Truth Commissions: Histories of Laughter and Forgetting

History kills. Literally. In a bizarre event reported by RFE/RL, Lenin has recently taken revenge on an irreverent desecrator of a Belarussian memorial to the dear leader in an act showing how history continues to keep a firm grip on its victims.The anonymous 21-year-old is said to have climbed on top of the larger-than-life, seven-meter Lenin and attempted to hang from his famous outstretched arm, when part of the statue collapsed, sending the prankster to his poetic demise.

While the young victim cannot be brought back to life, history, can be ‘restored,’ and will. Lenin’s long arm, according to a follow-up story published the very next day, will be returned to its former glory as soon as possible, say local authorities.

Svetlana Boym, the author of “The Future of Nostalgia” – a book that examines 20th century cultural history through the prism of individual and collective experiences of memory, uses the terms restorative and reflective to talk about two distinct ways of looking at the past. The restorative view is manifest in nationalist revival movements, which make use of national symbols, myths and conspiracy theories for the purpose of an absolute reconstruction of the past. Proponents of this view believe that their restorative projects are about the truth, that the past is static, and cultural and national identity is formed and solidified through collective artistic symbols and an oral epic tradition.

A reflective view of the past, on the other hand, dwells on the durational, the dynamic, the changing aspect of time, on the incomplete, on the shattered ruin and on the individual experience of the past, which is often a mournful memory and indefinable longing rather than deterministic seeking and proclamation of truth.

The first is dead serious and unforgiving. The second takes itself less seriously, tracing the experience of mourning in the direction of irony and mirth. It is also capable of forgiveness, partly through the therapeutic quality of forgetting and partly through the sensation of blurring the real and the imagined.

Exploiting memory

Memory is sad business. Etymologically, the word can be traced through the Latin memor, ‘mindful’ to the Greek martus, gen. marturos, ‘witness’ (not until New Testament Greek does the word acquire the additional ‘witness to God’ from where the English word martyr originates). The word also appears in Old English as murnan, ‘to grieve.’ The Indo-European root mer- or smer-, from which all memory cognates derive, means ‘to be anxious, to grieve.’ Examples of such cognates include, the Greek merimna ‘solitude, anxiety,’ the Old Lithuanian mereti, ‘to be anxious,’ the Serbo-Croatian mariti, ‘to grieve over,’ and the Sanskrit smarati, ‘he remembers.’

The list goes on. The subject of memory is exploited by myriad competing ideologies. Charged with controversy, it has most recently become a topic of concern for government and non-government institutions set on a mission to dispense (or dispense of) historical truths. In their more benevolent form, truth commissions can be imagined as cathartic institutions – secular churches of a sort – that aim to transform both guilty sinners’ and traumatized victims’ memories for the lofty purpose of achieving reconciliation.

So far so good. On the implementation level, however, these idealistic projects begin to crack: who commissions the truth commissioners? What is the methodology applied in the process of transforming individual and collective memories? Even if the aim of these commissions is rehabilitative rather than punitive, can they ever be devoid of this or that political agenda?

While truth commissions are a relatively recent phenomenon, historic revisionist projects – their ‘shadows’ in the parlance of analytical psychology – are as old as history itself. The historic revisionist is an anachronistic species who is particularly driven by symbolic anniversaries. Recent examples of such opportunistic political campaigns feeding on the corpse of history include the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; the establishment of the “Commission to counter the attempt of falsification of history to the detriment of interests of Russia,” coinciding with Moscow’s celebration of the 64th anniversary of its victory over Nazi Germany; the melodramatic spat between new EU members Hungary and Slovakia because the latter barred the former’s president from privately crossing its border on a day the country was commemorating the invasion by Soviet-led troops, which included Hungarians; and finally, the looming 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – an event ripe with potential for more memorialization and less and less laughter and forgetting à la Milan Kundera.

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” says Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses.” The comment resonates with the sentiment of philosopher-poet Friedrich Nietzsche’s attack on historical knowledge and education for their own sake, knowledge which he calls impotent, stripped of all creative impulse, one that leads to a decadent culture and the ultimate destruction of the vitality and strength of a nation (the Germany of his time).

It is not that history cannot serve life, Nietzsche says in “The Use and Abuse of History for Life;” the desire to know the past is inherent in every individual and every nation. Historical knowledge is ‘healthy’ as long as it serves as inspiration for action, as reverence to the heritage of one’s ancestors, or as relief from suffering. Out of context, however, historical knowledge can be easily manipulated for unhealthy and degenerate ends:

From the thoughtless transplanting of plants stem many ills: the critical man without need, the antiquarian without reverence, and the student of greatness without the ability for greatness are the sort who are receptive to weeds estranged from their natural mother earth and therefore degenerate growths.

