Jun. 30 - The "Week in Review" section of yesterday's New York Times featured an article entitled "Debunking America's Enduring Myths." With an eye toward the upcoming Independence Day orgy of American folklore in the press, author David Greenberg ("who teaches history and political science at Yale") presents "a few of what scholars describe as the true myths of Revolutionary history."
I got the sense, reading the article, that Mr. Greenberg was only "debunking" old lore in an effort to replace it with new lore. Fair enough.
But one paragraph leaped out at me. "Today," Mr. Greenberg writes, "historians are quick to qualify any description of the Revolution as radical, since it kept slavery intact and only modestly changed (or perhaps reinforced) the dependent position of women. Still, the rejection not just of monarchy but of all inherited political office and aristocratic lineage was, for its time, a decidedly radical move."
The full context of the quote suggests that Mr. Greenberg may not agree with the historians he's describing, but think about that first sentence again. Historians don't like describing the American Revolution as radical because it left slavery intact and only modestly improved the role of women.
What the hell is happening to historians? And what the hell is happening to our vocabulary? Since when did "radical" become synonymous with ending slavery and promoting women's suffrage?
Should we qualify our descriptions of the invention of the telephone as "innovative" because the first proto-type didn't have automatic redial?
The American Revolution might not be radical today, but there were a lot of "radical" thoughts flying around the second half of the eighteenth century that would seem pretty trite today.
I ask again: what the hell is happening to historians?
W.H. Prescott, in his History of the Conquest of Mexico, wisely cautions that "it is too much to ask of any man... to be in advance of the refinement of his age. We may be content, if, in circumstances so unfavorable to humanity, he does not fall below it." Fifty-odd pages later, he observes that "We must extend to [past generations] the same justice which we shall have occassion to ask Posterity, when, by the light of a higher civilization, it surveys the dark or doubtful passages in our own history, which hardly arrest the eye of the contemporary."
Prescott's book was published in 1843. No student of history is likely to have navigated his or her way toward even an undergraduate degree in history without having encountered Prescott. And frankly, to this amateur history hobbyist, it's hard to imagine anyone could be any kind of a student of history without realizing the admittedly complicated premise that the past was different. After all, if the past had been the same, we wouldn't call it history, would we? We'd call it current events.
But again (as if I needed to remind you), I'm not a professional.
I realize American historians aren't mass-produced at some grim factory. They're invidual men and women who've taken an interest in the past and have concocted some means of generating an income while they pursue that interest (a secret methodology that probably consitutes the entire curriculum of their senior year). They all bring their own prides and prejudices to their work, and it's probably unfair to speak of "them" as though they were some monolithic bloc of like-thinking automatons.
But if one of "them" is going to speak in "their" name on the exalted (heh) pages of the Times, it's probably not unreasonable to believe he knows whereof he speaks when he says "historians are quick to qualify any description of the Revolution as radical"—and when he attributes that reluctance to the Revolution's not having created an egalitarian paradise overnight.
As those "historians" surely know, slavery wasn't abolished in America for nearly a full century after our revolution, and another half-century passed before American women got the right to vote.
Now, slavery was already beginning to wane in most of the western world by the end of the 1700s (it was abolished in Denmark in 1803), but it wasn't until 1893 that women were first granted the right to vote—in New Zealand. So by the reasoning of these "historians," the whole of human history prior to 1893 was devoid of (unqualified) radicalism.
Today, of course, there is slavery only in the most benighted backwaters of the world, and there's not a representative government on the face of the earth that denies women the right to vote. The logical conclusion? We're all radicals now.
Why do I even care about any of this? Because I'm an amateur history buff who thinks history is urgent and interesting and informative—when approached with an open and sympathetic mind. History is like civilization's attic, full of old diaries, letters, photo albums, and mysterious dust-covered trunks; it's where we can muck about with our great-grandparents' clothes and victrolas try on great-aunt Griselda's hats, and possibly learn a little more about our great-grandparents and great-aunt Griselda—and ourselves—while we're at it. Or so, in my amateurish and unsolicited opinion, it should be.
Instead, professional "historians" like those referred to by Mr. Greenberg make it the dreary proving ground of their orthodoxies. It's hard enough to get idiots like myself interested in history—although a few titillating pages of Procopius's "secret history" could probably motivate the most egregious slackers—and where one would think it would be the goal of historians to promote an interest in history, we find them instead promoting their interests through history.
I'm not entirely naive. Plutarch himself noted (in his Life of Pericles) that, "So very difficult a matter is it to trace and find out the truth of anything by history, when, on the one hand, those who afterwards write it find long periods of time obscuring their view, and, on the other hand, the contemporary records of any actions and lives, partly through envy and ill will, partly through favor and flattery, pervert and distort truth." But you'll notice he's operating on the premise that historians would want to "trace and find out the truth" and that the perversions and distortions are supposed to be perpetrated by the contemporaries, not the historians.
Alas for Plutarch.
We can disagree on history all we like, but we have to begin by agreeing that it happened in the past and the past was different.
Is that really so much to ask of historians?
Edward Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, relates an interesting first-hand account of daily life in Constantinople, circa 378 A.D.:
"This city is full of mechanics and slaves, who are all of them profound theologians, and preach in the shops and in the streets. If you desire a man to change a piece of silver, he informs you wherein the Son differs from the Father; if you ask the price of a loaf, you are told, by way of reply, that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you inquire whether the bath is ready, the answer is, that the Son was made out of nothing."
And if you ask a historian about the American revolution, the answer is, that slavery was bad and women were oppressed...
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(Of course, Gibbon probably doesn't hold much water with today's historians. In the whole six volumes of his celebrated Roman history, for example, he never mentions the impact of Roman Imperialism on the environment.)
Speaking of stupidity, I was recently reminded that I'd promised to describe the full-frontal anti-Americanism I'd encountered at a pub a couple of weekends ago. Like so many other promises made on these electronic pages, I broke that one.
It's going to remain broken.
The source of the anti-Americanism was, after all, Hungarian rather than Danish, and an avowed communist to boot.
"An avowed Hungarian communist" in 2003. Think what that really means, then tell me if you'd be surprised to learn that such a creature would dislike America.
Now if he had liked America, that'd be something to write about. And even more to worry about...
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Mike Tyson turns 37 today. He shares his birthday with Susan Hayward (1919), Lena Horne (1917), and Buddy Rich (1917).
It's Armed Forces Day in Guatemala, Flag Day in Portugal, Salvation Revolution Day in Sudan, and Flag Day in Tanzania.
Happy Monday! —and a very happy fortieth anniversary to my parents!
© 2003, The Moron's Almanac