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July 8 , 2011           

Is history good for you?

It seems I have embarked on a series again, since yesterday I asked "Is satire good for you?" and the day before that "Is religion good for you?".


1. History
2. Videos - China, Russia, Germany
3. A note on totalitarianism

1. History

Today the same question is asked about history, indeed for the same sort of reason as produced the other two: I found some interesting stuff on Youtube, related to the question.

Of course, "history" is an ambiguous term, in various ways also, and most importantly so as being ambiguous between (i) the real facts (of some kind) in the past, and (ii) the story or stories told about these real facts.

In fact, what one gets as a purported reconstruction - retelling, summary, interpretation, study - of the real facts is always a story of some kind, that well may be false, misleading, biased, or propaganda, and usually is all of these things to some extent, and most especially, however factually correct, is partial in being selective, incomplete, and told from some perspective, honest or not, partial or not.

Then again, that is the nature of the thing, and that histories, as told, written or filmed, must be selective and incomplete, does not mean that there is no historical truth, no fact of the matter, but only that one must take care, and that it is generally wise to consider several histories and historians on the same subject.

Also, as I pointed out earlier in Nederlog, in the context of reporting on a long documentary about The Beatles and The Sixties, the 20th Century, for all its horrors - "The Century of Total War", as Raymond Aron called it, and also used as title for one of his books - has an advantage over all previous ones, especially for history and historians:

It was recorded, photographed and filmed, for all manner of ends and reasons, and therefore, however biased much of it must be, the 20th Century is the first century where one can see "history as it really was" (I think I am quoting an ideal of the 19th century German historian Von Ranke), to an approximation earlier history, in the sense of: reports of what events were like - retold, possibly but rarely painted or drawn - cannot get close to.

More precisely, one can see ordinary people doing ordinary things, mostly without posing, or at least not as in directed movies with actors, and get some sort of idea of what it must have been like, then and there, in front of where the camera was working.

But first to answer my question in the title, by a quotation from the lemma history in my Philosophical Dictionary:

If you want to know what human beings are, have been, and may be, in majority, minority and individually, you have to learn human history, if only to learn about the sort of mistakes that can be avoided, and how human beings behaved in fact, which is usually quite unlike their ideology makes them say or think they did.

Here I tacitly assumed that what happened in the past can and has been retold with sufficient clarity, honesty and truth to know what people were like - how they lived, thought, felt, behaved, how they were governed, what they believed and practised, how riches were divided, and what sort of civilization they lived in, and indeed also did not assume at all that is easy, or that all or most written or told history is impartial, unbiased, and undistorted.

But yes - history is good for you if you want to acquire factually based ideas about what men, women, human societies, and human leaders may be like, for better or for worse. Then again, what it will teach you, if you get the real thing, so to speak, was summarized by Bayle and Gibbon in terms like this

“Man is wicked and unhappy; everywhere prisons, hospitals, gibbets and beggars; history, properly speaking, is nothing but a collection of the crimes and misfortunes of mankind.”

And if the "nothing but" is an overstatement in various senses, much of human history consists of horrors:

Mass-murders committed for no rational reason at all; slavery and exploitation for centuries on end, for no better reason than the hardness of heart and the personal gain or interest  of those who engaged in it; and mankind everywhere in the thrall of unfounded false religious, political and natural beliefs and acting for irrealizable or grossly immoral ends (*).

2. Videos - China, Russia, Germany

So... here are links to several quite interesting series on Youtube, about China, Russia and Germany, indeed three countries with three dictators in the 20th Century:

This is an interesting documentary series on those years, which are the years between the collapse of the Chinese empire, and the beginning of Chinese communism.

It seems well done, and one of the interesting things is that there turns out to be rather a lot of film footage from those years, including Sun Yat Sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Tse Tung, and ordinary people going about their business, or being shot.

As far as I can make out, it is some 20 years old, which also applies to the following items about Russia, also series of videos on Youtube:

The first is a series that apparently was an English TV-documentary, and has quite a lot of footage I had no idea existed: Beria talking in front of an enormous picture of Beria; lots of footage of Stalin, Molotov, and cronies; and much more.

The second seems to be parts of a long film with even more material, as far as I can see produced in Russia ca. 1991, with footage of Yagoda, Yezhov, and Beria that are a lot closer to the real Stalin than the propaganda of Stalin.

There is more of the last series in the following links

There is overlap in these items, and also sometimes the same footage gets used twice to illustrate different points, but then it is all quite interesting, if also quite frightening in various ways, and all definitely not from the perspective of Lovers Of Stalin (for whom see the beginning of the third item).

One reason I found this material is that I have been rereading parts of Montefiore's "Stalin - The Court of the Red Tsar", and went looking on the net. Montefiore's book gets mostly supported by the above items, and I briefly reviewed the book in 2009, in Dutch. This is probably the book to read, together with Anne Applebaum's "Gulag - A History" (<- My brief Dutch Review) if you want to read about Stalinism (and did not read these books yet - and there is, of course, much more).

Finally, to Germany and Hitler. I was rather amazed - not having TV since 1970: others may be less amazed - to find this:

This seems to be a long TV-documentary, and the amazing thing is that it is all in colour (aka color for US spellers), which makes it more realistic looking. The footage is quite astounding and it is a pity that the soundtrack is a bit too operatic - let's say - for my tastes: Lots of ominous music; firing canons; and all reported German speech eest weez an akzent - except that the actors usually don't know German (as transpires when they have to pronounce German names).

The colour footage is quite amazing, and kept up all through the series.

