[ by Charles Cameron ]
Some people’s — and more to the point, some peoples’ — living memory appears to be longer than others. China, for instance, has what you might call long term living memory.
But first, the Crusades. When Bush 43 first used the word “crusade” in reference to the US response to 9/11, I went to Google and checked, and the first listing for “crusade against” that came up was to The Crusade Against Dental Amalgam. I’m the suspicious type, and as I suspected, the word “crusade” simply doesn’t have the same valence for most twenty-first century Americans that it has for many in the twenty-first century Arab world. In the US, a crusade is a concerted effort to change just about anything, the use of mercury in dental fillings being just one example.
Across the Arab world, however, the word has very different connotations: thus Amin Maalouf writes in The Crusades through Arab Eyes:
The Turk Mehmet Ali Agca, who tried to shoot the pope on 13 May 1981, had expressed himself in a letter in these terms: I have decided to kill John Paul II, supreme commander of the Crusades. Beyond this individual act, it seems clear that the Arab East still sees the West as a natural enemy. Against that enemy, any hostile action — be it political, military, or based on oil — is considered no more than legitimate vengeance. And there can be no doubt that the schism between the two worlds dates from the Crusades, deeply felt by the Arabs, even today, as an act of rape.
That’s long term living memory for you.
I’m writing this because I just read a fascinating article by Robert Barnett on the New York Review of Books blog titled The Dalai Lama’s ‘Deception’: Why a Seventeenth-Century Decree Matters to Beijing — need I say more?
The title will suffice for those who don’t have much time today — I understand, we’re all under the fire-hose one way or another — while those with the ability to sneak in ten or fifteen minutes laterally while the clock’s not watching can and should definitely read the whole thing…
I have just one side-observation though — the article tells us, among many other things directly relating to Tibet and the history of the Dalai Lamas:
And again, when Jiang Zemin made a brutal decision to annihilate the basically harmless Falungong cult in 1999, it is believed that he saw it as analogous to the religious movement that had started the Taiping Rebellion and nearly toppled the Qing in the mid-19th century.
I think that’s right — but what Barnett doesn’t mention, since Taiping is only an aside for him, is that the rebellion was only eventually quelled at the cost of between twenty and thirty million lives…
I mentioned my own hunch that memories of Taiping were behind the Chinese government’s fierce response to Falun Gong in question time after Ali A Allawi‘s talk on Mahdist movements in Iraq at the Jamestown Foundation a few years back, and he responded that similarly, the reason the Iraqi government took such fierce action against a small Mahdist uprising near Najaf — even calling in US air support as I recall, for an incident perhaps best compared in US terms with Waco — was that they remembered the Babi movement in their own neck of the woods, and the tens of thousands who died back in the 1850s, around the same time as the Taiping in China.
Living memory — which could almost be a definition of history, or at least of what historical research aims to create — can itself be long term or short, perishable or perennial.
And then there’s Psalm 90, which declares “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.”
Now (and I’m being playful here, albeit with a touch of serious intent) does that suggest a Memory that reaches back in perfect detail through the eons to the Big Bang and perhaps before it? Or … “twentieth century? nineteenth? the Crusades?.. it’s all a bit of a blur, I’m afraid — it all rushes by so fast…”
There seems to be a choice set before us as individuals — and more to the point, as peoples:
Shall we choose Lethe, and the restfulness of oblivion, or Mnemosyne — the mother of all Muses? There are, you know, immediate educational implications, and serious geopolitical implications down the road, for the choice we make…