Another author obsessed with the labyrinthine clogs of excessive memory is Jorge Luis Borges, who in the short story “Funes the Memorious” creates a character who possesses total memory. Unable to forget anything, Funes is an example of the Nitzschean historic man of paralysis, since without forgetting, no action can take place, and creation is reversed into degeneration. In Gabriel García Márquez’ novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the characters suffer from the opposite malady: an insomnia sickness that culminates in total amnesia and the construction of an imagined, fictitious reality.

Therapeutic forgetting

Philosophers and writers have been preoccupied with the subject of memory and forgetting for thousands of years. More recently, cognitive and neuroscience has taken up serious interest in the pathology of memory.

Daniel L Schacter, author of “Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past” talks about the subjective experiences of ‘remembering’ and ‘knowing’ the past by paying homage to yet another memory-obsessed writer – Marcel Proust. Proust, who contemplated the act of remembering as “a telescope pointed in time,” laid the groundwork for scientific research of the experience of remembering. Writes Schacter: “Foreshadowing scientific research by more than a half century, Proust achieved the penetrating insight that feelings of remembering result from a subtle interplay between past and present.”

Cognitive science is ‘in tune’ with literature not only when it comes to blending past and present realities, the literal and the literary, truths and fictions.

Gerd Gigerenzer, mostly known for his work on heuristics, argues in his book “Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious” that more memory is not always better, and that our best choices are usually based on “a beneficial degree of ignorance,” gut feelings and intuition rather than on our culturally held beliefs that more information is always better and that more choice is always better. Gigerenzer echoes Nietzsche on the ‘healthy’ use of history as a prompt for action: “Forgetting prevents the sheer mass of life’s detail from critically slowing down the retrieval of relevant experience and so impairing the mind’s ability to abstract, infer, and learn.”

Forgetting and mythopoeia then can be seen as therapeutic devices – a way of digesting the past through slow creative reflection instead of archiving the ulcerous symbols of history.

Psychology and cognitive science research can also help shed light on the physical and mental processes of memory work and adaptive forgetting to bring relief to traumatic experiences.

Myths and legends, oral epics or folk songs are the instruments of restorative ‘historians.’ Taken out of their native earth, which is the realm of literature, and ‘transplanted’ – to use Nietzsche’s metaphor – into the foreign soil of politics, they become degenerate growths of populist rhetoric that appeal to the fictions of national identities. It is those forms of literature, diagnostic rather than prescriptive and focusing more on the individual than the collective that have the potential to transform the experience of suffering, which posses the magical ability of turning tears into laughter.

Platonic reconciliation

There are some truth commissions that make use of individual stories, interviews and personal recollections, but their performance is nevertheless marred by their ultimate purpose, which is collective by the nature of their commissioners. They are governmental methods of constructing big pictures and sense-making tools that are devoid of sensing, which is an individual and private experience.

In an ultra-networked, technologically insatiable world where context is valued over content, the very existence of truth commissions is, to say the least, suspect. Contextual truths fall prey to the insensitized, ready-made emotions on which the non-reflective minds of political entrepreneurs in need of quick fixes and relativistic truths gorge. As long as truth commissions remain in the realm of collective bureaucracy, reconciliation will remain Platonic – a present representation of an absent thing.


Who’s got the last laugh? Interview with Dmitry Rogozin in Bulgarian “Kapital”

Last week the European Council on Foreign Relations ran a commentary by compatriot Vessela Cherneva, in which she gives a summary of an interview given by Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Ambassador to NATO, for Bulgarian newspaper Kapital. In addition to Ms Cherneva’s apt evaluation of the nuances and implications for Bulgaria (and beyond) in terms of Russia’s foreign policy toward Bulgaria and other “lost” spheres of influence in the wider Balkans region, a comment by one of the readers, explaining the notion of the “useful idiot” stemming from pre-Cold War Russian ideology are both well worth reading.

While Rogozin is well known to the international community for his thuggish “sense of humor”, I’m not sure to what extent such thuggishness comes across in a summary of his speech. This prompted me to translate the full interview from Bulgarian, which can be read below. Something else worth noting is perhaps the difference between interviews given to the Western press and the one in this Bulgarian publication. I cannot pinpoint exactly what those differences are, but one thing is certain: speaking to a cultural audience that one considers its adversary and another – its “historically proven and justified” sphere of influence is not the same.

Rogozin, who may or may not be having the last laugh aside, I can highly recommend the analyses and policy briefs published by the ECFR. They are a voice of hope that the EU has not entirely lost its ability for rational thought!

