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The past is never past

PARIS: A nation’s relationship with its past is crucial to its present and its future, to its ability to “move on with its life, or to learn from its past errors, not to repeat them. There is the past that “isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it is not even past, in William Faulkner’s famous …

PARIS: A nation’s relationship with its past is crucial to its present and its future, to its ability to “move on with its life, or to learn from its past errors, not to repeat them.

There is the past that “isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it is not even past, in William Faulkner’s famous phrase. Such a past obsessively blocks any possible evolution towards a necessary reconciliation with oneself and a former or current foe.

Such a past is painfully visible today, for example, in the Balkans, a world largely paralyzed by a painful fixation on the conflicts that tore the region apart in the 1990’s. An absolute inability to consider the point of view of the other and to go beyond a sense of collective martyrdom still lingers, unequally to be fair, over the entire region.

What the Balkans needs nowadays are not historians or political scientists, but psychoanalysts who can help them transcend their past for the sake of the present and the future. It is to be hoped that the promised entrance into the European Union will constitute the best “psychoanalytical cure.

In contrast to this paranoid version of the past is a past that is buried under silence and propaganda; a past that is simply not dealt with and remains like a secret wound that can become reopened at any moment. Of course, non-treatment of the past is not the exclusive privilege of non-democratic regimes. More than thirty years after the disappearance of the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Spain finds itself confronted by the shadows of a past it has deliberately chosen not to confront. That supposedly buried past was always there, poised to erupt with a vengeance once the economic miracle slowed or stopped.

China, which has just been celebrating with a martial pomp the sixtieth anniversary of Mao’s founding of the “People’s Republic constitutes one of the most interesting cases of a nation evincing “short sightedness towards its past. China has a lot to show for in its recent history. Just consider the massive access to education of its huge rural population in contrast with its “democratic rival India. So China’s pride nowadays is legitimate.

In sixty years a weak and divided country, one torn apart by wars internal and external, is about to become the second most powerful economy in the world. China’s insolent prosperity, even if it is far from being distributed equally, China’s relative political stability, even if the regime’s opening remains strictly limited, are undeniable and deserving of respect. But the success of a country that has so mobilized its energies as to transform past humiliations into massive national pride is not accompanied — and this is an understatement — by a responsible opening into its past.

From 1957 to 1976, from the beginning of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward which led to a mass famine that killed tens of millions of people, to the end of the “Cultural Revolution which left Chinese society divided and traumatized due to its wanton cruelty and the destruction of cultural goods, China endured two hideous decades. China must confront them if it wants to progress domestically and become a respected and respectable actor of the international system.

But how can China become capable of implementing the “rule of law which it so badly needs, let us not even speak of democracy, if it continues to systematically lie to its people about the recent past? To refuse to deal with a painful past is to risk reproducing it.

Such a choice can encourage the most dangerous nationalist tendencies within a society that does not know, especially young people, what hides behind the silence and official lies. My Chinese students when I taught at Harvard University last year ignored almost completely their recent history. They reacted with a somewhat “defiant nationalism to critical observations. They were going “to check the “accuracy of historical remarks that did not fit with the history they had been taught at school. How could I be so critical of Mao? It demonstrated my western bias against a rising Asian giant.

Between the two extreme of the Balkans and China, the relationship between “Memory and “History knows so many shades of grey. It took France nearly fifty years to openly confront its Vichy past and to recognize that the French state had been guilty of collaboration with the Nazis. The country’s colonial past still remains a painful issue that is yet far from being confronted in a dispassionate, objective manner. It is as if truth and justice are seen as potential obstacles to peace, stability and progress.

But there is a major difference between the search for historical truth, which is an absolute must for a society at large and the search for the settling of scores and the punishment of those found and declared guilty. One must know the past, not to risk repeating it, but also in order to transcend it.

But between a history that paralyzes a nation’s ability to “move on collectively and an absolute unwillingness to face the past, which can lead to criticism of the present, there is ample room for maneuver. Healthy nations use that room to bury the pain of the past, if not the past itself.

Dominique Moisi Visiting Professor of Government at Harvard and author, most recently, of The Geopolitics of Emotion. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).

Topics: Wael Ghonim

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