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  • Coda:Not Even Past
  • Christopher Shay (bio)

The past always haunts the present, but most political science fails to acknowledge, let alone describe, the influence of history’s ghosts. Too much policy analysis focuses only on what we can see and measure, ignoring the lingering impact of loss and repression.

It’s often the autocrats, dissidents, educators, and artists who best understand the power of ghosts. These are the individuals who write and re-write history, who travel through time, altering the narratives of nations and societies. The ghosts they invoke can reinforce or subvert official histories, empower or oppress.

Many of the pieces in our cover package grapple with attempts by various governments to mobilize history to serve their own authority. Indian scholar Ananya Vajpeyi examines how the nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is using the ancient language of Sanskrit to advance a Hindu supremacist agenda. Historian Eri Hotta describes how, throughout Japan’s history, leaders have used a rhetoric of peace to justify aggression and imperialism. For too many Japanese, Hotta argues, peace is an apparition that needs to be challenged.

Sometimes the ruling establishment is more focused on erasing the blemishes of history than writing over them. Exiled writers Hassen Hussein and Mohammed Ademo argue that the glorification of the Battle of Adwa, a defining conflict in Ethiopian history, removes the Oromo and other minority groups from national storylines. This is significant, for those left out of history can more easily be disregarded in the present. Journalist Louisa Lim describes how the Chinese Communist Party has compelled a country to forget the bloody crackdown around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. This national amnesia has forced the government to rely not on history for legitimacy but on promises of economic growth—a worrying fact for the Communist Party as the country’s economy slows.

In all this, education plays a key role in perpetuating or destroying history. Photographer Daniella Zalcman documents the stories of those who lived through Canada’s attempts to eradicate Indigenous culture through a network of church-run schools. One Indigenous survivor tells her the only way to heal his community is “to re-teach our children who they really are and to take pride in that.”

In this issue’s Conversation, we speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who criticizes the “industry of memory” that creates and bolsters a single version of history. Hollywood, the Vietnamese-American author says, is a “very powerful propaganda ministry” that seduces audiences to identify with the American perspective.

But not all art for mass consumption supports the powerful. Translator and theater director Bryan Doerries explains how he uses ancient Greek tragedies to disrupt hierarchies, at least temporarily, and create a space for members of the military “to tell their truths of the experiences of war.” The effect is to help people suffer openly and communally, sharing the burden of their war memories.

Our writers remind us that simply remembering history is not enough. Many people recall their trauma and then inflict the same suffering on others. A worthwhile project of remembering, Nguyen says, “has to get us to figure out a way to prevent that suffering from happening again.” [End Page 122]

Christopher Shay

CHRISTOPHER SHAY is the editor of World Policy Journal.



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