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Procrustean History: Obama Manipulates the Past to Fit the Narrative

In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a highway robber who tied travelers to his bed and made them fit; if their legs were too short, he stretched them; if they were too long, he cut them off.”

Dictionary of Classical Mythology

President Barack Obama’s famous (or infamous) Cairo address of June 4, 2009, has been subjected to the unrelenting scrutiny of many reputable observers and distinguished political scholars — and found egregiously wanting. It is replete with distortions, fabrications, lacunae, misconceptions, inaccuracies, lies, exaggerations, and outright historical fallacies. There is scarcely a passage without its resident howler. I do not have the space to run through this near-interminable list here — anyone with a decent knowledge of history or ready access to a search engine can trawl for himself — but I will provide two exemplary instances of historical error.

As has been repeatedly pointed out, Obama’s allusion to Islam’s “proud history of tolerance” which can be seen “in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition” is a blooper of major scale. Islam flourished in Cordoba chiefly during the tenth century; the Inquisition began to wreak its havoc toward the end of the fifteenth. If the president can drop five centuries from the historical calendar without skipping a beat, one is surely entitled to suspect the pondered validity of many of his other calculations.

Less conspicuous but no less telling is his blunder respecting the initial, de facto recognition of the United States. For Morocco was not the first country to recognize the U.S., as Obama mistakenly, or disingenuously, claimed. The honor goes to the Netherlands, via its Caribbean dependency of St. Eustatius one year earlier. On November 16, 1776, on the authority of the island’s governor, Johannes de Graaf, an American warship flying the Grand Union Flag was given an armed salute, thus officially recognizing the United States as a sovereign nation. (Some say the Danish island of St. Croix got there several weeks earlier, but the record is unclear.) For this act of lèse majesté St. Eustatius was bombarded by the British. The price paid by this brave little island might have been worth remembering.

Obama is a classic example of a shrewd but poorly educated political impostor who has managed to achieve immense power — not very different, except in the outer gloss, from, say, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. But Obama’s flagrant ignorance, or deliberate rewriting of the historical record, is only an expression of a much larger and indeed commonplace tendency to misconstrue the past in the interest of a set of comfortable preconceptions. This is, at bottom, among the main reasons he was elected: he reflects both the cognitive deprivations and jaundiced mindset of what has come to be called “liberal” culture. And “liberal” culture in the West is pretty much the name of the game these days.

We live in an era in which those who actually know and study history are becoming a vanishing breed. Instead, we embrace “narratives” that play fast and loose with even the most ascertainable facts in order to maintain a favored reading of political and historical events, in other words, to reinforce our prejudices or emotional needs. We do not scruple to invent “truths” if necessary and, as if we were reprising the antics of Procrustes, have no compunction in either racking or dismembering the annals of the past. In the contemporary milieu, it is almost as if having truth on one’s side — demonstrable truth — is a liability or a very weak ally, a highwayman’s quarry.

As a result, the crisis in which the West now finds itself is largely one of its own making and is rooted primarily in the false relation it has entered into with history. Its response to the tangled exigencies of the contemporary world is grounded in a willful and Procrustean tendency to reconfigure the past in such a way as to decomplexify or distort the issues which confront and environ us. In effect, we lay the past upon the iron bed of our received assumptions and then proceed to adjust it to the frame’s dimensions. The past is consequently made to conform to the mold of the West’s majority prejudices while at the same time appearing to offer an explanation for the convolutions of the present — which for this reason remain unamenable to our best efforts at understanding and amelioration.

The process by which we manipulate the historical muniment is twofold, involving on the one hand a selective bracketing of episodes and periods in the life of a nation and on the other a deliberate rewriting of the dynamics at work in the life of a people. History is either politically truncated or mythologically stretched, as it were. And this double process has proven highly effective in creating a climate of obscurity and misapprehension from which, barring a crucial change of mind and heart, it seems unlikely we will emerge. This binary disposition is nowhere so evident as in the popular effigies of America and Israel.

Truncation: Many Americans who came of age in the “revolutionary” 60s still see their country subspecies Vietnamis, refusing to allow that its foreign policy and its projection of power may have changed in the intervening period. Other countries persist in exacting revenge for America’s past sins. Under the ideological leadership of pre-Sarko France — and with some backing from current pseudo-scholarship — the United States the world chooses to remember is that of a renegade British colony that ruthlessly suppressed the indigenous populations in the territory it aggressively claimed as its own. That such means of colonization are common to the entire “civilized” world, including America’s most intransigent critics, is of course never taken into consideration.

Times change as do official government policies, yet America gets no credit for ending the despotic regime of a mass murderer like Saddam Hussein, for attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan and scrubbing out the al-Qaeda bases and training camps which threatened an entire world, or for coming to the defense of Muslim populations in Kuwait, Bosnia, and Kosovo. That the United States is the largest contributor to the budget of the United Nations and shouldered the lion’s share of the relief efforts in tsunami-stricken Southeast Asia does not absolve it from universal disdain. In restricting America to one or another given period in its evolution as a nation and so assigning it a fixed narrative identity, the soi-disant “enlightened” free world cannot accept that America under Reagan, and to some extent under Bush père et fils, had opened a new era in global strategy, making its interests approximately identical with its values.

