General History

16 Feb

Ahhh history–a subject that can be fascinating or bore me to tears.  When I was little I was fascinated by all the wars in history, not because I loved war mind you, but I loved history and wars (in my head then) were when history had a bunch of stuff happen in a short period of time and personalities and pomp and good vs. evil battles (I was like seven ok, not my fault) but the truth is, even wars can get pretty boring.

As an adult, I want to make a distinction between history and a log of past events.  History is almost always not the same as events actually happened, rather, it’s a collection of stories our culture makes up to put those events in a recognizable pattern.  If I wanted to look at hard history, I’d be looking at mostly data, collected things from archaeological digs, lists of numbers, public records, medical records, and truth be told it’s completely boring until each piece of information is put in the confines of a story.  It’s the difference between looking at a bunch of statistics about Civil War deaths and arranging those statistics within the larger stories of what the Civil War is about.  So I’m not interested in history gathering, I’m more interested in history application.  The story we put these facts in is always changing, and includes a lot of stuff that’s not true at all.  So I want to point out a few rules on history.

1.  History is an agreed story based on a series of preconceptions that may or may not be true.  Wanna do something that will kind of blow your mind?  Look at a History textbook from 1960.  Just like futuristic ideas (think of the original Star Trek) date really quickly, ideas about the past say as much about contemporary times as they do anything about the past.  We’re talking about people in far off times, but we’re seeing them with modern eyes and modern moralities and do things like place way more importance on things that matter now than things that mattered at the time, and ignore other things that people really cared about then (i.e. what do you know about the gold standard?  I thought so.)

2.  People tend to think that we’re in the most advanced time, and everything has been building up to now.  It’s a nice idea isn’t it?  Humanity has been learning their lessons and we have progressed to this point.  People today are more enlightened, are smarter, have a better social structure, than every culture before.  It’s an optimistic viewpoint, but not one that I believe.  While knowledge has built on itself over human history (though knowledge has and can be lost), humans have remained essentially the same, from the time we first started being able to have villages until today.  That’s one thing I really don’t like about seeing how things used to be and chalking it down with “people were so ignorant then.”  In one way I think it’s a cop-out, for instance, the Catholic church did not torture Jews in the Middle Ages because they were ignorant, they did it for some very shady reasons.  Also, explorers didn’t conquer Native Americans out of a naive ignorance that they were “savages that needed to be civilized,” rather they conveniently labeled them as savages to do what they wanted.  And this sort of thing still happens all the time.

3.  Sometimes cultures are important historically because they have better records.  One reason that the Roman Empire is studied so much, is because the Romans were absolutely tops when it came to documenting things.  Not only that, but many people since the Romans admired the Roman culture enough to save this documentation.  On the other hand, there’s whole cultures that rose and fell without any documentation at all, or hardly any.  Whether they didn’t document, or they didn’t document on materials that lasted doesn’t really matter–where we have no written explanation, we have very little insight as to how people acted at that time.  Yes we can find their buildings, and remains or whatever, but we won’t have access to their thinking, which leads us to a bunch of guesses, which are based in modern times.  In fact, I can think of at least one instance (The Greeks) that their written records arguably had more influence on history than however much land they owned at their height.

4.  Sometimes things are added in just to make them more interesting.  Ever wonder why Washington has so many myths about him?  The apple tree thing?  The wooden teeth?  Mostly because he was pretty dull.  Honestly,  he was well liked in his time, but his speeches were very short, he had very little going on in the home front, had no children, and while he was a very good general, he wasn’t one of the influential thinkers of his time.  I really think all these little made-up stories are to try to give him some character.  I mean, think of his presidency, very important, but most people don’t know a thing about that time.

5.  History is never objective, but it’s extremely changeable until the generation that has lived through it has passed on.  Honestly, I think that Vietnam matters more as a social issue (ie the people who lived through it and remember it)  than it will in future history.  At the same time, there are other events that at the time seemed like no big deal but later grew to matter enormously, for instance the car was thought of as an expensive toy when it first came out.

6.  History is always written with ulterior motives.  Cleopatra wasn’t like that–the Romans liked to see her as a maneater because Egypt was one of the only other civilizations in Rome’s sphere at that time that came even close to being a threat.  Richard III wasn’t ugly, Shakespeare wrote that because he was mainly writing for the royalty at the time who had some insecurities about credibility and lineage.   Wars don’t usually end with a big giant battle, but when one side or the other goes broke.  Lords and ladies haven’t gone away, they’re just replaced by corporations instead of castles, and in those castles they did more of what corporations do today than all the jousting and such we usually think of them as doing.  There’s no such things as simpler more innocent times–those are myths.

7.  But those myths are interesting, they get into our national psyches and tell us more about ourselves than anything else.  That’s why I think they’re interesting, even arguments about history are about really, who we are and what we value.  And just as I find myths to have value, I find history to have the same value, because underneath all these stories are our insecurities, our longings, our heroes, and people just like us.

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