Black History Month: The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is an absolute pageturner; I read it in three days. The most immediately recognizable “oh that’s different” thing about this novel is that it posits that there is an actual, physical railroad ferrying slaves to freedom underneath the earth during the first half of the 19th century. But for me, the most notable thing about this novel is its approach to historical truth: everything written here is true, just not in the time that Whitehead writes about it.


“Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the [Declaration of Independence] described anything real at all. America was a ghost in the darkness, like her.”

Continue reading

S-21: A Place of Learning Becomes a Place of Torture

Every totalitarian regime has an apparatus for maintaining control: trusted government officials and spies, torture facilities to get information from those the spies turn in, secret prisons to stash uncooperatives away. Every totalitarian regime finds that the paranoia this system engenders results in the very same officials and spies who turned people in being themselves brought in on charges of sedition. If your government is run on fear, that fear is going to turn against the government and the people who work in it.



Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime was no different. Pol Pot and his top advisers, including Comrade Duch, set up prisons throughout the country. I visited S-21, a high school that was converted to Security Prison 21, now called Tuol Sleng, which apparently means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” or “Strychnine Hill.” Unlike the killing fields at Choeung Ek, S-21 wasn’t torn down during the liberation. Instead, it looks like the prison was left exactly as it was when the prisoners were freed. The bed frames sat at an angle in the center of the floor, the doors creaked on the hinges of the wooden barracks built in classrooms. The floors were dirty and the walls covered in grime and what was probably dried blood. It’s like the prisoners who were here only just left. History as recent as yesterday. Ghosts in every room.

S-21 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

One of the prison rooms

One of the prison rooms

S-21 is a complex of buildings. Most of them were open to the public but unlabeled, and only a few had placards explaining what went on in there. One building had thin metal frame beds, small lockboxes used as chamber pots, and shackles along the wall. Another building had cells made of wood on one floor and cells of brick on another. They were tiny, barely big enough for me to stand in, and I don’t think I could stretch out my legs if I sat on the floor. The cells were built as the regime brought in more and more prisoners, accusing more and more people of crimes against the state. They needed room to put them.

Wooden cells

Wooden cells

Bricked-up cells

Bricked-up cells

Some rooms were emptied of artifacts and filled with fading posters explaining who the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were and what the status of their trials was as of 2011. So far, Comrade Duch is one of the only ones to be convicted of war crimes. The posters included snippets of communication between the top Khmer Rouge officials and their families; these letters were filled with rants against capitalists and those who opposed the regime.

The gallows

The gallows

An artist's map of the country after the war

An artist’s map of the country after the regime

One floor showed photos of victims and of guards, and copies of statements they signed when confessing crimes–seeing as how some of the guards became victims as the paranoia of the state increased. One binder included confessions by foreign nationals who happened to be in the country at the wrong time. A popular crime to confess to was working for the American CIA.

A written confession and English translation

A written confession and English translation

One floor was dedicated to peace; it had photos of a place that was the site of the only land battle in Japan in WWII, and also a room of drawings by kids calling for peace. All in a building with barbed wire strung in front of the balconies so prisoners couldn’t attempt suicide by jumping. In the courtyard, plumeria trees bloomed.

Barbed wire to prevent suicide jumpers

Barbed wire to prevent suicide jumpers

Part of an art project that asked former workers at S-21 about their memories of the place

Part of an art project that asked former workers at S-21 about their memories of the place

There were signs posted outside some of the rooms with a person smiling/laughing and a line through it, but I can’t imagine who would go through these rooms and have any desire to smile. Outside, a poorly translated sign proclaimed the rules of the place, which included “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all” and “Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.” Duch said the Vietnamese who set up the museum at Tuol Sleng invented these rules, but others claim they were real.

Security regulations at S-21

Security regulations at S-21

Graves of prisoners

Graves of prisoners

In one disconcertingly bright room, past a row of rusted foot shackles used to immobilize prisoners, down a long corridor of bricked-up cells barely large enough to fit in sideways, behind the barbed wire fence, I saw a graffitied message a tourist had left at some point. It was a hard message to read in that horrible place, one that seemed nearly impossible under the weight of this very recent, very terrible history. But it was vital to see, and to keep close when returning to the recovering city outside: Give us hope.

Give us hope

The Silence of the Killing Fields

Today’s post contains some disturbing imagery of the remains of victims of Pol Pot’s reign in Cambodia. 