3. A note on totalitarianism

As it happens, one set of reasons I am interested in this material is that I come from a Dutch communist family (<- Dutch) - while I gave that political faith up in 1970, precisely when many of my age turned to it, in the wake of The Sixties and the student revolts of those years.

I gave it up for both theoretical and moral reasons that have rather a lot to do with totalitarianism (<-Wikipedia), that I never liked, not even as a child (**).

The item on totalitarianism in the Wikipedia I just linked starts thus - and I quote from Wikipedia as found today, with links retained, except for the notes to the originals:

Totalitarianism (or totalitarian rule) is a political system where the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible.[1] Totalitarian regimes stay in political power through an all-encompassing propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, a single party that is often marked by personality cultism, control over the economy, regulation and restriction of speech, mass surveillance, and widespread use of terror.

This is fair enough as a description of Stalinism, Nazism, Fascism, Maoism, and related political systems, but it is not really clear about its foundations in human psychology and groupthinking.

Indeed, the same item has lower down the following, with first a statement that mostly conforms to the quote just given:

The political scientists Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski were primarily responsible for expanding the usage of the term in university social science and professional research, reformulating it as a paradigm for the communist Soviet Union as well as fascist regimes. For Friedrich and Brzezinski, the defining elements were intended to be taken as a mutually supportive organic entity composed of the following: an elaborating guiding ideology; a single mass party, typically led by a dictator; a system of terror; a monopoly of the means of communication and physical force; and central direction, and control of the economy through state planning. Such regimes had initial origins in the chaos that followed in the wake of World War I, at which point the sophistication of modern weapons and communications enabled totalitarian movements to consolidate power.

This then is followed by an opposing more psychological view:

The German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher, whose work is primarily concerned with Nazi Germany, argues that the "totalitarian typology" as developed by Friedrich and Brzezinski is an excessively inflexible model, and failed to consider the “revolutionary dynamic” that Bracher asserts is at the heart of totalitarianism.[10] Bracher maintains that the essence of totalitarianism is the total claim to control and remake all aspects of society combined with an all-embracing ideology, the value on authoritarian leadership, and the pretence of the common identity of state and society, which distinguished the totalitarian "closed" understanding of politics from the "open" democratic understanding.[10] Unlike the Friedrich-Brzezinski definition Bracher argued that totalitarian regimes did not require a single leader and could function with a collective leadership, which led the American historian Walter Laqueur to argue that Bracher's definition seemed to fit reality better than the Friedrich-Brzezinski definition

Indeed - and from my point of view totalitarianism is a human mind-set, a human weakness, that is closely akin to groupthinking, and clearly present not only in politics but also in religion, and that also has rather a lot to do with human average intelligence, that gets easily deluded and deceived by propaganda of all kinds, and that also easily identifies what is moral with what satisfies the leaders or the ideology of the group they are part of.

And I'd say this gets illustrated by the videos I linked - which all impicitly pose one fascinating question that gets not asked implicitly, although it clearly should be, as it is highly relevant to the tales told:

Why have ordinary men and women, time and again, all through human history, have been for the most part the willing executioners of their political or religious leaders, and the eager dupes of crude propaganda?

The answers must be along the lines that (1) average human intelligence is sufficient to make average people conform - proudly and morally - to social, political, and religious ideologies, norms and teachings, but not to see through them, often not even when they are blatantly false or immoral (*); (2) for average human beings, the morally good more or less coincides, most of the time, with conforming to the ideology and ends of the groups they are members of; and (3) this is true for both politics and religion - which is to say that neither of these is fit for constraining the other, especially as both of these are founded in practice on groupthinking, conformism, lack of intelligence, wishful thinking and propaganda by political and religious leaders.

(*) "Immoral" in the sense that the things people did to other people who were not members of their own group would be considered grossly immoral by themselves if done by them to members of their own groups, or by others of any group to them - and indeed, here is the rub and the human weakness:

"Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there is almost no outrage - torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonments without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians, which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by 'our' side." (The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol 3, p. 419, written in May 1945.)

See Groupthinking.

(**) In 1964, having just turned 14, I was only not thrown out of the socialist German Democratic Republic, after having insisted repeatedly in public that it struck me as "fascist bullshit" - because children were supposed to form military poses and praise Leonid Brehznev in public, both of which I thought totally ridiculous and unreasonable - because I fell ill, had to be hospitalized there, and was not German but Dutch, and my communist father had spent time in the German concentration-camp Sachsenhausen with communist Germans turned minister of the GDR in 1964.

In the end, it all was probably mostly due on my part with being uncommonly intelligent and honest, and quite naive - but at the time I was quite amazed no one saw what I thought was as obvious as colours, though - of course - at least some of the adult East Germans there probably saw what I saw at least as well as I did, but also knew that giving voice to it was very dangerous, which I did not know at the time, as I was 14.

Then again, the Dutchmen in my group, all between 14 and 20, also claimed I was mistaken, impolite, and impertinent, and had no respect.

P.S. Corrections, if any are necessary, have to be made later.

As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):

1.  Anthony Komaroff Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS (pdf)
3.  Hillary Johnson The Why
4.  Consensus of M.D.s Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf)
5.   Eleanor Stein Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)
6.  William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
7.  Paul Lutus

Is Psychology a Science?

8.  Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
 Maarten Maartensz
ME in Amsterdam - surviving in Amsterdam with ME (Dutch)
 Maarten Maartensz Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

Short descriptions of the above:                

1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understands ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:

7. A space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
8. Malcolm Hooper puts things together status 2010.
9. I tell my story of surviving (so far) in Amsterdam with ME.
10. The directory on my site about ME.

See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources
The last has many files, all on my site to keep them accessible.

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