Manufactured histories not limited to developing countries

YB WEB DESK. Dated: 2/23/2021 11:45:10 AM

NADEEM PARACHA In various developed countries, the manner in which politics and society have unravelled in the last decade, suggests that certain factors that contributed to this had either been missed or were systematically hidden from the rest of the world i.e. developing countries. My research in religious extremism, historical distortions in school textbooks, conspiracy theories and reactionary attitudes towards science, has produced findings that are universal. This century’s second decade (2010-2020) saw some startling political and social tendencies in Europe and the US, which mirrored those in developing countries. Before 2010-2020, these tendencies had been repeatedly commented upon in the West, as if they were specific to poorer regions. Even though many Western historians, while discussing the presence of religious extremism, superstition or political upheavals in developing countries, agreed that these existed in developed nations too, they insisted that these were present during their teething years. In 2012, a British political scientist and an American historian emphasised at a conference that the problems that developing countries face, i.e. communal violence, a suspect disposition towards science and continual political disruption, were present at one time in developed nations as well, but had been overcome through an evolutionary process, and by the construction of political and economic systems that were self-correcting in times of crisis. What they were suggesting was that most developing countries were still at a stage that the developed countries had been 200 years ago. However, eight years after that conference, Europe and the US, it seems, have been flung back 200 years in the past. Mainstream political structures there have been invaded by firebrand Right-wing populists and dogmatic “cultural warriors” from the Left and the Right are battling it out to define “good” and “evil.” In the process they are wrecking the carefully constructed pillars of the Enlightenment era on which their nations’ whole existential meaning rests. The most outlandish conspiracy theories have migrated from the edges of the lunatic fringe into the mainstream and science is being perceived as a demonic force. Take for instance, the practice of authoring distorted textbooks. Over the years, some excellent research cropped up in Pakistan and India that systematically exposed how historical distortions and religious biases in textbooks have contributed (and still are contributing) to episodes of bigotry. However, this is not restricted to developing countries alone. In 1971, a study by a group of US and British historians showed that out of the 36 British and US school textbooks that they examined, no less than 25 contained inaccurate information and ideological bias. In 2007, the US sociologist James Loewen surveyed 18 American history texts and found them to be “marred by an embarrassing combination of blind patriotism, sheer misinformation, and outright lies.” In 2020, historians in the UK wrote an open letter demanding changes to the history section of the British Home Office’s citizenship test. The campaign was initiated by the British professor of history and archeology Frank Trentmann. A debate on the issue, through an exchange of letters between Trentmann and Stephen Parkinson, a former Home Office special adviser, was published in The Spectator. Trentmann laments that the problem lay in a combination of errors, omissions and distortions in the history section pages, which were also littered with mistakes. Not only are historical distortions in textbooks a universal practice, but the many ways that this is done are equally universal and cut across competing ideologies. Historian Joanna Wojdon says the methods that were used by the State in this respect in communist Poland (1944-1989) were similar to the ones that were used in various former communist dictatorships such the Soviet Union and its satellite States in East Europe, and in China. The same methods in this context were also employed by totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany, and in fascist Italy and Spain. One can come across various similarities between how it is done in liberal democracies and how it was done in totalitarian set-ups. I once shared this observation with an US academic. He somewhat agreed but argued that because of the Cold War many democratic countries were pressed to adopt certain propaganda techniques that were originally devised by communist regimes. I tend to disagree. Because if this were so, then how is one to explain the publication of the book ‘The Menace of Nationalism in Education’ by Jonathan French Scott almost 20 years before the Cold War? In a nutshell, no matter what ideological bent is being welded into textbooks in various countries, it has always been about altering history through engineered stories as a means of promoting particular agendas. This is done by concocting events that did not happen, altering those that did take place, or omitting events altogether. This is a problem that is inherent in the whole idea of the nation State, which is largely constructed by clubbing people together as ‘nations’, not only within physical but also ideological boundaries. This leaves nations feeling vulnerable and fearing that the glue that binds a nation together, through fabricated ideas of ethnic, religious or racial homogeneity, will wear off. Thus the need is felt to keep it intact through continuous historical distortions.


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