The sites were chosen for their relative isolation. Space was cleared out in the middle of farmers’ fields, fences erected to keep the curious out and the doomed in. Prisoners arrived in the dead of night and dug their own graves. Patriotic music blasted from loudspeakers–there were no gunshots to hear, but the shrill music covered the dull thud of machetes hitting flesh and the screaming that followed. In the morning, guards sprayed the graves with DDT to ensure everyone in them was dead, and to cover the smell of the corpses. These were the killing fields.

At the Killing Fields

At the Killing Fields

During Pol Pot’s reign in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge murdered somewhere between 1.7 and 2.5 million fellow Cambodians. Most of the murders took place in what have come to be known as the killing fields. There were dozens of such sites, mostly concentrated around the capital, Phnom Penh. So many people died, but there are very few records that show names, which is part of the reason it’s hard to get an accurate number. After the defeat of the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese in 1979, one of those sites, Choeung Ek, was made into the memorial for the dead.

Walking on the bones at the Killing Fields, an eerie and humbling experience

Mass graves at the killing fields

The memorial stupa, containing 17 levels of skulls and bones

The memorial stupa, containing 17 levels of skulls and bones

I visited Choeung Ek in March, and I was impressed by the audio guide, which was one of the most thorough and thoughtful I heard on my whole trip. The guide took me past dusty stretches of land, which once contained a small hut to house prisoners when there were too many to execute in one day, and several sheds that held the machetes, hoes, knives, hatchets, cart axles, and other weapons. Bullets were expensive, so while farmers in the surrounding fields grew crops with shovels and hoes, the guards used the same implements to hack humans to death.

Some of the weapons used to kill victims

Some of the weapons used to kill victims

Sometimes the guards even used the sharp edges of palm fronds to cut throats

Sometimes the guards even used the sharp edges of palm fronds to cut throats

The fencing today only keeps out neighbors' chickens

The fencing today only keeps out neighbors’ chickens

None of the original structures remain. They were all destroyed in 1979, upon liberation. Now, the fields are dusty brown and empty of buildings, except for the Buddhist stupa towering over the dry grass and containing 17 levels of human skulls recovered from the mass graves here. The path went along a few fenced-off areas, where the museum had grouped some victims, such as children who were beat to death against a nearby tree.

Bones that surface after heavy rains are placed in this box

Bones that surface after heavy rains are placed in this box

killing fields

Human bone in the path--history near the surface

Human bone in the path–history near the surface

Perhaps the most upsetting thing for me, during this hugely (and rightly so) upsetting visit, was when I stumbled over human bones. There are so many bodies buried here that they haven’t finished exhuming them all, so even though I didn’t walk on the mass graves, I twice found myself looking underfoot to find a piece of bone sticking out of the path. The skulls in the stupa, even the bones piled haphazardly in a glass box on the path–these were hard to see, but they were behind glass, they had been processed by officials, they had been counted as part of history. The bones I trod upon in the path were raw reminders of the brutality that took place here, over and over again, and the enormity of trying to order and record it, and the futility of ever knowing who died here.

These skulls are shelved behind sliding doors of glass. Most skulls show some form of trauma.

These skulls are shelved behind sliding doors of glass. Most skulls show some form of trauma.

Bracelets left in memoriam

Bracelets left in memoriam

When I removed the headphones of the audio guide, I heard nothing. A little noise from neighboring animals, a man quietly selling flowers for people to place outside the stupa, but otherwise–silence. I’ve seen hungover, loud tourists at just about every place I’ve visited, but not here. The horror was too great, the history too recent. Everyone maintained a respectful silence for the barely buried victims, whose screams echo in the humid air.

ACAM: Cambodia’s Dark Past and Bright Future

I’ve finished John Tully’s A Short History of Cambodia: From Empire to Survival, and damn if it isn’t a discouraging read. It’s all right there in the subtitle–Cambodia was once a strong empire with the largest city in pre-Industrial times, an intricate system of canals and farmland, and an impressive collection of intricately carved temples, and now it is one of the poorest countries in the world, riddled with corruption, and desperately trying to pump up a tourism industry centered around the ruins of the greatness that once was.

cover of A Short History of Cambodia

A Short History of Cambodia

Of course, every country has its ups and downs, and no empire lasts forever. But the way in which Cambodia got totally screwed, over and over, from the mid-19th century through today, is both upsetting and instructive. Basically, although European colonization came late to Cambodia, it came with a vengeance. The French used an anti-missionary assault in Saigon as an excuse to send over a “protective mission” that quickly became a “permanent occupation force” (p.80). From Saigon to Cambodia, and soon they had control over Indochina (the colonialist term for much of Southeast Asia). Cambodia was officially a protectorate, but basically France treated them like a badly behaved colony, giving them strict governors and overhauling their entire system of government with no local input so it never had mass support (even measures like abolishing slavery and setting up schools for children).

