Yet, my grandfather was not a monster. He was simply a man of ordinary moral courage whose capacity for great evil was revealed to his and my lasting shame. Labeling someone a monster implies that he is from another world, one which has nothing to do with us. It cuts off the bonds of affection and fear, assures us of our own superiority, but there’s nothing learned, nothing gained. It’s simple, but it’s cowardly. I know now that only by empathizing with a man like my grandfather can we understand the depth of the suffering he caused. There are no monsters. The monster is us.
– Ken Liu, The Man Who Ended History
History is always personal. This was the first thing I told my class when I taught Asian History for a semester. A semester is an extremely brief period of time, but with that limited amount I sought to express as much passion as I could for the subject, hoping to show my students just why exactly they had to care.
The trouble with History in school, I think, is that it’s so clinical and dispassionate and so alien. Nobody cares about the bloody dates. Nobody likes memorising them. All those names and places and wars don’t mean a thing.
I suppose it bears repeating: history is my crusade. I cannot stop talking about history, especially on matters concerning its “sanitisation”. We call it World War II, and no one in class even bats an eye. It was war, people died, yadda yadda. And yet history is far more than that. History is the people who were left dead in the fields, their blood staining the rivers red for days. History is the people who fought back, those who died fighting. History is both the murderer and the murdered; the powerful and the helpless. History is everything that these people experienced and to distill them all into a sanitised little package is to disrespected their very existence.
For us Asians, nothing could be more painful and divisive than the Japanese imperialist invasion leading to the 2nd World War. To this day, Japan has not properly acknowledged and apologised for its crimes. The stories of the victims of the Nanjing Massacre have been dismissed as exaggerated tales, insultingly called an “Incident” to minimise its true horror. The Comfort Women who are dying off have yet to receive an apology from those who sanctioned their rape and dehumanisation. They are history.
Which is why a novella like Ken Liu’s “The Man Who Ended History” cannot be described as anything other than devastatingly beautiful. Liu poses this question: can we use time travel to confront history, or will the destruction of this clinical veneer that cordons off history strictly into the past spell the end of mankind as we know it?
Liu is right. We would not be strong enough to face our demons. But in so doing we open ourselves to the possibility of these atrocities repeating themselves again and again and again. Santayana said it best. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. For many it is not a matter of forgetting, however. It is a matter of not knowing at all.
In trying to discuss the Nanjing Massacre in class, I decided to skip the lengthy lecture and instead made my students look at actual photos of the victims. The photos are horrific. Not sensationalised; these were pictures taken by Westerners who stayed in Nanjing during those difficult days, hoping that the world outside would see the brutality they no longer had any words for.
The point is not to incite hatred against the Japanese. The whitewashing of history was the result of political and economic desires. The US and China had as much hand in covering up the Nanjing Massacre for political and economic gain, with the latter dredging it up only in the late 1980s as a rallying point for the weakened government. The Philippine government has not been very vocal in pursuing the case of the Comfort Women, because Japan is an ally and a benefactor, and what is the economic benefit in reopening up old wounds?
Thus we sold our dignity.
Thus we buried our right (nay, responsibility) as human beings to condemn evil.
I am, however, a lot less pessimistic than Liu. I do believe that there are people who share this passion for truth and history. People who will not shut up and be cowed. Teachers who will find ways to shock their students out of this stupor. History is always personal. It’s not about governments, treatises, or wars. It’s about people. It’s about us.
Man, I miss teaching.