Reading the Sands of Time

Opinions - November 7th, 2011

by Ian de Stains OBE

History, as the British author Alan Bennett famously wrote, “is just one damn thing after another”.

No doubt as it is being played out as history itself is made, that is what it feels like to those most closely involved.

So, as what many predicted would be the “Arab Spring” turns increasingly into a winter of Arab discontent, those close to the heart of it in, say, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, must yearn for the closure that looking back on history often brings.

Looking back, and with the advantage of 20-20 hindsight, we frequently perceive events that we ourselves have seen or taken part in altogether differently, even very shortly after the event.

It is now commonly accepted that witnesses at crime scenes or following dramatic accidents often give very different, even contradictory accounts of what took place and that is why in more sophisticated jurisdictions these days, the courts attach far less importance to “eye-witness” statements than they once did.

DNA and other scientifically reliable evidence is what prosecutors and defense counsel alike strive to place before juries in their efforts to convict or acquit.

We saw this controversy play out most dramatically in the recent on-again, off-again execution in the US of Troy Davis where seven out of nine “eye-witnesses” recanted their testimony, though the death sentence was finally upheld.

So it is that we judge history differently the further we are removed from it and history in turn rewrites our past.

The reputations of a number of U.S. Presidents, among them Truman and Kennedy have recently been revisited and each is now seen a very different light. And so it is with the political reputations of those in other countries.

We must wait for the passing of a few years yet before we see what history will make of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and how it will judge his fall from Messiah of the Third Way to the mendacious demon he has become in some people’s eyes.

Whether or not that same history will reveal the truth about his role, or lack of one, in the freeing of the Lockerbie bomber, arms and oil deals with the deceased dictator Gaddafi, remains to be seen but is a revelation devoutly to be wished by any genuine seeker after truth.

As for Japan’s political landscape, historians will certainly not be short of choice when they come to their analyses but whether, even at a distance, they will be able to make sense of what at close quarters looks and feels like unmitigated irresponsibility is, as an Australian friend is fond of saying, “a bigger mystery than a sausage”.

Ian de Stains OBE is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and Convenor of its Japan Chapter.