By 1954, Cambodia had been caught up in the French fight with the Vietnamese, and the people wanted out. Prince Norodom Sihanouk successfully maneuvered to have the Geneva conference name Cambodia a sovereign nation, albeit with strings attached. I mentioned in another post that the intersectionality of world politics in the 20th century astonishes me, and while I’m sure that makes me sound naive, the extent to which the Cold War affected politics in literally ever corner of the globe in the latter half of the century can’t really be overstated, I don’t think. For example, the only way Sihanouk managed to get Cambodia free of French rule was by promising up and down and back and forth that Cambodia was a neutral country that would never enter into military alliances with any other country. Not to mention he had to beg to have his country back in the first place, and the US and USSR, along with some other countries, granted that. (This granting of sovereignty to nations that already existed and just need their colonizers off their backs is deeply puzzling to me. See reservations, Native American.)

Prince Sihanouk

Prince Sihanouk

This is not to say that either world power gave up hopes of using Cambodia in its Southeast Asian chess game, and the US presence in Vietnam went far toward stirring up discontent in Cambodia with the US and any pro-US factions. The Khmer Rouge, staunchly anti-US, started gaining followers. (“Khmer Rouge” means “Red Khmer,” the Khmer being the ethnic people of Cambodia, and the Red being a reference to their Communist affiliation–a context I never knew about or wondered about before. Funny how names can hold one meaning for you–deadly Pol Pot regime!–when they started out with quite another meaning entirely.)

Eventually, the country descended into civil war, with the war-weary Vietnamese, the jungle-hardened Khmer Rouge, the covert-bombing Americans, and the under-supplied national army all entangled in a mess of a fight. When the US and Vietnam got out, it became unwinnable for the national army, and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge stormed into power.

Pol Pot

Pol Pot, looking creepily cheerful as he palms a gun and plots genocide

Pol Pot’s socialist agenda was extreme. He immediately banned all private property, currency, manufacturing, and education. He force-marched his fellow Cambodians out of the “corrupt” cities and into the countryside, and along the way murdered thousands of people the infamous killing fields outside the city. Displacing hundreds of thousands of people, killing as many, and utterly changing the basic structure of everyday life was not, surprise surprise, a successful plan. The country plunged into disrepair, and Pol Pot went back to war with Vietnam, which no one was equipped to handle. At the end of 1978, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and took over for the next ten years.

The sickening thing about this post-DK (Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot’s name for his regime) era is the international response. The bloody and drawn-out Vietnam War had done nothing to convince the US that that country wasn’t out to conquer and convert all neighboring countries to communism (the domino theory! a real winner of an idea), and China was equally upset with Vietnam’s perceived overreach into its physical and ideological domain. They were both dead-set on punishing Vietnam for its ambition, so since Vietnam had invaded/liberated Cambodia, that meant Cambodia got to suffer too. The People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK, the post-DK regime name) “was cut off from assistance from the UN Development Programme, the Asian Development Bank, the IMF and the World Bank, with only a trickle of humanitarian aid from UNICEF and the International Red Cross” (p. 207). In effect, the international community abandoned Cambodia.

domino theory graphic

Apparently this is how it was all gonna go down.

Not only that, but Pol Pot had fled when the Vietnamese invaded, and he ran guerrilla options for many years in the jungles, ratcheting up Cambodian civilian deaths with no one pursuing him on any serious level. The Western world was so concerned about the threat of Vietnam ruling Cambodia as a puppet state that it gave tacit (and sometimes material) support to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I repeat: we supported Pol Pot. Ask anyone with a basic knowledge of the world history of the last century who Pol Pot is, and they’ll tell you, a dictator, a genocidal madman, a brutal murderer. And yet, because it seemed politically expedient to do so, the United States and other countries supported him for a number of years, until Cambodia proved it was no Vietnamese puppet nor Communist state, and aid could be sent without troubling the conscience about the red threat (p. 213). And Pol Pot died peacefully in his sleep in 1998.

