I am European. Right now, in the murky depths of a campaign that has spilled into violence, I feel dislocated from my own country, a place I love and cherish through an increasing fog of worry and anger. But more than ever, I feel European.
I am an archaeologist. I spend my life delving into the dark, clouded corners of our human story. I tease the mud from the pots and bones, I draw the ink from the archives. I set them in order. I build an understanding, a narrative. I help to weave many histories. And always, I seek to put the present in perspective.
The events of Thursday were a hammer-blow to my faith in humankind. And so, seeking answers, I turn to the man who taught me that moral optimism is a position worth defending: Michel-Rolph Trouillot. A refugee fleeing Duvalier’s Haiti, a New York taxi driver, an anthropologist, historian, and cultural dynamo among the Haitian diaspora, he published a history of the Haitian revolution in Creole, the first ever non-fiction book in that language. He knew tyranny. And better than any commentator before or since, he unpicked the dangerous seam between past and history, control and silence, authenticity and manipulation.
“As various crises of our times impinge upon identities thought to be long-established or silent, we move closer to the era when professional historians will have to position themselves more clearly within the present, lest politicians, magnates, or ethnic leaders alone write history for them” (Trouillot 1995: 152)
That era, it seems, has arrived. So here goes. I set out my stall.
We have been an island for just 8000 years. That is less than 1/5 of the span of modern human history in Europe. Our island story has its roots across the channel.
But that was then, and this is now, people say. We need to take our country back. Back, presumably, to some date at which a line in the sand can be drawn. A point of self-reliance? A point of pride? Some point of peak Britishness? It’s the ‘back’ that pinpoints the malaise. Replace it with ‘away’ and the argument shifts, but the headlines, the Question Time audience, the Facebook comments, bark “back“. I’m sure every Leave voter could pick a point in the past at which, for them, the pendulum swung, and it’s insulting to dismiss that sentiment as ‘nostalgia’.
But here’s the problem: the past is not history. No set of circumstances can be considered in isolation, no point in time can be captured as a freeze-frame. Context is all. And for context, we need the historical narrative. The debate is not short on narratives – let’s look to the invocation of the spirit of Winston Churchill by both Leave and Remain. Churchill expressed many views over the course of his life: these are moments, dots on a roadmap. But the historical context is stripped bare, as words are rendered into meme or soundbite, tawdrily shoehorned next to a heavy-jowled photograph to fit into a twitter preview pane.
“Historical authenticity resides not in the fidelity to an alleged past but in an honesty vis-à-vis the present as it re-presents the past” (Trouillot 1995: 148)
In comparing European unification under the EU to Hitler’s expansionism, Boris Johnson fell woefully short of authenticity. “A historian’s point”, Chris Grayling defended, but Boris is no historian; his chief contribution to the pursuit of historical veracity was to get himself fired from The Times for falsification. His appropriation of history cannot go unchallenged. Less than 24 hours after Jo Cox’s death, against a incongruous backdrop of flashbulbs and parquet flooring, a German court convicted Reinhold Hanning of being an accessory to the murder of at least 170,000 people at Auschwitz. It may be one of the last such trials. Four survivors bore witness. They knew tyranny.
“Any historical narrative is a bundle of silences.” (Trouillot 1995: 27)
Those four are the exception. The majority are represented by silence, by absence. The obsession with Churchill is a symptom of a malaise: of the assumption that historical narratives are to be found and read in the letters of great, white, old men. That’s one narrative. The rest are built, and fought, and contested in the spaces between the lines on a page, and are no less valuable for being hidden from sight.
The most powerful of the silences, in this debate, are the voices of those lost in conflict. Ours is the first century for millennia in which war between European polities has not ravaged the continent, and the European Union is the living embodiment of that commitment to one another. This is the context. Forget cheap memes, forget wildly speculative economics, forget paper-thin accusations of unelected bureaucrats: our history is the thread that binds us. Human beings have a remarkable capacity to adapt, to forget, to move on, but:
“our contemporary arrogance… overplays the uniqueness of our times… [and] may blind us to the dimensions of what happened before we were born” ( Trouillot 2003:29).
I grew up in an atmosphere of European harmony. Everywhere I have been in Europe, I have been warmly welcomed with open arms. As a teenager and student, I spent wonderful times working in international summer schools, in which the hundreds of students I had the privilege to meet taught me, as Jo Cox firmly believed, that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us. On 23rd June, I will walk into a Church Hall to cast my vote, enveloped by the weight of the memorials to those who trod the same path, left to fight Europe’s wars, and never returned. I will vote to Remain. And I will do so in the knowledge that:
“…deeds and words are not as distinguishable as we often presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands.” (Trouillot 1995: 153)
And I will do so in the hope that those whose motives are insular and divisive are outnumbered by those of us who take history into our hands in a spirit of optimism, cooperation and unity.