Interview with Dmitry Rogozin

Regardless of the West’s position, Moscow views the conflict with Georgia as unconditional victory. What is your next step?

You mean, who’s next? My colleague, the US Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker, said that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia face a threat of a Russian attack. I would like to add to this list two more categories: the Marcians and the Penguins. We are getting more and more annoyed of such panic-raising US statements. The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has proposed an independent investigation of the events in Georgia. We agree to such measures, but the Georgians don’t. In this case, the Georgian President Saakashvili is the aggressor and the criminal – and, so what? Is NATO going to cease communication with him? If we were to open the facts to CNN, are they going to apologize for the disinformation they were spreading during the crisis? And what are the faces of Dick Cheney and George Bush, the men who financed Saakashvili’s regime, going to be like?

The recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was not an easy decision for us, but it was the only way to stop the violence. In the very near future they will be recognized by another 10-15 countries. If a country is not formally recognized, it does not mean that it does not exist. The US didn’t recognize the Soviet Union until 1933. Yet we existed and developed prior to that.

Despite the civilian and military casualties, we can speak of a positive result of this war. Namely, the war was a test in morale, responsibility and who’s worth what in international politics. These things are clear. You can’t not take a side in this issue. What we want is that the aggressor is punished and anathemized by the international community, if not in real at least in moral terms. The second thing we want is peace and stability on the Caucuses for all. Third, it’s clear that our world is fragile and that it can be easily destroyed by one wrong step taken by a drug addict. This is why we have to protect ourselves from dividing into (political/ideological) blocks and to try to find stability for all of us.

You are comparing 8 August 2008 to 11 September 2001. What do you think are the long-term consequences of 8 August?

One thing is sure: we will not be acting like the Americans after 11 September. After they were attacked, instead of taking care of their national security, they attacked Iraq and Afghanistan; what’s more, under a laughable pretext. Russia will concentrate on its national security and will keep to its own part of the geographic map. Our goal is to create a wide coalition for peace and stability in Europe, to change the agreements, and to make security an indivisible issue for us all. You can laugh at me but I support the idea for obligatory conscription for everybody in Russia.

Where else are there Russian minorities that Russia intends to protect as it did in South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

Minorities are not only a Russian problem. There are Hungarians in Romania, Turks in Bulgaria…What’s important is to not provoke one another, but to secure peace of mind for our compatriots. Why, for instance, are Russian in the Baltic states refused citizenship rights? They are the second largest ethnic group in those countries. This stands in the way of friendly relations between Russia and Estonia and Latvia. There is one thing I want to clarify. We intervened in South Ossetia not only because Russians live there. We would likewise protect every small nation in our region, which is threatened by genocide – Jews, Bulgarians, all. How can we stand by indifferent if someone is shooting rockets at a civilian population?

After all the hard words of the past few weeks, is there place for constructive dialogue between Russia and NATO?

As a Washington favourite, Saakashvili has been a force of instability in the Caucuses for years. Since the beginning of August I have been in constant communication with NATO. We wanted to use the mechanisms for cooperation available in order to put a stop to the aggression with joint efforts. For some reasons America blocked this process. This is why we think that NATO’s General Secretary visit to Tbilisi on the 15-16 September, despite being planned way in advance, is amoral and not correct. We were hoping that our colleagues in NATO will understand that such a visit will be taken to mean moral support for Saakashvili, which is totally out of line.

The behavior of the Americans was scandalous. For many people the US was also an actor in this conflict because they were arming the Georgian army. As for the Europeans, we expected from them not just propaganda but an objective evaluation of who played what role in this war, and why. We trusted that they would adopt a balanced approach. We have economic and friendly relations with Europe, we are building together a common European home, which has now been bombarded from within by some revanchists with a Cold War mentality. We did not expect such hypocrisy.

Do you think NATO’s expansion to the east has come to an end?

We consider further NATO expansion as counterproductive and very, very dangerous. If NATO had not promised Georgia membership, the situation would not have escalated to aggression. Saakashvili took this promise as an indulgence. Until recently we treated his behaviour in the way an elephant would react to a puppy barking. But when he started to exercise violence over a small nation like South Ossetia, which only four years ago suffered the tragedy in Beslan, we could no longer pretend that nothing is happening.

If NATO likes to pretend that it doesn’t matter whose hands it is shaking and refuses to see the blood on these hands, then an organization of this kind can no longer be our partner. If NATO offers Georgia a plan of action toward membership, we will terminate all our cooperation with NATO.

What will happen to eastern Ukraine if Kiev decides to pursue NATO membership?

