Reading History - Introduction
I love history. I read a lot of it, so I thought I would do some posts on things that strike me as interesting from my readings and make some recommendations, for those interested. Now I know most people find history boring, my kids certainly do, and they don't see the point of it. But I believe that history has a lot to teach us. We are not as original and intelligent as we imagine, and we tend to make similar decisions and mistakes as have been made in the past. That said, History can enlighten us, show us a better course of action, and help us avoid the same mistakes we seem to continue to make as humans.
History is a seemingly harmless subject to teach, yet it can be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands. It can be used to manipulate and indoctrinate. When you control the historical narrative you can control the future. That is one of the reasons why totalitarian regimes start by rewriting history.
Like almost everything in this country (the United States) history has been politicized by both right and left. In its extreme forms, the right wants to hang on to the mythos of American exceptionalism, while the left wants to highlight the negative in all its forms and create a new mythos of American evil. Both are wrong and both are right. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. There is plenty of good and bad in America's past. We should not ignore it or sweep it under the rug. The problem is that we apply an unforgiving, almost puritanical modern moral lens to history, it is either all good or all evil, nothing in between. That is not to say we should excuse horrible practices and events of the past. Genocide is horrible, as is slavery. However, when reading history we should look at it scientifically, studying facts and events, rather than through a moral lens, that comes later. I m not sure I'm expressing myself clearly here. The bottom line is that few things in life are one hundred percent one way or the other.
For example, many of the Founding Fathers were slaveholders. Slavery is clearly a horrendous evil and even in their day and age, the Founding Fathers knew it as an evil. Yet, they continued the practice because it benefited them economically. Yet again, at the same time, they created a political experiment that resulted in a new form of government that was more open, more liberal, and more just than what was known at the time. Yes, it was—and still is—imperfect, but it was also the beginning of the freedoms we cherish today. The Founding Fathers were humans: imperfect, contradictory, and complex. Seeing them as totally evil misses the fact that what we are building on today is a result of their vision. But not acknowledging the wrong they did, and viewing them as perfect beings, will doom us to repeat their evils.
We should also look at history from different sides. Like most nations, we view history from our own particular point of view. Everything is more or less America-focused. To listen to Americans, you would think America is the world and other nations are mere background. Now that is not just an American trait, most countries take their own viewpoint when writing history. It is both natural and a form of propaganda, the creation of each nation's mythology. However, we learn a lot more when we can look at history from the other side, as we shall see in this series. When I was an operations officer with the CIA, it was extremely useful to put oneself in the other person's position or to understand the viewpoint of another culture. It didn't mean you agreed with it, it just allowed you to understand the other side better and make better decisions. History is the same.
Enough babbling. As someone once said (I don’t know who), history is not there for you to like or dislike, it is there for you to learn from it. And if it offends you, even better. Because then you are less likely to repeat it. It's not yours to erase. It belongs to all of us.