The PRK government had its fair share of gross human rights abuses, yes, but if the international community had stepped in with aid right away, and called for the swift and impartial trials of Khmer Rouge war criminals, then it would have been a very different story. Basing foreign policy a paranoid idea like the domino theory is not only foolish, it’s dangerous. It has real consequences for millions of people on the ground. The United States’ treatment of Cambodia in that twenty-year period–from Nixon’s bombings, through the support of the Khmer Rouge, to the lack of basic aid during a famine in 1979–is inhumane and unjustifiable.

So, see what I mean about Cambodia getting the wrong end of the stick for decades? The corrupt nature of its officials on every level, combined with the self-interested interference of neighboring countries and world powers, led to a war-torn nation in which the people suffered mightily. Nowadays, the country is run by a corrupt prime minister, Hun Sen, and millions of people remain in dire poverty. But aid from outside countries (especially China) does help, and the textile and tourism industries have grown the country’s economy rapidly in the last ten years. Education and health levels are rising, as well, and a healthy, educated population is much more in a position to tackle its issues and guide its own path. Cambodia’s recent history is dark, yes, but that doesn’t mean the country doesn’t have a bright future.

Remorque-moto travel in Siem Riep

Cambodians moving on

Image 1 from here. Image 2 from here. Image 3 from here. Image 4 from here. Image 5 from here, credit Felix Hug.

ACAM: Indonesia, or How a 19th Century Dutchman Helped Me Refine My Political Manifesto

While the people of the Middle East and northern Africa are staging wonderful revolutions based on the people’s will, we in the States are fighting hard to serve the needs of the many, and I tell you what, it is a discouraging time. I don’t have the energy to argue with people anymore about why cutting Title X funding is immoral or how disbanding unions will only hurt the economy, not fix state budgets. Things seem to be getting worse and worse, with fewer and fewer victories to brighten the mood.

When I first read the selection from Max Havelaar in The Indonesian Reader, I just got even more depressed. Here’s a piece published in 1860 by a Dutch administrator in colonial Java, written anonymously because it was so damning about the colonial government, and it spells out many of the same problems of inequality, passing the buck, and exploitation that plague the modern world. The excerpt describes a system that exploited the native people of Java and surrounding islands (not united into the country of Indonesia until 1949) as a labor force for Dutch business interests. This same system employed civil servants, regional administrators, and others who were too worried about keeping their jobs to report horrific abuses and deaths, lest those reports draw unfavorable attention to their regions. Rather than look to the needs of the people they were charged with protecting, they looked only to the bottom line and worked people harder to turn a bigger profit and get more acclaim from those back in the Netherlands.

I’m not saying that the union workers in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio are in the same situation as the Javanese workers in the 19th century. But the same impulse to human greed and domination runs through both stories, and the government happens to play the role of villain in both. That same story is played out over and over again throughout history, and that’s what struck me as I read this piece for the ACAM project. George Santayana’s famous “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” has been trotted out far too many times for it to hold much meaning anymore, but it’s still true, and that’s what scares me. Are we just going to repeat the same stories of oppression and futile resistance over and over, in various horrible forms the world over? And if so, of course the question then becomes, what’s the point in fighting?

I think the answer lies in how we view history. The popular view, certainly the American view, is the linear one; we’re moving in a straight line from barbarism to civilization, and it’s just one grand march of progress and improvement. The other view sees history as a big circle, with highs and lows coming and going as the natural course of things, an inevitable turning of fortune’s wheel. The strictly linear view is clearly false; we can see people reverting to customs and laws from the bad old days all the time, so we can’t always be moving forward. The circle view is too depressing; the human experience becomes an exercise in literally spinning our wheels.

How about a Hegelian compromise? I wish I had artistic skills, because I would draw you this picture I see in my head: a series of circles, moving along a line. Those circles are various wheels of progress, regression, enlightenment, and repression, and we move through those circles as ideas are introduced, developed, and tested. We jump to new circles once those ideas have been accepted into the common understanding, and those wheels keep us spinning slowly forward through history.

