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The importance of ‘unlearning’ the past: Interview with Balkans expert Keith Brown

Prof. Keith Brown, Arizona State University. Photo used with his permission.

Prof. Keith Brown, Arizona State University. Photo used with his permission.

This story was originally published by Meta.mk. An edited version is republished here via a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation. All links displayed in the interviewee's quotes were added by Meta.mk.

Keith Brown is a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies. He is also director of The Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian & Eastern European Studies. With a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Chicago, Brown works primarily in the domain of culture, politics, and identity, focused on the Balkans.

Part of his extensive research on ethnonationalism and the role of national history in the region has been available to the public in North Macedonia via the translations of his books “The past in question: Modern Macedonia and the Uncertainties of Nation” (2003) and “Loyal unto Death, Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia” (2013).

In an interview with portal CriThink.mk, Brown explains the importance of critical thinking when learning history.

CriThink: How important is the application of critical thinking to history and anthropology?

Keith Brown (KB): Critical thinking is very important in both history and anthropology.  Skeptics and naysayers sometimes dismiss our methods as “soft” or trot out tired clichés like “history is written by the winners.” But evaluating and comparing sources, and weighing how cultural and social factors impact individual decisions, are essential components of both disciplines. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, historians and anthropologists recognize that meanings and horizons shift over time and across space.

This is especially important in the study of nationalism—a mode of political organization and identity formation that contributed to the break-up of multiconfessional empires in the 19th century, and which often seeks legitimacy by claiming ancient roots.  What makes it more complicated is that most nation-states place a high premium on communicating to their citizens a strong sense of shared history that distinguishes them from others. Often, it is easier for people to see the inconsistencies and distortions in their neighbors’ versions of the past, than to question or closely scrutinize the history that they think holds their own society together.

Critical thinking demands, as an early step, recognition of one’s own blinkers, prejudices and areas of ignorance. It also benefits from dialogue in which participants check their egos and agendas at the door, and measure success not by the points they score, but by the new ways of seeing they have helped generate for themselves or others.

CriThink: Political establishments in most Balkans states seem to insist on promoting the concept of “national history” based on selecting “positive,” and excluding “negative,” “facts” to create or maintain official narratives that are then used in public education textbooks. In the last 200 years, this dogmatic approach had often been used as justification for oppression towards “the others.” Is there another way to do history?

KB: History is an incredibly rich domain of study. In 2015, oral historian Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her work chronicling citizens’ voices from the end of the Soviet Union. Organizations like EuroClio—to which many history teachers from the Balkans and Eastern Europe belong—promote the study of global history, and encourage members and students to explore social, cultural and economic history. Courageous and open-minded historians are often leading critics of the exceptionalism on which national history is founded—including in the United States, through efforts like the 1619 project.

I think that these kind of approaches have enormous potential to transform people’s understandings of the past, and prompt reflection on how the present will look from the future. I am particularly excited by the promise of microhistory, as pioneered by Carlo Ginzburg, which draws out the broader human significance from the close study of an event or community.

Books by Keith Brown.

English language editions of Keith Brown’s books “Loyal unto Death, Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia” (2013) and “The past in question: Modern Macedonia and the Uncertainties of Nation” (2003).

CriThink: In your book “Loyal Unto Death: Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia,” you note facing challenges of unreliability or bias in available historical sources, including the correspondence of British consuls preserved as microfilms by the Museum of Macedonian Struggle in Greece; or the applications for pensions submitted to the new Macedonian state by the elderly who survived revolutions between 1948 and 1956, preserved in the State Archive of North Macedonia. How did you deal with that challenge of extracting useful information from these records?

KB: I first read many of these sources while I was a graduate student in anthropology. Conscious that the Ilinden Uprising of 1903 had been interpreted differently by scholars for whom the correct context was Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, Albanian, Yugoslav, Ottoman, Balkan or Macedonian history, I wanted to get as close to the period as I could, by engaging closely with sources that, in one way or another, stood outside these frames of reference.

I was struck, for example, by the fact that according to the records of the National Archive in Skopje, only a handful of scholars had sought access to the Ilinden dossier of biographies. My understanding was that these sources were discounted because, self-evidently, they were self-interested. The British, French, German and American diplomatic and consular records from Ottoman Macedonia, by contrast, are often treated as wholly dispassionate, objective and clinical accounts, as if their authors were scientifically trained medical professionals, diagnosing the ills of an empire on its death-bed. In writing “Loyal Unto Death,” I took an alternative, subversive approach toward these two sets of sources.  Whether or not individual pension-seekers amplified their own roles, or edited out those elements that might weaken their case for state recognition, their accounts drew from their own or their age-mates’ experiences and understandings.  No-one lied about the organizational structure of the revolutionary organization, the methods of recruitment, or the logistics of acquiring weapons or distributing information and supplies: what would be the self-interest in doing so? Thus they provide us, individually but even more so in aggregate, with a sense of the shared day-to-day experience of participation in a resistance and rebellion.

British consular accounts, often read as if magisterial, reflect their individual authors’ biographies, perspectives and access to sources: Alfred Biliotti was a naturalized British citizen born in Rhodes who had worked his way up from the position of dragoman and had close ties with Ottoman and Greek authorities, whereas James McGregor knew Bulgarian and expressed the view that the Organization commanded strong support. Their accounts diverge or clash. This is not to say that all sources or accounts are equally valid or suspect.  It is rather to argue that we need to get past our own cultural preconceptions, whether they tell us “peasants lie” or “diplomats are cynical careerists,” and remain alert to the ways they can surprise us.

