In January of 2012, The Rothko Chapel hosted internationally acclaimed Pakistani writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali. Oliver Stone engaged with Tariq Ali in a probing, hard-hitting conversation on the forces that shape history and how that history gets told. The book On History chronicles their dialogue and brings to light a number of forgotten episodes of American history. Tariq Ali shared provocative insights from the book in front of a packed auditory.
By Tariq Ali
Illustration: Eunkyung Kang
Oliver Stone is making a set of ten documentaries for Showtime called The Untold History of the United States. In the course of making those films, he interviewed me specifically about the 20th Century for about seven or eight hours. The essence of what I said is what is contained in the book On History. We talked about how history has been devalued in the world, of how people have become almost frightened of history. Essentially, the elite groups that rule this world, not simply in the United States, are not interested in history. For a long time within academic institutions, history is being downgraded too. In Britain, entire history departments have been closed down. In older universities, they are not teaching anything but 20th Century history. Nobody can understand contemporary history without understanding the preceding centuries’ history. It is a very narrow vision of the world, and this suits certain people. My point is that History has not simply disappeared; it is often used badly and abused.
A starting point has to be the idea that the historical process is not linear. It goes up and down. Progress, rationalization, defeat, the rise of irrationalism, certainly for the last thousand years... There is nothing pre-ordained that says history has to progress and take the world with it. That is important to understand, though of course the technological and scientific processes that have turned the world are difficult to turn back. I am talking about politics and sociology where it is perfectly easy, as we have seen, to reverse the status quo for the sake of what has been considered to be for the general good. Roosevelt’s New Deal, for instance, was taken for granted once it had been established. People assumed that was fine and moved forward. This was not only the case in the United States, it was the case for most European countries after the Second World War where there was some form of social democracy, or governments which said that certain elementary things had to be achieved because the people had been through too much. For the most part in Europe, this meant subsidized housing, free health, free medicine, subsidized public transport and utilities. All were controlled by the state to make life better for those who needed it to be made better. There was no actual health service as such, and attempts create one failed—even Nixon had a very good health program that was defeated by the resistance of the medical professionals. The world created after WWII is now gone.
A new consensus emerged from the Reagan and Thatcher years: the dogma or fundamentalist idea that the state cannot be allowed to do anything for ordinary people. That it is not the right of the state to intervene in any way, and that the market was the only determining factor and would essentially be able to solve the problems of humankind. People have forgotten—especially the younger generations who have grown up in the last twenty to twenty-five years—what it used to be like in the realm of social and political changes that took place, and many people have even forgotten how much better, in a number of ways, the culture of society used to be. The plays that were put on, the films that were made, the books that were read and encouraged—all of this used to be much better and, incidentally, much more diverse than it is today. Of course, to find the reason for that, we must look in history. The principal enemy of the Western powers of the time as they perceived it, was a particularly ruthless, distorted, degenerated and bureaucratic form of communism which forbade these essential freedoms, did not permit diversity of thought, segregated people for having different views and which executed people without trials or due process of the law. Against that particular political structure, the Western world, under the leadership of the United States, wanted to show what it could be like. That 70 year gap produced some of the most creative things in western society, but with the defeat of that political system and its disappearance or implosion, it was no longer necessary to be that creative. Societies all over the capitalist world are returning to what they used to be in some ways prior to WWI. Where this becomes very noticeable is after the Wall Street crash of 2008.
This crash continues to affect, not only the US, but also the entire world. Europe is in a total mess, as are other parts of the world. This particular economic crisis arose from the practice of creating money and using said money to make more money. It is very unproductive and based on fictitious capital. What happens when this crisis takes place? Was the market allowed to determine how the crisis took shape? No. Had the market been allowed to determine the outcome, a lot of banks would have gone under. The reason they did not want those banks to go under was not because of the small shareholders or depositors of those banks, but because huge amounts of money were involved. It was almost as if the cycle had come full circle. The state had denounced and attacked for years this particular system, and then it poured billions of taxpayers’ money to save these banks without ever considering the people. Therefore, the question that should be raised is: if the state can be used to bail out the rich, why should not it be used to bail out the poor?
The government carries on as if nothing has happened, while four of the top economies of the world are arguing that this is sticking plaster at best and that the economy is going to fall apart if everything carries on like this. The lessons of history have been forgotten. One reason people cannot come up with any alternatives or advocate for them is because they do not know them. That poses a problem on a very fundamental level concerning the necessity of learning from and understanding history.