It’s the development of ideas that really gets us moving into new wheels of progress and improvement. For example, right now Walker and other politicians are doing their damnedest to do away with collective bargaining in their states and eventually the country as a whole, and they very well may succeed for a period of time. But the idea of collective bargaining, which at one point in history wasn’t even a possibility, has settled firmly in the national consciousness, and what’s more, the practice of that idea has shown how easily it can be done. That’s going to make it harder to kill the idea completely, and if an idea is still alive, a movement can still survive. What’s more (and here I’m trying real hard to be positive about the current national situation), when the idea of collective bargaining survives, it should survive as a stronger idea. Right now, we see collective bargaining as a luxury afforded to certain professions, rather than a basic right of workers worldwide. As we spin about in this wheel of government bullying and corporate greed, those who fight for workers’ rights may be able to convince the general public of this difference between luxury and human right, and at that moment, we will jump into the next wheel. That will have its own ups and downs, as spinning wheels do, but it will be within this broadened national consciousness, and the discussion will grow ever more equitable.

Just as slavery was once a fact of life and is now a banned and abhorred practice, though we still fight to free trafficked persons; just as women were once the property of their husbands and now hold national office, though we still fight for their bodily autonomy; just as sodomy was once a crime and now gays and lesbians live openly, though we still fight for their right to marry and raise families — in these ways, will we continue to make strides for human rights in a world of greed and corruption.

I still feel my blood pressure rise every time I read a newspaper, and I still cry when election results are announced, but throwing up my hands in despair and deeming it all too big a problem to fix just puts me at the mercy of that spinning wheel; if I stick with it and join with others for our collective good, I can help push us over to the next one, the one with a better starting point than the one I was born into.

As Multatuli says in Max Havelaar:

After all, who would maintain that he had seen a country where no wrong was ever done? But Havelaar held that this was no reason for allowing abuses to continue where one found them, especially when one was explicitly called upon to resist them.

And we are all called. Decency calls us, history calls us, the future calls us.

Amsterdam: The Anne Frank House

When I first read The Diary of Anne Frank, I was 12 or 13 years old, about the same age as Anne was when she started the diary. I had a completely adolescent reaction to the first part of the story; I was envious of how popular she was at school with all her friends, when I was pretty friendless at mine. By the end of the book, I liked her so much I wished we could hang out and be friends. That’s how instantly relatable Anne is — not a blandly “universal” character, but one with her own personality, dreams, and worries.

She had a great eye for detail, and had plenty of time to turn it to the hiding place she lived in with her family and others for two years. The result was a description so fine that one could sketch out an exact replica of the Annex (the hiding place), including all the furniture and odds and ends. When I was younger, I was into floorplans and the ways homes were laid out. I would sketch the grand houses of my imaginary characters and make up stories of them moving around those spaces. So I probably focused on that aspect of the diaries more than most kids, and tried to imagine just how small the Annex was and how all the beds and tables and sinks fit together.

a reworked version of the original building that housed the Frank family from 1942 to 1944

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam (photo by me)

This March, I visited a friend in The Netherlands and spent a few days touristing in Amsterdam. I stood in a long line outside the Anne Frank House on a rainy day, watching canal boats glide by and listening to the Westerkerk chime the hour. Once inside, I bought my ticket and selected an English pamphlet from the many language options. It’s a self-guided tour, and there’s a constant stream of people, which is a little unsettling in the building that once housed just a small office and a back room of people for whom every visitor meant possible discovery and arrest. I followed the crowd, reading the small placards placed along the way and peering at the photographs hung on the wall. I had forgotten that the Annex was attached to Otto Frank’s office, not to a residence. Much of the material at the front of the house focused on how the office functioned before they went into hiding, and how the “helpers” smuggled food into the Annex.

Otto Frank had requested that any museum made of the house not include the furniture; he said the emptiness of the place would symbolize how everything they had was taken from them. So I didn’t get to see all the pieces fit together as I’d imagined when I was penciling improbable architectural structures on my sketch pad. How that furniture would fit in there anyway, I don’t know, because these rooms were tiny. If you go to the museum has set up a neat 360-degree view of each room with the furniture intact, so you can get an idea of how everything was set up. Even with that guide, when I was standing in the rooms and looking around me, it seemed impossible. How eight people could fit into this small space (and a teenaged Anne sharing a room with a middle-aged man because there was no room in her family’s room, at that), I still don’t see, except that needs must. They had to fit, so they fit. They had to put their lives on hold for fear their lives would end, so they put their lives on hold.

