History as a source of conflict
Image by Broo_am (Andy B) at Flickr

Our lead researcher Haroon Sheikh writes a weekly column for Dutch newspaper NRC. In these columns, he shares his insights about changes in the global hegemony, economy and society. In this column he writes about history as a source of conflict.

Attacks such as the one in Barcelona suggest that we are seeing a clash between civilizations. The real clash occurs within civilizations, however. Just look at the heated discussions taking place about history. In the past week, statues of Confederate leaders from the American Civil War were taken down. Classic literature and museums are under fire. It would be wrong to dismiss this as a problem that only affects the United States. History has become a source of conflict in the Netherlands as well, where we have discussions about Michiel de Ruyter, Black Pete and the national anthem.

How did the past become such a major source of contention? The focus on the past hides major changes that take place in the present. Think of ethnic relations, for example. Among American youngsters, white people have become a majority minority: although they are the largest group, they still make up less than fifty percent of their generation for the first time in history. The same shift is also taking place in some Dutch cities.

Relations change rapidly, but we lack shared stories. That explains why there is so much to do about historic symbols.

Secondly, the relationship between men and women has changed dramatically. Hillary Clinton may not have won the race for the American presidency, but some of the most important positions on the global stage are held by women: the president of the American central bank, the Chancellor of Germany, the Prime Minister of Great Britain and the head of the IMF. A situation like this would have been unthinkable just twenty years ago.

Thirdly, a lot has changed in terms of sexual diversity. The United States passed legislation for marital equality and the Dutch railroads will soon stop using the phrase “ladies and gentlemen” and go with “travellers” instead. The social disadvantages of these three groups – ethnic minorities, women and LGBTs – still exist, but the relations have changed over the past few years.

Ireland is perhaps the most notable example of the global shift in values. In 1986, this Catholic nation voted against the legalisation of divorce. In 1995, the same bill was passed with just over fifty percent of the votes. Leo Varadkar, the new Prime Minister, is the openly gay son of Indian immigrants.

While the elite often embraced these changes, the group of people who felt overlooked steadily grew. The loss of industry had a major impact on low-skilled white American men. Studies show that theirs is the only demographic group in the country whose life expectancy has declined. These people are “dying from desperation,” as a result of suicide, drugs or alcohol abuse.

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance describes their world: unemployment, broken families and violence. According to Vance, who grew up among this group and eventually made it to Yale, this is the only demographic group in America which can be discriminated against without feeling guilty. They believe that President Trump is only one who acknowledges them. The European welfare states do not have this problem, although there are some similarities with the Dutch “tokkies” or the British lower class.

Relations change rapidly, but we lack shared stories. That explains why there is so much to do about historic symbols. Our obsession with the past masks our uncertainty about the future. There is no point to desperately hanging on to the past or judging it outright.

To read the article in Dutch, click here.