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Trump Vs Zinn: Time for Neohumanists* to Claim History

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By Dada Jitendrananda

This reflection on history was prompted by the vexed debate on the teaching of history that flares up from time to time in the US. In one such eruption, Donald Trump, then US President, referred to the work of the late American historian, Howard Zinn, as propaganda. Zinn is best known for his illuminating work, A People’s History of the United States. In it, Zinn focused on the struggles, movements and leaders that shaped the lives of ordinary people. He also brought out the barbarism of Christopher Columbus and Theodore Roosevelt. This alignment with social movements and tarnishing of national icons ensured the polarization of the book’s reception along political lines. This debate provides us with an opportunity to reflect on what a Neohumanist might view as the use and abuse of history.

The term *Neohumanism was coined by the Indian philosopher and social activist, P. R. Sarkar (1921 – 1990). Humanism has brought us a humane world moderated by accords and conventions that nation states pledge to uphold. Sarkar anticipates the necessary expansion of the scope of humanism to include animals, plants and even the inanimate world. This can be achieved by developing the inner perception of the oneness behind diversity. This perception provides a rallying point for humanity from which to proceed on the path of all round welfare. It values the existence of all creation as stepping stones of consciousness on the path of evolution. Sarkar derives his view from Yoga philosophy that views evolution as the common path of creation from a reduced state of consciousness in separate physical reality to its expanded state of singularity.

While humanism rather than politics is at the heart of Zinn’s efforts, for this to shine above the glare of politics, history as social science has to articulate its purpose. P.R. Sarkar proposed that history is the story of human society’s struggle to manifest its inherent oneness. Such a view places history beyond the reach of politics and allows it to reveal all its glory and ignobility for a productive end. This perspective presupposes a unifying element in human nature that transcends divisive propensities and persists through generations and ages. It enhances the psychological dimension of history, enabling students to focus on the propensities that are playing out in a particular conflict. This provides an objective standpoint that helps in the navigation of difficult episodes.

One of Trump’s objections is how students are being made to feel ashamed as a result of studying US history rather than proud (‘Make America Great Again’). Trump’s solution is to restore the historical narrative to how it was before Zinn and others got hold of it. In this tug of war, history is diminished and its important teachings are missed.

As a catalyst to the study of history, we could benefit by analysing the mental propensities at play in history’s many struggles. Naming those propensities, identifying their associated rationale, the formulation of that rationale into group philosophy and outlook, all against the backdrop of ‘one human society,’ can  relieve us from the grip of narrow sentiment and advances us, through deeper understanding, towards a unified humanity. 

Bringing motive back to propensities in the human psyche helps us relate directly to historical and contemporary events. We can find the seeds of all propensities in our own psyche and see how these feelings could be amplified to the point of distorting our perception. This perspective prompts discussion on how to pre-empt de-humanising drifts in collective psychology. It enables a Neohumanist to navigate the rip tides of political debate and establish clear thinking based on all-round wellbeing. 

Sarkar demonstrates this in his analysis of Mahatma Gandhi’s role in the partition of India post-independence. At this pivotal moment, Gandhi failed to provide a unifying sentiment to rally the country to the urgent task of lifting India out of poverty. He allowed divisive elements to prevail, securing the country’s traumatic partition and ultimately leading to his own assassination. 

The contemporary issue of refugees in great numbers seeking resettlement internationally is often reduced to a visceral dichotomy between the right and left wings of the political spectrum. The Neohumanist must look to the cause of the refugee crisis and to the extent that it is man-made, point to the agents at work behind it. On the immediate issue of resettlement, no country should be under pressure to absorb more immigrants than can be successfully integrated into that society.

We can also benefit from Zinn’s practice of finding inspiring lives that are obscured by an overly top-tiered view of history. Wangari Maathai, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, Te Whiti, George William Russell, Taha Hussein…such names should be familiar to students in any country by the time they finish high school.

Sarkar viewed the rationalization of the dominance of one culture over another as psychologically damaging to both cultures. In the dominating culture the intellect is entrapped in the need to support chauvinism, contempt, prejudice and entitlement. In the oppressed culture, a narrative of inferiority complex and despondency sets in. Sarkar views the rational faculty as crucial to a healthy human psyche and its liberation from narrow sentiments as a necessary prerequisite. He elaborated on this theme in a series of talks titled ‘The Liberation of Intellect, Neohumanism’.

While Trump may have missed the bus on Neohumanism, millions of students in US schools should not be made to.


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