It was such a dark place, too. They had blackout curtains drawn all the way down or almost all the way down in each room in the Annex, so you could get a real idea of how each day looked to the Franks, the van Pelses, and Mr. Pfeffer. It looked dark, and small, and dull. Anne talks about how bored she is several times in the diary, and it’s no wonder. She’s bright, young, and full of energy, but she has to be practically silent for two whole years, confined to a tiny space with her parents, sister, sometime boyfriend, and three other adults. Distractions are few and frivolity almost impossible. Long before her life was taken from her, her adolescence was stolen away, or at least forced into unnaturally cramped conditions.

At one point in the diary, Anne writes, “I wander from room to room, climb up and down the stairs and feel like a songbird whose wings have been ripped off and who keeps hurling itself against the bars of its dark cage. ‘Let me out, where there’s fresh air and laughter!’ a voice within me cries.” In most other diaries of girls her age, this is usually teenage angst and hyperbole. The heartbreaking thing about Anne, and what visiting the museum made more real and terrible to me, is that while she felt the usual swirl of teenage emotions and conflicting desires, she did so within a fatally dangerous world that made her imprisonment all too real. And yet she never stopped writing.

bronze statue of Anne Frank near her house

Anne Frank memorial statue (photo by me)

Storytelling as Action

I don’t have much time today to expound on this, but here’s a fascinating excerpt from the book Telling Stories: Indigenous history and memory in Australia and New Zealand, edited by Bain Attwood and Fiona Magowan (Allen & Unwin, 2001). In the entry “The saga of Captain Cook: Remembrance and morality,” Deborah Bird Rose relates the story of Captain Cook as told by Hobbles Danaiyarri, who is an Aborigine living in Yarralin in the Northern Territory of Australia. His story is told in a mix of past and present tenses, and relates the injustices his people suffered at the hands of Captain Cook and other Europeans. After reprinting Danaiyarri’s remembrance, Rose explains how history and morality are tied up in Aboriginal thinking, explaining that this remembrance is a saga as opposed to a Dreaming myth:

…the saga is set in a time frame that is conceptualised as part of the present (ordinary time), whereas Dreaming myths are set in a time frame conceptualised both as the past and as a concurrent present. The latter are source of moral principles, and moral action is judged by reference to these principles, which are deemed to be permanent rather than subject to change and negotiation. Captain Cook’s law, by contrast, is seen as immoral, and this presents Danaiyarri and others with a problem: how to account for immoral action that is reproduced through time and thus appears to endure, just as Dreaming law endures. I contend that Yarralin people’s logic requires that the Captain Cook saga be kept in ordinary time — that it not be allowed to become part of the Dreaming past. (p. 70)

Moral action is seen to endure, and actions that do not fit the moral frame of reference cannot be part of the same timeline as moral actions. So these immoral actions are framed in the present, in ordinary time, as a current problem, even if they happened hundreds of years ago. By viewing morality and history as intertwined in this way, wrongs can be addressed in the present day, even if a linear timeframe would see those wrongs as too far in the past to warrant redressing. The very act of telling these stories is a move for social justice, keeping history literally alive in the general consciousness and demanding recognition and action. As Rose concludes, “far from being the consolation of the powerless, remembrance is an active force for social change” (p. 79).

What a powerful way of viewing history, storytelling, and collective action! What do you think? What stories should we be telling in “ordinary time”?

History is Not Inevitable — and That Matters for Today

History is not inevitable. Perhaps this is something they go over with history majors (although I will say I never encountered the idea in the several history courses I took in college), but for me and I think for the general populace, it’s an unusual idea. After all, events unfolded the way they did and now we are here, so how could it have been otherwise? It’s like a kind of Q.E.D. — it happened, therefore it is proven; it happened, therefore it must have been meant to happen. I know that this shows up in several religious schools of thought, like determinism in Christianity, and also in general ideas about fate. But it’s a poor approach to history.

