I would argue that placing something into "history" is far more complicated and will take a measure of distance to understand.

Some might ask why I wouldn't let The President off the historical hook, but it's a bit different in George W's situation. We're well aware of the decisions he's made and well aware of the effect they've had on the world. For him to indicate that historians will decide his place within history is ironically ridiculous. The way history pans out may see great things come out of Bush's screwups. Or it may see further terror and strife out of them. But we do know that his actions, in themselves, have been failures. As far as his quality as a President goes in his own time, history has little to do with judging George W. Bush.

With something as specific as Saddam Hussein's execution, however, the fallout of history is less specific. The event is too singular. Even the life of the man and its place in history will not fully be understood until the region settles down and we can hear, marshal, and analyze the voices that were coming out of it.

That's part of why it's difficult for me or any American to evaluate Hussein's death itself, right now. Honestly, I would leave that to Iraqis and maybe even Iranians. With this sort of temporal immediacy to the event, it's their geographic and tangible immediacy to the actions of the man that make their voices valuable.

What I can say, however, is that Hussein's death has revealed the classic faux pas historians must find frustrating in journalistic and editorial writing, that being historical favoritism for one's own era and a lack of historical perspective, generally.

Brendan's ending note, that "Saddam Hussein is only the latest casualty in Iraq. Not the last," is more reasoned than his opening. As much as we want to make our claims on history and privilege our present, the history of the world continues to move on. New presents change our old pasts and will continue to do so. And yet how conveniently we forget our privileged presents past.

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Blogger Brendan said...

I wrote a devastating and eloquent response but Blogger ate it.

12/31/2006 4:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Until the "region settles down"? There's not a civil war going on in Iraq, there is a genocide of an entire population. And I agree with Brendan's piece.

1/03/2007 1:21 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

Yes, until the region settles down. In other words, not until this whole mess is over are we going to be able to get, much less analyze, the myriad voices coming from the region. To try and put the stamp of history on it at this point, particularly the death of Saddam Hussein, is practically an exercise in temporal self-importance

1/04/2007 4:47 PM  
Blogger Samantha said...

Meanwhile, I long for the day when Special Topics in Calamity Physics is no longer regarded as a work of high literature. The phenomenon of the "instant classic" in the literary world is just as irking.

On the privilege of perspective:

I helped create the world's only archive documenting the inception of the International Criminal Court. This work had been hoisted off at the turn of the millennium onto a small NGO by a United Nations bureaucracy that had neither the immediate resources nor the foresight to properly box, sort or even simply preserve original transcripts of various watershed genocide trials of the 20th century. In this case, blatant trespasses of justice (rape and mass slaughter in Bosnia and Rwanda) could have easily gone to waste in the wake of the flurry of paperwork addressing recent appointments to the Security Council, or Kim Jong "threat du jour" Il.

Imposing historical relevance from a subjective, temporal place of judgment is wildly problematic. What if all we recalled of Sarajevo in twenty years was a U2/Pavarotti song and complaints about the politics of intervention?! Don't assume that the intelligentsia will simply recall, with total clarity, the gravitas of CNN broadcasting those mass graves being unearthed.

With the exception of Samantha Power, very few in my professional cohort have taken the initiative to properly frame a series of events whose trend factor has long since expired. The international relations community is full of news junkies hyped up on immediate prediction and exotic pain. No one should trust us--or, more widely, popular memory--to accurately process and recall slights (or glories) of old.

In the case of the ICC archive, what might have otherwise been a mildly reckless case of impatience could have easily erased a major record of human suffering in our time. I, for one, long for a day when retributions are properly paid to every wronged ethnicity and village wounded by the last twenty years of life in the Iraqi nation-state. But that cannot not come immediately. The ripples of Bosnia and Rwanda will take decades to reconcile.

Journalists, administrations, armchair political theorists and academics all have the incentive of popularity and to capitalize on world events the moment they seem to crystallize. The NGOs and do-gooders are no exception. Therefore, bet on the retrospective. Bet on those with nothing to gain but the satisfaction of having served justice through the simple gift of macroscopic clarity.

1/05/2007 9:47 AM  

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