Monday, September 2, 2013

Whitewashing the Past

It seems that in recent years there has been a trend toward "rehabilitating" the crimes of the twentieth century--Stalinism in Russia, or colonialism in France, or in Japan, the nation's conduct in World War II. The record of empire is being sanitized, the atrocities expunged.

One does not have to wonder long as to why this is the case. These have been years of discontent, with the economic and social stresses long building up through the age of neoliberal globalization coming to a head in 2008, resulting in unemployment and austerity not seen in the major countries in generations. With the political left moribund, this has flung the door wide open to rightist populism, weak on bread and butter issues but very vocal about cultural and symbolic issues--like having schools teach versions of history that bolster the standing of traditional elites and traditional values rather than what actually happened, talking tough on the international stage, and carrying (and using) a big stick.

And of course, the same stresses seem to have led to a greater readiness to use the military instrument--France more active again in Africa and opening up a base in the Persian Gulf, Germany unprecedentedly interventionist in such scenes as the Syrian and Malian civil wars, and China and Japan behaving more confrontationally toward one another over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. There is even fear of disorder inside the industrialized world, taken seriously enough in some quarters that earlier this year the Swiss Army conducted an exercise aimed at holding back the flow of refugees a meltdown of the eurozone might produce (while I leave it to the reader to guess at the significance of the German legal decision permitting the armed forces to use its weapons on the country's soil in a domestic emergency). This is all easier to do when the use of force and the threat of force is seen as politically legitimate, something easier to achieve with a bowdlerized version of how a nation has employed force in the past.

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