If you don’t understand the past, you can’t understand the present. People must have a sense of what has happened in the past to put current actions into context. This is true on the individual and national levels. Some nations have been more successful than others at acknowledge their place in the human story.
To be clear, I’m not saying that one must feel guilt or pride over actions that took place before they were born and that they had nothing to do with. As a white American, I don’t feel guilty about slavery because I never owned a slave. But there is a thing that I call ‘national consciousness;’ it is a type of collective ego, and it very much shapes people’s current views of the world.
For instance, an American cannot, in good conscience, support the ongoing attempted coup in Venezuela if they have an informed understanding of how disastrous US interventions in Latin America have been in the past century or more. The mass acceptance of such interventions is due to a misunderstanding of national sovereignty in America’s collective consciousness. This is largely a result of modern social engineering but also has roots in concepts like the Monroe Doctrine which predate the modern propaganda system.
Take a look at Germany. The German people are very against getting militarily involved abroad. For them, their jurisdiction stops at their own borders. They have internalized their Nazi past, and swastikas and Mein Kamph are now illegal. I think this is a healthy way to look at the German past. Acknowledge the mistakes and learn from them. Move forward as a fair participant in global affairs, no German exceptionalism. It doesn’t mean they should feel ashamed, but just to be aware, and use that awareness to understand the modern world.
Japan is similar but different in some key ways. After WWII, they signed article 9 into their constitution saying that their military cannot operate abroad. This puts them in a proper, objective position on the international stage. The Japanese, however, do not fully acknowledge their wrongdoing in the second world war. They deny the use of Korean ‘comfort women’ and downplay the war crimes in the Rape of Nanking. This has severely hurt their relations with their two most important neighbors: South Korea and China. It has also given China good propaganda fodder. In Chinese WWII movies the Japanese are always depicted as demonic, sub-human creatures. The cycle of Xenophobia continues. And, in Japan, WWII is not universally recognize for the tremendous crime against humanity that it was. It is viewed with shame, but it should be viewed as a window into the worst possible depravities of human nature and a cautionary tale of unchecked groupthink.
America’s reign of terror is ongoing. Perhaps this is partially why it has not yet been internalized by most individuals. The US military is estimated to be responsible for around 12 million deaths since the end of WWII. This is twice as much as the 6 million Imperial Japan is estimated to have killed in WWII; the Germans are probably responsible for more than 20 million deaths in the 1930s and 1940s. So the US’s body count is comparable to Nazi Germany’s and Imperial Japan’s though drawn out over a much longer time frame.
The same forces who killed those 12 million are still in power, so obviously the propaganda machine is not going to promote self reflection. If the Nazis or the Japanese had one WWII, the national consciousness of those countries would be very different today. History, as they say, is written by the victors.
Today in America there are tens of millions of people who think that Russia posting Facebook memes is an unforgivable breech of national sovereignty but have little to no objection of the US declaring an unelected puppet to the presidency of Venezuela. How can such profound cognitive dissonance be the norm? There should be a team of psychologists making it their careers to study this phenomenon. This is a breathtaking achievement of propaganda.
I talked about this in greater detail in Cognitive Dissonance and the Prussian Education Model, but the path of least resistance is to go with the flow. People may have internal doubt about what is happening in the world, but they choose not to voice them, because they don’t want to sound weird and are scared of being called ‘conspiracy theorists.’ I overcame this fear a long time ago. You can call me whatever you want. My friends and family from back home probably find it very odd that someone they know is so vocally anti-murder. On some level, they can probably see the logic in it, but I wonder if any of them publicly admit to agreeing with me.
People also rarely see their natural intuitions reflected back to them in the media. This leads them to question their sanity and mental capacities; they then tend to depend on so called ‘experts’ to explain the world to them. This is a propaganda tactic called ‘gasslighing.’ National ‘news’ outlets around the world have mastered this technique. Trust your own instincts; you are more qualified to understand what is going on in the world than anyone you see of TV or read in the newspaper.
Countries that have gone through civil wars have different demons to deal with. This is especially true when the two apposing sides are ideological or class-based as opposed to geographical. One case is Spain, where I hear that it was not common to talk about the 1930s civil war for at least a generation afterwards; this is because you never knew what side your neighbor was on, so it was easiest to avoid the subject to maintain peace in the community.
My adopted home country of Cambodia is just coming out of that phase now. It has actually been a bonding experience for Cambodians to complain incessantly about the Vietnamese occupation of 1979-89 and ignore the genocide that preceded it. I am seeing changes though. Two years ago I saw someone dress up as Pol Pot for Halloween; I feel like that would have been very taboo a decade ago.
I think most psychologists would agree that it is good to acknowledge your past mistakes instead of repressing those memories. This must also be true in terms of national consciousness. How can you have a healthy and productive dialogue about current affairs without taking the past into account?
It has been proven that the US intelligence agencies have lied to us repeatedly. It was just 2002-3 when they made up the myth of Iraqi WMDs. UN weapons inspectors were in Iraq preparing a report about the lack of WMDs when they were told by the Pentagon to “leave the country now. We are about to start bombing.” You must let that fact sink in. Breathe it in. Let it float around in your brain for a while. Now… how confident are you that they are telling the truth about Assad using chemical weapons when they have presented no evidence and claimed that it was true before any investigation took place? And how confident are you in the credibility of their Russiagate claims for which they have provided no substantive evidence? I know it’s easy just to say, “that was a while ago. This is a different case.” It is a different case perhaps, but it’s the same people. The intelligence agencies weren’t disbanded and rebuilt.
Learn your past. Then take another look at your present.