Ukraine is another version of the Caucuses drama. There the governing coalition split apart over the question of NATO membership. The Prime Minister and the President are on non-speaking terms because of this. This shows again how dangerous it is for NATO to step in the region. Many in Ukraine are now apprehensive, and with a good reason – President Viktor Yushchenko was selling weapons to Saakashvili. Besides, we have information that the Ukranian air forces may be involved in the shooting of Russian planes over Georgia.

All other issues aside, Ukraine is for us the cradle of Russian civilization. We come from Kiev. Ukraine is our mother; this is our family. You can’t just tear apart a child from its mother – we will not let this happen.

As the winter is coming, is there danger of cutting gas supplies to Europe?

Where are such fears coming from? We have never put forth the question of cutting supplies to our European partners. There are two elements in our country which remain unchanged no matter what happens: the discipline in our energy supplies to our partners and our readiness to apply our rocket systems. Both are in order. In 1991 nothing worked in Russia – but even then these two elements were in “readiness”. Don’t doubt our reputation in these two areas.

Are you ready to use the second element the same way you apply the first?

It is the guarantee to our sovereignty from the time of the Cold War until now. It is our guarantee for security.

The Black Sea is a strategic security zone. Is Russia ready to share it with NATO?

All the countries in the Black Sea region have to be very careful when it comes to this issue. No military activity should be developed there, otherwise there will be an ecological if not military disaster. There is sulphuric hydrogen at the bottom of the Black Sea – in case of military activity, this can lead to an ecological disaster. This is why we are warning NATO to stop flexing its muscles in the Black Sea region. They say now that they are delivering humanitarian assistance to Georgia. But why use navy ships? We want the Romanians, the Bulgarians and all countries bordering the Black Sea to be very careful what they’re doing and what they allow to be done in their waters. The Black Sea should be used for trade and tourism, not for military purposes.

Bulgaria has historical ties with Russia but today is a NATO member, a host of American military bases and supporter of Georgia’s membership in NATO. Does Russia view Bulgaria as a competitor in this respect?

Russia has lost many lives fighting to protect Bulgaria and we have never regret this. We have the same religious beliefs, the same blood, and there are no bad feelings between us. Your President Parvanov is my personal friend. However, Bulgaria has abandoned us many times, but afterwards always taken the correct decision when victory was on our side. Now Bulgaria once again is in the wrong camp – NATO. But this is your own fault and it depends on you to correct it at some point.

This week the EU sent over its most senior representatives to Moscow to discuss how Russia sees its future relations with Europe. How do you interpret the answer they were given?

We want to implement the “Medvedev-Sarkozy” plan – every step of it. But there’s a problem with this plan. Actually there’s more than one plan: one signed by Medvedev and the French President Sarkozy in Moscow on 12 August; in Tbilisi, however, Sarkozy was unable to convince Saakashvili to sign it, and the word “statut” was changed to “security” for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This plan was given to US’ Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and this black American panther managed to get Saakashvili to sign a different plan, one that does not at all include the 6 points. Then the Security Council changed the plan again…We are going to discuss only the original document signed by Medvedev and Sarkozy in Moscow. The EU is mostly interested in how many Russian troops there are in Georgia and when they are going to be withdrawn. I will answer immediately. We have 400 people military personnel in the demilitarized zone, which are stationed in 19 check points. They will stay there until a peacekeeping mission of the OSCE or a common mission between us and the EU arrives there. Then we will return to our pre 6 August positions.

You have proposed a new foreign policy concept for changing the security architecture in Europe. How does this idea look now in the aftermath of the recent events, and is there place for the US in this scheme?

This concept was presented in July. There is a need for a common security system for Europe, the US and Russia. The US is part of this. We are talking about a security zone from Vancouver to Vladivostok. We must stop acting divided in blocks, and move into a common, inter-related security system.

In the last month the fear from Russia was revived; investors left and your country is understood in this international isolation. Was the war with Georgia worth the price?

History will be our judge. The historical truth will be on our side. The West has become cynical and double-faced. It is morally poor and acts according to double standards. A few months will pass and everything will normalize. But we are going to draw our lessons learned. Two countries will pay the bill – Georgia and the US. Georgia has to cure itself of its nationalist-populist illness. The US has lost its reputation. What America has done in the past few years, has degraded it in the eyes of many people around the world.

So Russia is back in the Great Game?

(Long silence.) Yes. But everything will be ok. In the past there were moments when I thought that we have lost everything in the face of insults and hatred. I used to tell myself that things will turn around, that a time will come when we can look back at the situation and laugh. This time has come and I would like to conclude with a fitting joke. In Russia the optimists learn English; the pessimists learn Chinese; and the realists learn how to use a Kalashnikov.

