What's In History, Anyway?
For those who want to know...
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This will be redundant for those who followed the blog on WordPress. For others, not so much.
History is part legend, part fact, but mostly interpretation of those who have gone before us.
Attributed to Georges Santayana
Santayana, famous for the “those who forget their history” misquote, had a lot to say about the past and the present. A lot of other people have too, including…
History repeats itself. Historians repeat each other.
History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.
Writing The Past Not Taken got me thinking about how history is written and why. It isn't as simple as "to tell the story of the past." There's a great deal more involved in talking about the past than just restating the sources. As we now know from the fallout of the 1619 Project, there are politics involved. Politics of race, of power, of class, and of pedagogy.
Writing history is as much about the present as the past.
John D. Beatty
Telling the story of the past is fraught with current perceptions, past prejudices, and censorship for many reasons. There isn't a historical event that cannot be interpreted--and presented--more than one way. Much of the success of the 1619 Project, I submit, has to do with the presentation of a complete learning package that keeps the instructor from having to build a lesson plan. Primary grade teachers are already overloaded and often under-compensated. What's more, teaching critical race theory based on the 1619 Project’s assumptions becomes simple...and it keeps the screaming cancellers of education at bay.
While the 1619 Project is based on false assumptions and the intentional misreading or denial of primary sources on those subjects, it is thought-provoking. Why was it written? Why did so many people jump on the bandwagon so quickly? I submit that its introduction in 2019 was greeted with wild acceptance among progressives who, smarting under the supposed tyranny of Donald Trump and the hated Republicans, found a new pedagogic model to contextualize their rage against a society that rejected their "truths" about race.
Simple as that...maybe. Of course, it's just an opinion (a lot of history is just that—see above), but a carefully considered one that fits the evidence. And this process is called...
What if someone wrote an utterly wrong history book? What if a text's entire content was seen through a current political fashion filter? What if I told you that many of them are, have been, and always will be? I refer you to the (possible) Santayana quote above. Do you know another quote that's not only possible but also controversial?
The difference between revenge and justice is who's hand is on the rope.
Attributed to Charles Lynch (1736–1796)
You see, there was a "Judge" Lynch--a Quaker justice of the peace--whose irregular Virginia court during the American Revolution punished loyalists with fines, forced oaths of allegiance, and forced enlistments. His courts and trials weren't based on any laws except those he made himself. Note that he never hanged anyone, but the term "lynched" is said to stem from his name and actions, which the Virginia House Of Burgesses legitimized after the fact.
But his statement presents a dilemma. The fashionable “easier to ask forgiveness than permission” explains why prisons overflow. One argument against capital punishment is its incontrovertibility—you can’t raise the dead, but you can reverse a conviction. Crimes against persons can and should result in punishment. But to what extent? And crimes against property? Does that reach into class warfare, declaring that ownership of things trumps the need for those things by the dispossessed? As Les Misérables asked so many years ago, is it a crime to try to alleviate one’s poverty by taking from those who have more than they need?
A lynching is said to be an illegal--or extralegal--execution. It is accurately attributed to almost any summary punishment. But think about what he's quoted as saying. Is there a difference between what private individuals do and what the state does? It could be the same action, now couldn't it?
So goes history and its all-too-frequent judgment. A historian should not judge the actions of those in the past, though they often do for political reasons. Case in point: once again, the 1619 Project. Their reinterpretation is based on a fiction: that a handful of Africans were enslaved as soon as they landed in Jamestown in 1619. The object of this fraud, quite possibly, is to prepare the ground for reparations.
Yes? No? What do YOU think?
History Reconsidered will be a re-occurring feature of this little missive. Get used to it. So will my questioning of the present based on the past. Subscribe at the bottom to keep up.
John, I haven't read the 1619 Project but I have read a bunch of stories about it and I wholeheartedly reject the notion that the American Revolution was about slavery. I don't even think the Texas Revolution was about slavery. But I also think Donald Trump was appalling on multiple fronts so I am not sure about why you link support for the Project with opposition to Trump. I find it very easy and not at all incompatible to oppose both.