It has been stated countless times, including here in this blog, that history is written by the victors. Whatever any of us knows of the past has been determined by what we’ve been taught by our parents, teachers, and elders. And they have simply passed down to us their own understandings, their own truths, based on what they, too, were taught.
In short, what we think we know to be true about our society has been filtered through many lenses—cultural, racial, gender, socio-economic, and political.
There have been attempts at presenting alternative-history scenarios, fictional representations of what might have been, ‘if only…’. Harry Turtledove, for instance, has written books about what happened after the South won the U.S. Civil War, and after Germany won WW II. H. G. Wells wrote about an alien invasion of the planet, The War of the Worlds, which, when adapted by Orson Welles for radio in 1938, caused near-panic among the populace. In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth described events after Franklin D. Roosevelt was defeated in the 1940 U. S. presidential election by Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh. And Margaret Atwood devastatingly described the misogynistic society of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, about subjugated women in a patriarchal society.
These alternative histories are fiction, of course, although all too real in their telling. But across the millennia, there actually have been innumerable alternate realities experienced by people of the time—realities which, although true, were never recorded and passed down the generations because they were on the losing side.
For example, I was taught, as perhaps you were, that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492; in truth, what he did was discover it for the white, colonial, commercial powers of Europe. The Americas had actually been discovered eons earlier, maybe 33,000 years ago, by Asian nomads who crossed what was then a land bridge where the Bering Straits exist today. I was never taught about those people and their descendants, nor about that version of history, true though it is.
I grew up with an implicit understanding that the great figures of the past were men, not women—white-complexioned, European men who stood fast against the barbarian hordes, mostly people of different colour and religion, who were intent on assailing the established order. It remained for the adult me to learn about such people as Gandhi, Mandela, MLK, Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Tommy Douglas, Gloria Steinem, Cesar Chavez, Germaine Greer, Nadia Murad, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, and others too numerous to list who have fought for equity for all.
Growing up in the 1950s, I was taught that communism was the great evil of our time—the relentless enemy of capitalism, the system I was taught to believe would raise us all to a marvellous standard of living. Today, for many of us, that has proven to be true; but what of those for whom it has not? What will be written of their history, if anything is written at all?
I would never proclaim myself a communist—the whole ideology has become irredeemably politicized and villainized. But I confess an affinity for a socialist-democracy, where every citizen is considered worthy of support and respect, over what has become a capitalist-democracy, where the very few prosper, a larger number just get by, and the majority contend with poverty. For those whose motto might be I’m alright, Jack, such a status quo might be fine. But any society, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link.
I wonder, too, about the history my great-grandchildren (and their children) will learn, beginning perhaps thirty years from now, about the times we are presently living in. Will it be a history of the life I am living? Will it be a history of the lives led by the homeless in our cities? Will it be a history of ethnic minorities who are being subjected right now to genocidal actions by oppressors? Will it be a history of the demise of democracy in favour of authoritarianism? Whose truth will survive?
More existentially, I wonder about the future of the planet itself, and whether our depredations will allow it to sustain human life as we have known it over the past hundred years. I saw two pictures recently, taken from the same location one hundred years apart, that drove home the point very viscerally.
Just as our human species has evolved (for better or worse) over the span of our history—and continues to evolve—so too does the planet continue to change. And not necessarily for the better. Are such evolutionary changes inevitable, beyond our ability to control, dooming our descendants to a dismal future? Or is it within our capabilities and purview to act now to preserve a habitable planet for them?
Most of us govern ourselves by the values and truths we have come to accept, based on our accumulated experiences, which for the most part is conducive to social order. But danger arises when we close our minds to the values and truths espoused by others, without trying at least to understand them. At such times, we need to de-centre from our own perceptions of things, and try to see the world as those others see it, based on their experiences.
We need not necessarily accept those alternative views, but by understanding their genesis, we can contribute to a more harmonious existence.
And then, with any luck, we can acknowledge our differences, while at the same time recognizing the perils we face collectively. That is how we shall survive.
And that is how there will be a history to pass along to those who will come after us. Whatever the truth will be.