Beyond the Us-Versus-Them Narrative: A Review of The Undivided Past

Religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization—these are the oversimplified collective identities that structure how we humans see the world, framing it in terms of the “virtuous ‘us’ and an evil ‘them’.” In The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences, David Cannadine challenges these reductionisms, arguing that the world is not so easily divided. In fact, “the history of humankind is at least as much about cooperation as it is about conflict.”

The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences by David Cannadine Knopf, 2013 352 pages (hardcover) Source: Personal library

The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences
by David Cannadine
Knopf, 2013
352 pages (hardcover)
Source: Personal library

These identities, he writes, “have all been defined and reinforced through confrontation, struggle, and conflict—against an alternative religion, an enemy nation, a hostile class, the other gender, a different race, or an alien civilization.”

Firstly, Cannadine is mostly right. The world is not so neatly divided into Manichean categories of light and dark, spirit and matter, or good versus evil. I would add, however, that despite the permeability of these identities, when it comes time for rallying the troops, the us-v-them notion is still a formidable illusion. The devil doesn’t have to exist to be powerful.

Each chapter explores an identity and engages well-ensconced themes of good and evil found within political discourse or among historians. In his examination of the identity of class, for example, Cannadine points out the inherent problem of Marxist divisions of class as absolutist categories. Attempts by Marx and Engels “to explain, and to predict, all of human history on the basis of the three distinct classes they believed to be in perpetual, sequential, and revolutionary conflict were deeply flawed,” particularly since “patterns of economic development, and of transformations in the mode of production, have never been that neat or coherent.”

They “failed to understand that most societies comprised a complex hierarchy of ranks, levels, and gradations, which melded and merged imperceptibly one into another across the boundaries of what Marx and Engels believed were these three impermeable and antagonistic class identities,” says Cannadine.

The Undivided Past calls the reader to move beyond the view of human history as a clash of groups and to embrace its other story of solidarity. Men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus. Race is also far too complicated. Cornel West’s assertion that “there is no such thing as having…one essential identity that fundamentally defines who we actually are,” gets at this complication.

“There were myriad tribes in Africa,” writes Cannadine, “some of whom were dark-skinned, but others were Arabs, and there were many different castes and races in South Africa. Moreover, colonizer and colonized interacted, regularly fraternized, and even married across these alleged impermeable boundaries of racial identity.”

And religion is no different. Conversation occurred across those alleged borders between groups like Islam and Christianity. This has been very apparent in working in my own field. The diversity of Christianity in the fourth century is undersold in popular literature through the orthodox versus heretic narrative. There was more than one type of Arianism, and many Trinitarians, like Athanasius, worked closely with Modalists (like Marcellus) as colleagues (at least until late in the century). Purported heretics were not the odd-ducks; they were representative voices for others who also understood themselves as Christians. Even the Protestant Reformation was not simply Protestant versus Catholic. There were reformations (plural) at hand, where supposed enemies like Protestant and Catholic attempted to work together (e.g. The Regensburg Colloquy).

Cannadine wants the reader to understand that our differences have been significantly overstated. There is no doubt, as he sees it, that the emphasis on differences has been the tool of partisans, but “a history that dwells only on divided pasts denies us the just inheritance of what we have always shared, namely a capacity to ‘live together in societies sufficiently harmonious and orderly not to be constantly breaking apart’.”

And here is where the second observation comes in. I’m thrilled by the enthusiasm for an alternative historical narrative. The Ramist bifurcation that engulfs political discourse is what makes us think in terms of conservative and liberal, red state and blue state, Fox News and MSNBC, and straight or gay. It’s a tired old narrative that misses the truth that not all Republicans are Tea Party loyalists and not all Democrats hate capitalism. One does not have to be a Whig to believe in the rights of the people or a Tory to avoid anarchy. The real story can be complicated and that’s a good thing.

But can that enthusiasm for the complex and nuanced history change the conversation?

“We need to see beyond our differences, our sectional interests, our identity politics, and our parochial concerns,” argues Cannadine, “to embrace and to celebrate the common humanity that has always bound us together, that still binds us together today, and that will continue to bind us together in the future.”

The either/or narrative may not be an accurate picture, but it is far from being impotent. There are places in the world where regular upheaval may not incline one to hopefulness and the good versus evil may be the only lens that feels relevant. This leaves doubt about the ability of this revised narrative to conquer the old one, even if the bigger picture says there is more solidarity than we think. I’ll cheer on the hopeful and approachable message of The Undivided Past, but there will always be the part of me that says that we humans prefer the Manichean perspective. Then again, maybe I’m just living in my own bifurcation—a world divided by the pessimist and the optimist.

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