This way of thinking sees history as static, and usually consisting of political, military, and economic events rather than a synthesis of these with social, religious, artistic, and scientific events and movements. But history is a living, breathing thing that we are creating right now. If we view ourselves as not only part of the history we know but also the part of the history future generations will learn about, it becomes easier to see past historical events as not inevitable or fated, but part of a series of individual and communal decisions made in constantly shifting circumstances. That’s not to say that I can quite wrap my linear-focused brain around the Australian Aboriginal concept of Dreamtime (in which you are here now but also in the past and the future, all at once) or the physics concept of nonlinear time. All that fluid space and time is nifty but makes me dizzy. But I can grasp the interlocking moments, motivations, and actions that make up our history, as opposed to the clear-cut line from Cause A to Effect B.

Understanding history as more complex than a straight series of inevitable events is crucial to understanding the ways we interact now — legally, socially, personally. For example, the colonization of New Zealand by the British is often seen as something that was bound to happen. The British had more efficient killing machines and more of them, they had thousands more people to populate the land, and they had the backing of an entire empire. But even if colonization were inevitable, the way it happened was drastically different from, say, the colonization of Australia. The British imported convicts to Australia and swept aside the Aborigines as if they were only a small obstacle to populating a continent, rather than the original inhabitants of that continent. In New Zealand, however, they found the Maori not only ready to fight for their land (as many Australian Aborigines were), but organized in a way the British could better understand, with recognizable leaders and specific land boundaries. So the British decided the Maori were more advanced than the Aborigines, and much more likely to respond well to being “civilized.”

Because the British saw the Maori as more civilized and basically more human than the Aborigines, they gave the Maori more consideration when taking their land, and that different historical approach has repercussions today. Unlike Australia, which was declared terra nullius (“empty land”) despite the very obvious presence of Aborigines, the British negotiated for land sales with the Maori of New Zealand. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed by the Pakeha Lieutenant-Governor and most Maori chiefs on February 6, 1840. The document was written in English and immediately translated so the Maori could know what they were signing, but the translation has some key differences from the English version. Notably, the treaty states that New Zealand is part of the British Crown, and only the Crown has the right to purchase land from Maori – or at least, one version states that. Another states that the Crown does not have this right of pre-emption. All versions were introduced with Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson stating, “We are one people.” As Philippa Mein Smith says in A Concise History of New Zealand,

Did ‘one people’ mean all the same, including one law, which in British thought meant civilising and assimilating Maori? Or did it endorse the idea of a new community of Maori and Pakeha, two ethnic groups henceforth defined in relation to each other? (p. 47)

Did the treaty mean Maori chiefs were giving up their sovereignty, or did it mean they were ruling alongside the British monarch and Pakeha governor?

These questions reverberated through the next century and a half, as first the Pakeha poured into New Zealand and bought up Maori land at ridiculously cheap prices (after the Crown bought them at even cheaper prices; an insulting way to get around that provision of the treaty) and later Maori asserted their land rights and citizenship rights. The Waitangi Tribunal in the latter half of the twentieth century resulted not only in recognition of Maori as an official language of the nation and the recognition of the importance of environmental considerations in indigenous rights, but in actual money settlements for breach of treaty (p. 231-236). Central to the arguments for money settlements and land renegotiations in the 1980s and 1990s were questions of not just what had taken place in 1840 but what kind of future both Pakeha and Maori were envisioning when they signed that treaty.

I find it fascinating that the New Zealand national government actually had a public discourse about what its intentions had been 150 years previous, and what effect those intentions and actions had on its citizens subsequently. The government recognized a breach of treaty and redressed that breach to the descendants of the wrong party. It’s all very proper Western legal action, but it’s also a bold step in acknowledging history as a living thing with no inevitable outcome and no fixed endpoint. Just because New Zealand is now a part of the British Commonwealth and overwhelmingly run by people of European descent doesn’t mean that that’s how it has to stay. Maori have regained some fishing and land rights, and they have also gained seats in parliament due to proportional representation measures, so they have more of a voice in the shaping of history going forward and not just looking back. Asians, instead of being legally shut out of the country and considered a threat to New Zealanders, are now being welcomed and encouraged to settle in New Zealand.

Certainly New Zealand has its share of bigots and racist policies, but I do find it heartening that a country that had a strong “White New Zealand” movement for decades (much like the “White Australia” movement that has unfortunately not died out as quickly it should) has made conscious efforts to not erase that history but to repudiate it and build a better one. Of course, it took the tireless efforts of thousands of ordinary citizens, activists, and politicians to bring about these changes, and I find that even more encouraging. The more people recognize history as living and evolving, the more we can build a just and peaceful history for ourselves and those who come after us.

