Footnoting History for the Sake of History and for the Sake of Peace

Recently, I was reminded of the short story by the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, titled: “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” (“El Tema del Traidor y el Héroe”) (1962) in which a fictional historian is compelled “not” to change the biographical history of an Irish hero because of nationalist interests. It seems my own recent writing has inspired such liberal editing for the benefits of nationalism.

Such historical musings are curious but nothing new to me. In my past academic writing, I have examined how different historical interpretations of a Basque commemorative parade inspired quite differing viewpoints about the past and were dependent upon notions of feminism or traditionalism with very different political implications.

In Borges’ story, the hero is named Fergus Kilpatrick, an Irishman living around 1824. While the story feels more like the murderous and traitorous times of the Republican independence movement, or the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin, Ireland against Great Britain. The narrator in the story, named Ryan, is the great-grandson of the Irish hero, Kilpatrick. As the protagonist, Ryan, remarks: “That history should have copied history was already sufficiently astonishing; that history should copy literature was inconceivable…”

Indeed, the whole idea of history meandering between irony and truth may be expected and likewise its similarities with history more ironic still. We find some histories paralleling literature, whether they be the literary plots of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesaror Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as Borges aptly points out. Yet, when so-called nationalists alter so-called small facts for their own political gains and purposes to change history, often they do so as a means of normalizing their political discourse. While such editorial renderings of opinions about conflicts may not be the intent of the original author, or historian, or no doubt, in some cases, peace activist and peace writer, altering facts and editing out content for political purposes may be somewhat dangerous. Because nationalism presupposes a particular perspective, a religiosity for the nation as an ideal above all else.

What Ryan discovered was that his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, was perhaps a traitor. Rather than change his biographical history, Ryan thought better of it and kept his research knowledge secret. To Ryan, Kilpatrick would remain a hero for the good of the country, Ireland. As Borges writes about Ryan’s thinking: “After a series of tenacious hesitations, he resolves to keep his discovery silent. He publishes a book dedicated to the hero’s glory; this too, perhaps, was foreseen.”

Over the last couple of weeks, I was grateful to have had my words for peace published in two nationalist publications. One was an article expressing my outrage over the “New” IRA killing of the young Irish journalist, Lyra McKee. The editorial piece was picked up by the Unionist newspaper, the Londonderry Sentineland in that publication, titled: “Fear and Loathing for the So-Called ‘New’ IRA”, (May 1st, 2019). In that piece, the editor decided to edit my writing by renaming the city of “Derry” as “Londonderry”. To the outside observer such an edit may seem minor. However, place in Northern Ireland is everything with strong implications for “sectarian divides” between Republican Catholics against Protestant Unionists. Londonderry is the politicized and Unionized name of Derry. While for Republican Catholics, Derry is still Derry.

Generally, such an edit may seem to be minor, but it makes my article about peace and staying the course with the Good Friday Agreement, more politicized. Whereas, my original intent was to remain neutral and neither support Republican Catholics or Protestant Unionists in a conflict with resurfacing issues from time to time. After all, I am an outsider, a foreigner, and observing the ongoing post-Troubles Northern Ireland from a distance.

Likewise, my article favoring a Basque peace process and commenting on the recent arrest of the Basque terrorist, former member of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, ETA, Josu Ternera, was picked up by the leftist-leaning, Abertzale-left newspaper, NAIZ (May 23, 2019).The Basque editor decided in this newspaper to cut out a paragraph about the ETA killing of PP town councilor, Miguel Ángel Blanco. By editing out this paragraph, in effect, removed the blame of ETA for the killing of this young politician and thereby removing an important point in the article. That ETA murder in particular is a painful memory for the Basque Abertzale-left because it exposes one of the worst episodes of their long tumultuous history of atrocities.

This history explains the next paragraph as to “why” millions marched across Spain in favor of peace back in 1997.

If the Basque peace process is to continue today, the Abertzale-Left, Batasuna, must take unequivocal responsibility for such atrocities. It must confront these painful histories and apologize for them.

Having said this though, both the Londonderry Sentineland NAIZ, published the majority of my words for peace and a call for renewal of peace processes in both places, Northern Ireland and the Basque Country. (Also, published under different titles in PeaceVoice and Counterpunch.)

While to some, these are small footnotes. Nevertheless, they are worth pointing out because there are varying “nationalisms” in competition with one another here and what becomes part of public discourse may become the dominant narrative of a given conflict. In the first instance, there are the competing ideals of Protestant Unionists versus Republican Catholics. In the latter case, there are competing visions between Basque nationalists and Spanish nationalists over hearts and minds in the Basque Country and Spain.

As Mahatma Gandhi once declared (1931): “What is true of individuals is true of nations. One cannot forgive too much. The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

May the weak become strong in their forgiveness and may the strong become humble and forgive for the sake of peace.

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).