From Clio’s muse to History as a Weapon

Clio was the Greek muse of history and goddess of poetry. Her name is rooted in the Greek kleô — to celebrate, to make known, or to forge fame. In various works of art Clio is seen wearing purple, holding a musical instrument in one hand and the notebook she uses when she writes history, in the other.

My latest visit to Metafilter is strongly linked to Clio, but first — more about Metafilter, the community weblog. Yes, Metafilter’s been around for long enough to maintain the old term (‘weblog’ rather than ‘blog’) without losing respectability. Metafilter has a glorious pedigree, as far as quality and variety of content are concerned.

Programmer, web designer, blogger, photoblogger and avid environmental scientist Matt Haughey founded Metafilter in 1999 (at the time, he says, there were maybe 30 weblogs worldwide.) It had become an extremely popular posting place for bloggers — Metafilter is widely read and is acknowledged as one of the best community blogs anywhere. There are many daily entries on Metafilter, so interested parties should use the blog’s RSS facility (try my RSS link.)

As I said, my latest visit to Metafilter is strongly linked to Clio, because the weblog carries a piece about an online publication called History is a Weapon.  This informative site focuses on abuses of freedom throughout American history, but one can easily find powerful (and equally disturbing) parallels in other parts of the world.

In each of the site’s eight sections (or chapters), one will find essays dealing with issues such as State repression, internal criticism of the policies of one’s own country, (this chapter includes a fascinating 1542 essay by Bartoleme de Las Casas, “A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies.” The section that tickled my imagination is the one in which people across the world describe what the American system means for them and how they respond to it. The section carries an essay by Walter Rodney – the well-known Guyanese historian and political figure who was assassinated by a bomb in downtown Georgetown (some say, by the CIA) in 1980, as he was running for elections in Guyana.

Other chapters focus on a Fourth of July speech by Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and abolitionist, on slavery and the hollow promises of freedom. In his essay “You Who are the Bureaucrats of Empire, Remember Who We Are“, The People’s Geography Project Don Mitchell argues poignantly that

“I find the construction of the American Empire to be utterly reprehensible. I find our diplomatic and military hypocrisy not only on the world stage but at home too to be abhorrent. I find our – that is my and your state’s – role in the world, a role defined by the raw exercise of power, a startling ignorance of what other peoples are like and what they want, to be a sheer exercise not only in arrogance, but in violent bloody-mindedness. I find our reliance on force, on arms, on the technology of death, coupled with our disregard for others’ lives – the thousands of Afghani civilians directly killed by our bombs as they missed Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden; the at least ten thousands Iraqis so far killed; the fifty to hundred thousand killed in Dresden; the more than a hundred thousand incinerated or condemned to a cancerous death in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the two million Vietnamese – I find this disregard for other peoples’ lives to be appallingly anti-human, appallingly anti-you-and-me.”

The essays hammer home the strong sense of discontent many American feel during the final days of the GW Bush Years. The intro to the site says:

“History isn’t what happened, but a story of what happened. And there are always different versions, different stories, about the same events… We cannot simply be passive. We must choose whose interests are best: those who want to keep things going as they are or those who want to work to make a better world. If we choose the latter, we must seek out the tools we will need. History is just one tool to shape our understanding of our world. And every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”

Surely Clio, the Greek muse of history and goddess of poetry, would find these words to be soothing and reassuring because they demonstrate the need for history to be seen within the greatest picture of human existence. This, surely, is a kinder view of history than that of 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who said “Clio, the muse of history, is as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis.” Ouch.

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