Book Report: Australia

Greetings, dearest fellow travelers! How’s your winter wanderlust? Mine usually gets extra-itchy when it’s icy and cold outside, so it’s a good thing I have a big trip planned at the end of this month. In the meantime, I can get my fix by researching future travels.

Today: thoughts on Stuart Macintyre’s A Concise History of Australia, through the first few chapters.

I’m really enjoying the Macintyre history, although his discussion of the “females” is a bit grating. Still, it’s early days yet. What I am finding interesting though, and what I hope to write more about in the future, is what the national narrative is for Australia. What stories do Australians tell about themselves? Who are their heroes, their folktales and popular myths, their national qualities and values? I’m especially interested in the ways the Australian narrative intersects with and diverges from the American narrative.

We have a really strong story of brave pioneers setting up a new country of religious freedom and self-governing independence; we gloss over some messy relations with the people who were already quite comfortable living here, thankyouverymuch, and now they get to be our friends in grade school Thanksgiving plays; and we have a big war full of homegrown heroes who thought up a new way to run a country that no one had ever tried before. In reality, of course, the Puritans who came over here were religious zealots who wanted to use this new land to make their religion the only way to live (and make money while doing it), and anyone who didn’t agree was literally cast out into the wilderness; there were many nations of Native Americans living here who responded to the invaders in various ways, including with violent resistance, treaties, assimilation, and appeasement, and the colonial settlements were by no means an inevitable or righteous undertaking; and the Founding Fathers (oof, loaded term!), who were vocal in their callbacks to Greek democracy when declaring independence from Britain, were slaveowners who needed the French to bail them out.

So that’s the American origins narrative; what’s the Australian narrative? I’m getting a sense of it from this Macintyre book, but it’s a very different thing when the invaders are convicts explicitly exiled from their homeland and ordered to work off their sentence for the good of the country they wronged. (Imagine my surprise when I found out that there was actually quite a bit of this going on in New England, and the American Revolution is what put an end to that and forced the British government to consider Australia as a dumping ground for convicts!) Here, the hardy pioneer is just as important as he (yes, always he) was in the American story, but there are two extra elements — the Australian landscape was wholly, harshly different from the English one, and the Australian pioneers were mainly made up of  subjects of the British crown who had been deemed unworthy of being full citizens of that crown. They were expected to settle this new continent for the benefit of a government and upper class citizenry that took their free labor and gave them tiny amounts of unfarmable land in return. I imagine that involves some bitterness and resentment, and I wonder how that works in the Australian story.

Which doesn’t even touch on the bitterness and resentment of Aborigines, who were of course on the continent for over 40,000 years before the British showed up and said, “This looks like a nice vacation spot.” I know there’s a lot of similarities between the British treatment of Aborigines and the British/American treatment of Native Americans — land theft, broken treaties, raped women, stolen children, forced resettlements. It’s interesting, and depressing, to see what those similarities are. Despite the fairly rapid British takeover of the Eastern part of the continent, the Aborigines didn’t just give up their land and way of life, as seen in the story of Pemulwuy, an Aboriginal man known as the Rainbow Warrior for his work uniting various Aboriginal peoples. He organized various groups of Aborigines (the term “tribe” is no longer in use, I’ve learned) to resist the British settlements, and was the first to show the British that the Aborigines weren’t going to take the invasion without a fight. He was killed in battle and his son carried on the fight. His name is left out of the definitive Australian Dictionary of Biography, since as late as the 1960s, Aborigines were considered by the dominant white class to only get in the way of the progress of the country and thus didn’t merit mention in the history books. Happily, he is now recognized as a rebel hero, and his name is getting more recognition in mainstream (yes, white) Australia.

Research update: I’m barely into the 1800s in this Macintyre book, and I have yet to read some fiction or Aborigine dreamwalking tales, but those are next. Also, the food and music, yes. I’m fairly up to date on films; I’ve seen The Piano, Muriel’s Wedding, Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Strictly Ballroom, and now Love Serenade.

My schedule for the next few weeks involves hosting a couchsurfer, hosting my sisters, and going to England for 12 days. Let’s just say Australia is a freakin’ continent and not just a country, and therefore gets two months. I’ll try to finish up what I can before my England trip, and then when I’m back in March we can talk New Zealand.