Saturday, April 23, 2011

Rethinking Our Past

History is colored by the time it is written. "Myths" about historical events can sometimes become more ingrained than the actual events themselves. Is it better to try to be 100% accurate in the depiction of history, or to acknowledge that it is colored by the time period when it was written?

The lecturer here argues that facts are of tantamount importance. His background is in "minority" history, and thus he spends most of the time showing how "minorities" get the shaft under the common historical myths. However, he does make an attempt to be fair, criticizing others who let the pendulum shift too far in the other direction. (Zinn and his "people's history" come to mind.)

These lectures do a fairly good job of presenting the rationale for many of the "myths" of American history. While, he often devolves to declaring "euro-centralism" as the core factor, he does a good job of presenting the more direct reasons for the myths to appear. (He mentions the Columbus "flat earth" expectations as coming from Washington Irving, and the primacy of the Pilgrims coming after the Civil War time frame.) Even with these, the primacy of the sources could be questioned. (The origins of Chicago as the "windy city" come to mind. Common thought says it has to do with the wind. More educated people say it has to do with New York newspapers talking about the city's propensity to boisterism. However, more digging turns up meteorological usage before the New Yorkers. Which one is right? Does it really matter? Was one just playing off the other?)

The story of prehistory starts with the arrival of people in America. The story of the land bridge dominates history books. However, boat could also have been likely, however, it would not have left significant artifacts. Scientists objecting to alien and boat stories may have gone overboard in dismissing all maritime influence. The lack of a wheel in early American cultures may have been due more to their situation - in hilly terrains without draft animals, a wheel was not very useful. (Now if they could just see cyclists in San Francisco...)

His discussion of the domination of the European settlers over the Native Americans tended to delve a little more to the "they were here first" side. An Indian tribe that was left with just a couple members left in 1492 is obviously in much better condition than one that was wiped out a few decades earlier. However, we don't know much about the earlier ones. However, his primary concern is with the interaction. By coming back on a second voyage, Columbus initiated the Euro-American relationship that we have today. He does not declare it "good" or "evil", but simply something that happened. He also is good about not assigning "blame" to past events. After all, those today did not do things in the past - though they often try to color the past in their manner. His "remedies" tend to be simple - changing a marker to "he visited this area" instead of "he discovered this area".

The key message from the lectures is that "history" is the narrative of past events seen by the person writing it. We may be learning about the Revolutionary War as understood by those living during the 1930s, not those living during the actual war. While Loewen sees the "coloring" of the distant past by the more recent past as an "evil lie" to be uncovered, I see it as just another part of history to be studied. Without experiencing the entire time period leading up to historical events, it is impossible to get a true experience of the history. While we can strive for more details of the events, we may forget that "false" understandings of history are what other people grew up with. A true "accurate" revision of past events may increase our understanding of the distance past, but at the expense of the more recent past.

The second half of these lectures delves more in the "nadir of race relations". He argues that racial history has been especially colored by confederate sympathizers, starting in 1890. He spends time arguing for a more "multicultural" analysis of historical events. In other words, he argues we should view history through the lens of contemporary values - precisely what he was criticizing others from doing in the past.

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