Victor Davis Hanson’s blog

A friend tipped me off to the blog of Mr Victor Davis Hanson. I am grateful and eager to pass on this excellent recommendation to anyone with an interest in the classics, foreign affiars, and military history.

Quoting from Victor Hanson’s bio, he is currently Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, a professor emeritus at California University, Fresno, a columnist for Tribune Media Services, and teaches military history and classics at Hillside College.

Hanson is a breath of fresh air from the staleness indicative of all that I personally find unpalatable with leftist ideology and propaganda. His observations on the upcoming U.S. elections are full of (clearly non-common) common sense.

Also, for readers in Europe, Euromania? Some Thoughts from Ground Zero should be an eye-opener to everything that’s wrong with Euro-anti-Americanism.

Donald Rumsfeld’s Legacy: strategic thinking in a world of unknown unknowns

The Atlantic has published an excellent new article by Robert D. Kaplan, What Rumsfeld Got Right, summarizing Donald Rumsfeld’s career, including a well-balanced argument of the rights and wrongs of his strategic thinking from the 1990s U.S. intervention on the Balkans to present day Iraq. As usual, Kaplan is thought provoking, smart and beautifully versed – a good antidote to raving left critics and biased media reports.

Also of interest:

Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos – Kaplan’s lessons learned from Greek, Roman and Chinese history and military strategy for today’s political leadership

Crisis Alert for Zimbabwe, Tibet and Kosovo; Conflict Resolution Opportunities for Comoros Islands, Cyprus, Pakistan, Taiwan Strait

Eight actual or potential conflict situations around the world deteriorated in March 2008, and four improved, according to the new issue of CrisisWatch. Controversial early results of Zimbabwe’s 29 March presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections have put President Mugabe under pressure to resign. Protests in Tibet turned violent on 14 March and unrest spread to Tibetan-populated areas of neighbouring provinces, prompting the deployment of thousands of police. In Kosovo, violence in Mitrovica and Belgrade’s push for partition underscored the fragility of the post-independence situation.

The situation improved in Comoros Islands, Cyprus, Pakistan, Taiwan Strait, pointing to conflict resolution opportunities for these countries.

For April 2008, Crisis Watch predicts Zimbabwe and Nepal as both Conflict Risk Alerts and Conflict Resolution Opportunities. It also identifies Cyprus and Uganda as Conflict Resolution Opportunities.

Kosovo – one month old

kosovo.jpg The first month of independence has mostly gone well, but violence in Mitrovica yesterday shows that the opponents of independence can still threaten the new state and that there is a risk that Serbian-inspired partition will harden and Kosovo become a frozen conflict.

This, and more in International Crisis Group briefing  from Pristina.

Also of interest on this topic:

1. ISN Security Watch reporter from Sarajevo predicts more violence in Kosovo: worst still to come

2. ISN alumni and DCAF fellow examines the international reaction to Kosovo’s declaration of independence in Kosovo’s Controversial Independence

See also a local site that maintains a current list of countries who have recognized Kosovo, and those pending to do so.

Crisis alerts for Armenia, deteriorating situation in Darfur, conflict resolution opportunity for Cyprus

The new Crisis Watch report was just released, identifying 12 actual or potential conflict situations around the world that deteriorated in February.

Among those is Armenia, where 11 days of protests after allegedly rigged presidential elections have resulted in a violent crackdown, a declared state of emergency and mobilization of the armed forces. 

Timor-Leste saw attacks on the president and prime minister, including the killing of former head of military police, who was himself instrumental in the attack on the president.

Rebel attacks on the Chad capital N’Djamena resulted in the killing of hundreds and the displacement of thousands of people while in Darfur, the Sudanese government attacked three towns and an IDP camp from both ground and air, marking the worst violence in the region in months.

Other places where the situation is reported to have deteriorated are: Cameroon, Comoros Islands, DR Congo, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Israel/Occupied Territories, Philippines, Serbia, and Somalia.

Perhaps contrary to many expectations, the situation in Kosovo is said to have improved since the declaration of independence on 17 February. Power-sharing negotiations in Kenya are giving a glimmer of hope for potential political stabilization. Pakistan’s elections proceeded relatively peacefully, with opposition parties sweeping to power. And in Cyprus, President-elect is committed to engaging in reunification talks with his Turkish-Cypriot counterpart.

Conflict risk alerts for March 2008 point toward Armenia, Comoros Islands and Kenya while Cyprus, Pakistan, Timor-Leste and Uganda are likely to see conflict resolution opportunities.