We, Who are Trapped by the Past: Phobias, Pathologies, & the Principled Rejection of History


Mourners observe the body of slain Salvadoran Archbishop Romero

Centuries of anthropological research has demonstrated that the human being is a complex organism. More than any other living creature the human being is a plethora of fears, urges, inhibitions, and grievances. Attempts to confine this vast array of forces into a single system of thought would not only prove futile but undoubtedly foolish. Fortunately, the diversities of culture, custom, and communal activity have provided us with methods to decipher, at least in part, the stifling complexity of the human condition. The axis about which these methodologies rotate is the axis of history. Without a doubt, the notion chiefly attributed to schools of empiricism ought to hold true today. This is the simple notion that any observation of earthly phenomena and the conclusions drawn from these observations, must take place within a framework that is causal and or temporal. More importantly, this taking into account of causality shows that the phenomena observed are inseparable from this stream of cause and effect . In short, all that exists is a direct product of the past.

 I’m sure you’re thinking “why is he going on about ideas that are understood by virtually everyone with a functioning cortex? Of course one cannot make observations independently of a cause!” This frustration would be legitimate but only if this understanding of basic principles of science were truly unanimous. Indeed, not “everyone” believes that observations have to be made within a framework of causality. In fact, some people, particularly people of privilege, believe that causality is not only unnecessary but it can oftentimes hinder one’s ability to live freely. Constantly, these people are eluding the pensive gaze of history while possessed with the phobia that it will one day attack them. Alas, history in its most sinister manifestations will not only attack them. It will trap them!

 Examples of these kinds of people, those privileged few who possess the astonishing ability to discard history, are not hard to find. Incidentally, our President happens to be a card carrying member of this distinguished circle.

 Three days ago President Barack Obama concluded his tour of Latin America, a region of the world that was able to lift itself out of a legacy of terror and brutality after severing ties with its imperialist neighbor to the north. One of the last countries Obama visited was the Republic of Chile, home of the late Salvador Allende who was overthrown and killed in  a CIA backed coup d’etat on September 11, 1973 after he committed the heresy of speaking out in favor of the workers of Chile, an intolerable assault on the prerogatives of empire.

Chilean President Salvador Allende moments before his death

 In spite of our acrobatic attempts to evade any remembrance of our complicity in this atrocity, the blood spilled on that dark day 37 years ago is still fresh in the minds of the Chilean people. This could not have been more apparent on March 24th during one of the press conferences when a Chilean reporter  asked the President the following question:

In Chile, President Obama, there are some open wounds of the dictatorship of General Pinochet. In that sense, leaders, political leaders, leaders of the world of human rights, and even members of parliament, the son of murdered Orlando Letelier, the foreign minister, have said that many of these wounds have to do with the United States. I ask you: our justices [are] investigating cases of Allende and the death of Eduardo Frei Montalva; in that new speech that you will announce, do you include that the U.S. is willing to collaborate with those judicial investigations, even that the United States is willing to ask for forgiveness for what it did during those difficult years in the 1970s in Chile?

 As the reporter asked this question I’m sure our President was seized by a overwhelming urge to flee. Once again, the undying cries of history were trying to infiltrate his sanctuary of power where democracy is compatible with oppression, economic development with poverty, and Nobel Peace Prizes with war. He had to do something! History, standing upright with tensed muscles and exposed teeth was ready to lunge!  Faced with an imminent assault by historical truth the President delivered a measured and calculated response. Faithful to the tradition of diplomatic sugarcoating and institutionalized hypocrisy Obama spoke:

I think it’s very important for all of us to know our history. And obviously, the history of relations between the United States and Latin America have at times been extremely rocky and have at times been difficult. I think it’s important, though, for us, even as we understand our history and gain clarity about our history, that we’re not trapped by our history. And the fact of the matter is, is that over the last two decades we’ve seen extraordinary progress here in Chile, and that has not been impeded by the United States, but in fact has been fully supported by the United States.

 Indeed, as the President says “it’s important for all of us to know our history notwithstanding a slight qualification of course. That qualification being that the history be a history of conquest and not of the conquered, of the “developed” world and not the developing world, of the liberators and not the “terrorists”, of the empire and not those who writhe under its bloody boot. In America its important to know our history insofar as that history prevents us from knowing ourselves. Abstractions and phantasms are welcome to enter but concrete realities must remain outside the empire’s door. Why let reality in? It, like history, will “trap” you!

Chiles La Moneda Presidential Palace on Septemper 11, 1973

 History, regardless of what the leader of the “free world” believes, does not trap the human being. To the contrary, history, more than the childish games of world leaders, is that which emancipates the human being. President Obama, a man with a Harvard education, surely should be beyond the intellectual cowardice of historical amnesia, the pathological fear of the past, and the irrational fear of honesty. He should be able to confront the uncontroversial fact that “in 1954 the United States intervened violently in Guatemala to crush a democratically elected government and restore a dictatorship in order to protect banana interests in the United Fruit Company” or that the United States supported fascist organizations in Chile like the Patria y Libertad in an attempt to undermine Chilean democracy. This man of culture and refinement should be able to wrestle with the fact that the United States has cultivated a legacy of authoritarianism in the Middle East, a fact that is exploding in his face as I write this essay. The most powerful man in the world should be able to understand that when he makes a direct phone call to the South African President, Jacob Zuma, ordering him to disallow a democratically elected president (Jean Aristide) to return to his homeland he is not only acting in contradiction to his professed ideals but is actively taking part in the age-old tradition in the United States of subverting Haitian democracy. Our nation’s first black President should recognize that the US backed the senseless murder of Salvadoran Archbishop, Oscar Romero, for championing human rights for the dispossessed of El Salvador.

These “traps” of history must be encountered and this legacy of hypocrisy must stop. If the President of the United States and his associates hate the democratizing effect that follows from a deep understanding of history they certainly should say so but they shouldn’t give lip service to the idea that “history is important” especially when this same history is invariably whitewashed. The centers of power may not value history but those who are on the receiving end of their brutality, a brutality rendered invisible through copious amounts of propaganda, find history indispensable. Those in charge can lock history outside the empire’s door but it‘s only a matter of time before we who are “trapped by the past” rise up and shatter the fogged windows of their lonely sanctuary.                  










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