Macedonian language editions of Keith Brown’s books “The past in question: Modern Macedonia and the Uncertainties of Nation” (2019) and “Loyal unto Death, Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia” (2014).

Macedonian language editions of Keith Brown’s books “The past in question: Modern Macedonia and the Uncertainties of Nation” (2010) and “Loyal unto Death, Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia” (2014).

CriThink: Lacking a viable time machine, it’s hard to precisely determine the “national consciousness” of historical figures, given the non-existing, censored, fabricated, or conflicting records, their interpretations, as well as changed meanings of some of the language used at the time. Which critical thinking skills need to be nurtured across the region to help resolve such issues?

KB: In “The Past in Question,” I chose to use the language of the British consular sources rather than update or modify it, and to try to translate sources in Greek and Bulgarian into the English of that time, rather than of the early 21st century.  I thus used terms like “Bulgar,” “Arnaut,” “Mijak” and “Exarchist” seeking in this way to remind readers of the very different world of the late nineteenth century; when “Greece” referred to a territory roughly half the size of modern Greece; when only a small fraction of people who would call themselves “Bulgars” owed loyalty to the Ottoman-administered “Bulgaria” with its capital in Sofia; when the Sultan sought to restrict the use of the Albanian language, and the term “Macedonia;” and when the prospect of an alliance of convenience between the ambitious nation-states of Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece to carve up and nationalize Ottoman territory surely seemed absurd to most.

For me, critical thinking demands, paradoxically, that we try to unlearn what actually happened since the period we are trying to understand; or at least, allow it to strike us as surprising or at least non-inevitable. This then concentrates our attention on the factors that drive outcomes. It also liberates us from the illusion that figures in the past—like Ilinden-era figures Goce Delchev, Nikola Karev, Damjan Gruev or Boris Sarafov—imagined their own identity in terms of the nationalisms of their future.

Keith Brown and the historian Irena Stefoska at the promotion of the Macedonian edition of the book The past in question: Modern Macedonia and the Uncertainties of Nation in December 2010. Photo by Vančo Džambaski, CC BY-NC-SA.

CriThink: Yet such issues seem to grow into central points of a slippery slope of international disputes, from Goce Delchev (Bulgaria-North Macedonia) to Nikola Tesla (Serbia-Croatia), Skanderbeg (Greece-Albania), Njegoš (Montenegro-Serbia) to King Marko (North Macedonia-Serbia-Bulgaria). Is there a way to resolve such issues at some higher, more objective level, rather than just between conflicting states, and based on their power?

KB: Social scientists, including historians (and I’d include myself in this assessment) don’t always keep up to date with developments in other disciplines and fields.  This manifests itself in approaches rooted in the conventions of 19th century Newtonian sciences, with a focus on breaking down complex reality into experimental-size pieces, where we can test hypotheses in an “either/or” mode to determine cause and effect, the rules of energy transfer and transformation, and so on. Contemporary theoretical and experimental science, though, have moved far beyond this paradigm; into the world of quarks, bosons and quantum mechanics, where non-specialists can barely follow. Ask the average person where they stand on the wave-particle duality, and you’re probably in for a short conversation. It requires thinking in “both/and” terms that demands effort, and also a realignment of deeply held common-sense. But this lack of public understanding doesn’t prevent physicists from pursuing their work and generating new insight into the workings of the universe.

Balkan history has been shaped by the territorial ambitions and disputes of the last century, and so has become a zero-sum game; it also has quasi-religious aspects, insofar as current debates reveal an implicit concern with purity and pollution underlying accusations around loyalty and betrayal. Grievances and disputes escalate; and (to pursue the game metaphor) there is no mechanism, in this case, by which both sides would agree to invest a referee with the authority to call the game fairly; the stakes are seen as too high.

An alternative view would be that the dispute over Goce Delchev’s “true” identity, for example, is a classic case of the prisoner’s dilemma game; in which both sides fear that by surrendering their claim to ownership they will lose and the other side will win (Bragging rights? Prestige? The mantle of “true” nationhood?), but the consequence of their refusal to acknowledge ambiguity is that both sides are seen as intransigent or blinkered in the wider community of nations.

CriThink: Would some sort of International Scientific Tribunal need to be developed to prevent escalations, akin to tribunals used to provide closure for conflicts involving genocide and war crimes (Rwanda, Former Yugoslavia)?

KB: I don’t see value in an external tribunal offering some authoritative closure: for me, that’s not how history (or science) work.  All findings are contingent and provisional: they are contributions to an ongoing exchange, the ultimate goal of which is not to set some conclusion in stone, but provide material that can open new horizons and perspectives.

CriThink: In the Balkans, contrary to the inherent role of professional journalists as promotors of democracy, the media often serve as amplifiers of the most radical and polarizing nationalistic views about history. Is there a way to embed critical thinking about history in the mainstream media sphere?

KB: My own fantasy solution is something like what a group of Macedonian youth leaders did in the second half of the 1980s with the Youth Film Forum (Mladinski filmski forum), and set up learning opportunities through engagement with film, literature and other prompts.  What would happen, for example, if Bulgarian and Macedonian historians and journalists watched “Rashomon” together? Or undertook a joint project (perhaps with Albanian colleagues) on the economic, psychological and social effects of gurbet/pečalba? Or conducted a close joint study of the United States 1619 project? I believe they would emerge with a shared vocabulary to address issues of contingency, ambiguity, trauma and structural violence that are shared across the Balkan region—and beyond.

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