Of course, the Obama factor may change all that again, and much of the world may begin to turn toward America so long as it continues to turn against itself, adopting the truncated perspective of its challengers and antagonists. Indeed, most of us — not excluding the current president of the United States, who represents not a country but a party — are so mortgaged to a singular and preferential view of the past that we cannot envisage the future which is rapidly foreclosing. Nor can there be much doubt that if America consents to have its legs chopped off to consort with the existing administration’s ideological bed, it will never again stride across the world with the grandeur and conviction that was once its destiny. America is at this very moment in the midst of being crippled beyond recovery, stripped of its seven-league boots, and its on-balance nature as a force for good in the world radically diminished by those who would convert it into a political and economic homunculus. To alter the metaphor slightly, America is on its way to becoming, like Europe, the castrato of the geopolitical opera.

Stretching: Israel, for its part, is perceived as a perennially close ally of the United States, acting as its bridgehead in the Middle East, and is therefore tarred with the same political brush despite the fact that the relationship has often been strained over the years and has recently undergone a severe jolt. One gets the distinct impression that international journalists and left-wing authors would find evidence of joint American and Israeli obliquity in the oracle bones of defunct cultures. Some fantasists even go so far as to reverse the order of precedence in their dearly held quinella relation between the two countries and see America as a policy satellite of Israel. But unlike America’s, Israel’s history, instead of being compactified, is pulled out of shape and refashioned. For Israel is the victim not of a discretionary past in which it is arbitrarily detained, as has happened to the United States, but of an imaginary past with regard to the presumed Jewish role in the chronicles of the human race.

What we might call disrepresentation is the key to this charade, truth reversed, twisted, or deformed into a travesty of itself. Thus, Jews are condemned as usurpers in a land they have continuously inhabited for three and a half millennia. Once again, their image is being photoshopped into a malignant caricature of who and what they are. As for “Palestine,” it is not so much a country or a place as an invention or a myth. In point of fact, a Palestinian entity was only recognized by the Arab countries at the 1974 Rabat Summit Conference. The historical record conclusively shows not only that there was never any such thing as a Palestinian nation, but also that there is no Palestinian ethnicity — in the sense that there is a Jewish or Tibetan ethnicity — and that there was no coherent political grouping known as “Palestinians” until after the 1967 war.

Meanwhile Jews are still denounced as deicides for what was a Roman administrative decision just as they are blamed for displacing the Palestinians, a significant proportion of whom flooded the region during the Mandatory period, the result of a British administrative decision. To borrow a metaphor from anthropologist Grant McCracken, the true history of the Middle East has become the “sunken ship” around which “new species and populations establish themselves” — only these later encrustations are now taken for the ship itself. One could go further and say that a narrative parasite has invaded and surrounded the historical host.

Consequently, that which has no existence on the historical plane has come to assume a central place in the collective imagination of mankind as an actual record of hypothetical events. So ingrained has this mutilation of reality become that even what actually did occur is often dismissed as a partisan illusion: for example, the Holocaust never happened. Similarly, there is almost no recognition of the fact that the world profits enormously from Israeli innovations in technology, medicine, and agriculture, fields in which Israel is a world leader. But to admit this would shatter the myth of Israeli and Jewish turpitude.

This is where we find ourselves today, plying between two ideologically forged conceptions of the historical archive. There is the limited past which, for huge numbers of people, America is not permitted to escape or transcend even though the present may have little in common with it. And there is the fabricated past to which Israel, and Jews in general, have been consigned by the bulk of humanity, leading to the uniform adulteration of the present, whether in the Middle East or on the larger world stage. It is these two strictly contrived versions of the past, one operating as a specific constraint and the other as a widespread counterfeit, which have muddled the present and compromised the future, to the cost of all of us. This is how either selective memory or artificial memory deprives us of the ability to make authentic sense of the contemporary world. Deplorably, we have fallen easy prey to the two principal ways of mangling the historical register, segmentation and revisionism.

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein defined the world as “all that is the case.” This is no less true of the historical record, of all that was the case. But if our knowledge of history remains defective, incomplete, contaminated, or constructed — if it is either amputated or inflated in defiance of “the case” to suit a preconceived mold — we can only expect to suffer what we have imprudently attempted to remake. And the irony is unmistakable. In pursuing a prior agenda rather than seeking to acquire the facts that actually fit the case, which is to say, in editing reality, we do not need to be coerced: we recline on the Procrustean bed of our own volition.

The abridgment and the tall story, the prior expurgation and the distended fiction, always serve as the condition of the current subterfuge. Whether as cause or effect, bad history walks hand in hand with bad faith. And with even worse results.