History can also be abused. One way is by, of course, forgetting it all. Another way is by inventing mythologies to justify current policies, whatever they may be. One very striking example of this is the case of Israel. A very distinguished Israeli historian, Shlomo Sand at Tel Aviv University, wrote a book that created a storm of controversy. He became a bestseller in Israel. It just took the country by storm, and it took some time before it was published in the West, but it eventually was. He essentially deconstructed all of the myths of Zionism and prevented their use for the justification of the existence of Israel. To be clear, Israel is here to stay and all citizens of Israel, whether they be Jews, Palestinian-Arabs, Christians, and Muslims should have the same rights. The right of return should be stopped. However, in order to put this argument forward, he really did a lot of historical and anthropological work. He argued that after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, contrary to mythology, there was no expulsion of Jews in the region. He pointed out, correctly, that the Romans were not in the habit of expelling people from the lands that they conquered because they needed people to cultivate the area. Not only were there no expulsions, but there were Jewish communities numbering up to 4 million people (which was large for that time) in Persia, Egypt, Asia minor, and elsewhere. He argued that there notion was a notion of a separation of the Jewish faith that was actually a reform movement, known as Christianity. Therefore the idea that there was a proselytization is totally false. Many people were converted and some others some converted themselves. The Ashkenazi Jews in particular grew out the mass conversions on the edge of the Caspian Sea between the 7th and 10th Centuries of the Khazars. They finally adopted Hebrew and converted to a more wholesale Judaism. The Ashkenazi Jews were the people in the ghettos of Europe, and who suffered under the Holocaust. These are those people who descended from the Khazars. They are the people who compose the bulk of the Zionist movement, who had absolutely no connection to the Arab lands at all. If Palestine is not the unique ancestral homeland of the Jews, what happened to all the Jews in these countries? He says by and large in their majority, they converted to Islam—most of them, not all of them, as many other people did in that region at the time. The Palestinians, who we have been expelling and oppressing, are the direct descendants of the Jews supposedly expelled. This is a remarkable book and it is creating a huge debate. The debate, he says, is not in Israel. It is interesting, most Israeli historians accept this as accurate. Their response to Sand is that every nation creates its own mythology, and ask what the big deal is. Well, this also true, but this mythology is very potent and powerful because of the conflict it has unleashed that is still going on. No one would mind the mythology if everything had been settled and some agreement had been reached. But because it hasn’t, it becomes a very disruptive force. Shlomo Sand himself is by no means a radical figure. He says he is not a hardcore Zionist, but he believes in Israel. He thinks all citizens should have equal rights so they cannot prohibit Palestinians to come back to lands that were taken away from them while telling Jews, wherever they may be in whatever part of the world, that they can come whenever they want. The reason he wrote the book was to fight for equality. The big attacks on the book have come from the Diaspora. The New York Times ran a big review of it that created a huge controversy. In France and Britain there was some controversy, but by and large it was mostly accepted. The historians who reviewed the book said it was accurate. However, the Diaspora was angry that this had even been said, to which Sand replied, "If you are so keen on saying I’m wrong and what I’m doing is harming Israel, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and leave the Diaspora and come and settle in Israel?”
This is an example of how history is being abused, and the abuse is triggering a huge and very creative debate. However, debates and books alone do not sway the minds of powerful politicians or rulers, because ultimately they do not rule on the basis of myths—the myths are to keep the people in line. They rule for other reasons: to keep themselves in power, to keep control of society as it is.
The failure to understand what has happened over the last two centuries makes people accept some of the things going on today. The 19th and 20th Centuries were the periods when European imperial powers more or less dominated the world: Africa, Asia, and then North America for a while. The British were the largest empire in the world, and then France followed soon after. The Germans wanted their share, which triggered two world wars. No one at that point in time within the political classes of any of the European countries questioned occupying large tracts of the world. They thought they were bringing civilization to it. That was a widely-held view. It was only in the 20th Century that nationalist movements erupted and began to find support in the metropolitan imperial countries amongst minorities. It was well accepted. Might is right and might is also civilization. I’ve always liked the reply by Gandhi to an American journalist who asked him what was his view on Western Civilization. He said, “I think it would be a good idea.” It’s very simply stated but very understandable, because the people who suffered under them didn’t see them as civilized empires.
Contrary to some aphorisms coined by some of the great philosophers of the past, history very rarely repeats itself. In fact, it never repeats itself, it echoes. And these historical echoes are extremely important wherever and however they come. These echoes are never a repetition as such. What is happening in the 21st Century is essentially an old fashioned struggle for mastery of the world occurring in new conditions. The struggle takes place with a unique situation that has never existed in the world at any time since humanity began, which is the domination of the world militarily by one single power. There have been different powers in the past. Romans were all-powerful, but they were in the Mediterranean. They fought the Persian Empire, which they knew and recognized. They did not even know what the Chinese were doing or how much more advanced Chinese civilization was compared to them. In today's world, the U.S. is the single most important power, largely because of its military strength. It has more military power than the next hundred countries put together. Therefore, the notion that it can be challenged militarily by another state is unthinkable. The only way it can be challenged is when it occupies a country and the people fight back, as it has happened to a certain extent in Iraq and in a very big extent in Afghanistan. Contrary to the European Imperialist model, the U.S. imperial reach has ruled through indirect relays, whether it is through the military in one country or politicians aligned with them in another. That is traditionally the way the U.S. has had a presence in Latin American dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and others throughout the Cold War. They do not like to occupy countries, but that has by and large remained the pattern of American hegemony today.