Good people won’t save the world

This piece is a response to the article How History Can Save the World, published Feb. 15. We take umbrage with its somewhat naive view of history as a discipline and its use in transformative and emancipatory processes. While we agree that history is valuable and holds the potential to help people understand and solve contemporary problems, we don’t feel that it is something that should be passively absorbed and repeated, regardless of how well one can empathize with others. History might make you a better person, but good people won’t save the world – or to be more precise, they won’t be enough.

History is more than the abstract study of the past – it is fundamentally its reattachment to the present. If history can change the world, it is by questioning the ideas and sequences of events we perceive to be true and asking why things are the way they are. It is by unmasking false constructions that justify oppression, presenting examples of more just alternatives, or pointing to the simple possibility of change that history can make a difference. The personal revelation that you share some human commonality with a medieval monk or Han peasant is valuable, but means little on a broader scale. A good historian is one who, in the translated words of the French-Canadian philosopher Pierre Vadeboncœur, “tears down monuments to reveal the maggots crawling under them.”

We oppose the notion that humanity can only be raised by goodness alone. Humanity is raised and prevented from falling by the elevation of material conditions that allow for its free development. The sentiment that motivates those who elevate those material conditions, or the profound goodness of their soul, is utterly irrelevant. Spartacus will always be greater than Christ, Toussaint Louverture always a thousand times a better herald of human civilization than Mother Teresa, each member of the International Brigade worth more than every missionary.

What we are saying is that the perceived goodness of a person, their moral code or their ability to relate to experiences that are not their own are all insignificant in comparison to their actions. For historians, this translates to what they choose to represent and how they represent it. It is indecent to talk about the colonization of the Americas without speaking of genocide, about Athenian democracy without speaking of misogyny, and about the vast majority of human society without putting at its forefront the immense masses of exploited labourers, be they slaves, serfs or wage proletariat, and to reduce their struggles for justice to bloody footnotes in history books. History is not a neutral discipline. History is powerful and it is interpretive – by necessity its readers and writers must take a side and have an opinion. History is not something that easily unites us under a common banner of humanity. Instead, it’s something we can use to mark the battle line of future rebellions for those whose humanity is still denied.

Historians interpret the past, but what matters is making the future.

Disclaimer: Minnow Holtz-Carriere is a news editor.

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