Chocolate and Gold Coins

Friday, January 20, 2006

When Does the Past Become Irrelevant?

The comment thread in this previous post took a decidedly negative and disappointing turn. I was reminded of something I read on Suhail Kazi’s blog just a few days ago about Godwin’s law: “As a comment thread gets longer, the probability of someone making a reference to Hitler or the holocaust approaches one.”

But ignoring this for the time being, the question is, “Do things that happened very long ago matter?” For example, in the sentence: “5000 years ago, X happened, and it this is relevant for us today,” what statement could we place in the “X” box and make the statement truthful? While I agree that knowing history is useful, what fact from 5000 years ago, if we knew it, would change our ideas or our opinions about anyone living today?

If, for example, the high caste Hindus came from Siberia 5000 years ago and enslaved everyone else and their descendants still are the high-caste Hindus and the descendants of the enslaved are still the low-caste Hindus, then does this fact have relevance to caste relations today? My feeling is that whether these people came from outside India 5000 years ago or 50000 years ago (when India was empty) is not so important. Intuitively, I think that things long ago are just less relevant.

But what is exactly is the rule here? When does the past become irrelevant? Or how quickly does the "relevance factor" decline with age?


  • Michael,

    Any fact that has potential for spreading discord seems to be relevant always. Is this some kind of entropy or what! Politicians should be happy at least.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:40 AM  

  • Welcome to Indian caste politics!

    Now all you have to do is write your views about Reservations :)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:59 AM  

  • Hi Srikanth and S-murugan
    Srikanth: Entropy seems an apt analogy.

    S-murugan: I suppose I should but Greatbong wrote an excellent piece maybe two weeks ago.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 8:53 AM  

  • Let me not claim that the past has a relevance. But people's approach to Indian history and culture seems to be dictated by unfortunate popular perceptions. I have had people here in US ( okay, I am in Indiana were most people only pass through and not stay ) ask me if women are allowed to sing in public.

    The term Indian history reminds most people of foreign invasion and caste system ( eg. a chinese friend tells me that the two things they were taught in school about Indian history were casteism and buddhism ) while Greece reminds them of Alexander, Socrates and Archimedes. And I do know Indians who believe, and sincerely at that, that Indians are not capable of doing anything creative.

    If everyone forgot about history I would be okay with it. But people treating Indian history alone differently ( focussing on bad aspects and using invasion to support it ) isn't exactly harmless, I think.

    Srikanth : I suppose you know that loosely speaking, information theory measures information as entropy.

    By Blogger froginthewell, at 9:30 AM  

  • I will tell you why personaly I do not like the 'Aryan invasion Theory' and why I do care about it as opposed to invasions by the Muslims and the British.

    As opposed to the latter two invasions , the Aryan Theory implies that fair caucasians came to our subcontinent, and mated with the dark-skinned aborogines to lift us out of our abject misery. Whatever construct our culture has - sanskrit , literature etc is an outcome of this mating with higher beings. This theory patronizes my people, my land . It was also very racist and self-serving for the Europeans to explain the presence of a non-savage dark skinned race when they came here and assume a higher moral position.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:04 PM  

  • Hi Froggy and Anon
    Froggy: That is interesting. I could see that focusing on 1000 of years of invasions and troubles would be a bit of a downer. Maybe focussing more on the last 20 years when India seemed to be get at least a few things right would be a refreshing change.

    Anon: I can understand that view and certainly there is no evidence supporting the 19th century racist version of the AIT. But, on the other hand, what if pure white people came to India and mixed with pure black people to make tanned people. So what. It is in the past. What matters is the present. Is there any evidence of "racial inferiority" of any group presently living in India? You would probably see very little difference. But in any case "how it happened" would be less relevant that "what is the situation now".

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 5:59 AM  

  • I thought of not commenting further but I can't resist this :

    Maybe focussing more on the last 20 years when India seemed to be get at least a few things right

    That is also disputed, right? You see it as obvious because you believe ( possibly rightly so ) that India got somethings right during this time. And the way you have phrased your sentence, it seems to give an impression that India did not get things right during the 1000s of years before that. Even that is a matter of opinion ( there are several things in the past India did get right, eg. lots of mathematics etc., we can as well focus on that - this is how people approach Greek history, not by focusing on slavery etc. ). But the best solution is to stop government funding to humanities departments and let those pathetic left liberals actually earn their money themselves.

    By Blogger froginthewell, at 11:37 AM  

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