Revisionist history is in the news, and I’m wondering how we convey history accurately through the lens of todays’ worldview with accuracy. I’ll get to the notions of the 1619 project later, but for openers let’s review a more recent case.
I was reading up on Sir John Gielgud the other day on Wikipedia and found the author struggling to convey why Sir John was arrested in 1953 for cruising in a public lavatory and the career ending scandal his outing as gay could have caused. Note that Sir John became Sir John earlier that year (he was Knighted by the Queen), and the scandal arose upon his arrest in the fall, November I believe.
The author did note that any kind of sex between men was illegal under the king’s law, and that the home secretary was “vigorously homophobic”. Ultimately, Sir John was drug on stage after the scandal broke by Sybil Thorndyke before a performance (that Sir John was afraid to appear in) and the crowd gave him a standing ovation meaning that his career was not impacted, and, unstated in the article, that people in London were sympathetic with LGBTQ, or at least Gay persons, even in 1953. Nothing much was said after that point, and Sir John privately supported LGBT groups but did not discuss his sexuality openly.
The question arose in my mind, is this revisionist? Does it properly convey the worldview of the times in which these things occurred? I mean, it’s not the home secretary that was vigorously homophobic, now is it? No, laws, social morals and taboos, even the Old Testament had for millennia rendered the home secretary’s actions correct albeit we, or at least I, am ashamed of those views and actions which lead to cruising in lavatories due to the requisite secrecy, and one should perhaps note that the government was not vigorously extinguishing the “normal” activity of prostitution. But that, again, imposes a modern lens on history. Perhaps what is wrong with the article is the representation of the home secretary which is an anachronistically imposed perspective.
You see, history conveyed in the now is always interpreted by the storyteller in order to answer Rudyard Kipling’s famous six questions: who, what, when, where, how, and why. Answering “Why?” is an expectation of any coherent discussion but, outside of a repeatable experiment, it is always a subjective answer, because the answer must make sense to the target audience and, indeed, the storyteller. The only way to avoid that trap is go gain historical knowledge from sources who wrote at the time of the events which one wishes to study. Even then, the lens through which the writer conveys history shapes the narrative they produce because history without the six story element is simply filled with places and dates and events but nothing that provides understanding of how and why these things happened in the first place.
How do I know this? Take a good look at my Bibliography Post where you will find that I approach study through good English translations of material written by the people living in the periods that I study, augmented by works relevant to those periods written by modern authors. I should also like to note that I am careful in selecting translations, or to choose books whose editorial staff I trust. My approach is, admittedly, problematic because even my period (roughly 2300 BC=BCE to 200 AD=CE with special focus on about 596 BCE to 70 CE “The Second Temple Period”) and geographic area (the Mediterranean coast and inland therefrom) produced an enormous quantity of literature in that time not least of which is the Bible. The problem is, to really understand the Bible in its breadth, the seed must sprout and it is but a mustard seed opening a gateway to a world of ancient texts that survive. If one wishes to truly understand, one must work very, very hard. Tens of thousands of pages await, and the task will still not be complete at that point, but some basics can be fully understood, basics like humans haven’t changed much in all that time.
What I am most often faced with is the need to dig further back to understand the writings of a given period, or the need to give myself the freedom to challenge the historicity (whether or not events actually happened and happened in the way described) of ancient texts. For instance, in the book of Judges, Chapter 1, we find hints as to what actually happened in the conquest of the land in a series of “did not” statements such as “When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not in fact drive them out.” (Judges 1:28 NRS) You see, modern archaeology tells us that a group of people who did not eat pork did, in fact, enter the land known as Israel, but slowly and attacking from mountain strongholds. My take is that the book of Joshua is told through a lens of national pride whereas Judges 1 tells us the unvarnished truth. Study is hard work.
As for digging back and digging deeper, one should really consider the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Library, Jerome’s translation of the Bible (Douay Rheims), Mishnaic and Talmudic texts, and a whole bunch of other material to really understand the Gospel message. Indeed, I was rather amazed in studying the Greek Magical Papyri that the sacred name of God, Yahweh, which was well hidden for millennia, is on fully display in the spells but one must have some knowledge to understand that the glossolalia (speaking in tongues) recorded in the Papyri need to be pronounced rather than read. If one does so, one speaks the divine name likely quite like the priests spoke it from the Temple on Yom Kippur in the first and second temple periods. In a couple of incantations anyway, albeit without any consonants (iaue with varying quantities of letters in the imitated glossolalia), a thing found to be magical in ancient texts as well as palindromes. Again, some level of knowledge is required here because Nathan is a common palindrome and one must understand that it is so because th is represented by a single letter, Theta making it the same backwards and forwards.
History teaches us a lot of things. What was tried, what worked, what failed, where lots of our western ideas come from, our laws, our methods of investigation, that sort of thing. It also teaches us about human beings and how we behave and, frankly, the further back ones goes the more directly humanity is on display because there is less intrigue on display making it easier to understand cause and effect relationships. That said, fans of Josephus will know the intrigue of Herod the Great’s rule, and how complex all of it really was. It is easier, but it is not easy.
For instance, about the only thing the movie “The Ten Commandments” gets correct is that Egypt had no death penalty; the Pharaoh would not pronounce such a sentence, even when someone was accused of Treason. The priests inquired of the gods which, in some instances, must have been sort of bobble headed because if the god nodded, execution was carried out. The story of the film has no basis in the literature it claims support from (the Bible, Josephus, and Philo), and Egyptians at that time were not white, neither did they have Caucasian facial features: they were decidedly African. It is later, after Persia and then Alexander the Great conquered Egypt that her rulers became light skinned.
Obviously, I find the use of history in teaching very frustrating. On the one hand, I’m deeply in love with ancient history and I’d like everyone to know it. On the other hand, expecting humans to go through the extraordinary effort to understand history the way this human does is ludicrous. This inevitably results in the teaching regime being a hodge podge selection and the curriculum being chosen to use history to reinforce certain other moral or societal teachings in the now.
The hodge podge selection is excellent – a sampler to give the student a taste of what lies unexplored, of the glorious caves with delicate and ancient beauty waiting for their light to shine on them, and of course, the incredible piles of bat guano that one must surmount in order to get to those beautiful sights.
Using history as part of a programmatic teaching exercise risks politicization of history and its use for a propaganda tool. Here we face a real dilemma because a coherent narrative requires an understanding of why people did what they did but understanding Hitler’s Germany requires people to understand their completely fabricated perspective on the Jewish people and propagates that thinking. That makes the teaching much harder, and negatives are hard even impossible to prove, except that the lies and fabrications of the Nazi regime, and others past and present, are so absurd that any rational person can see how horrendous a lie they are, and anyone with any level of compassion can see that the monstrous treatment of persons deemed anathema by that regime was unspeakably horrific, even if Martin Luther himself did write that Jews should be put in forced labor camps. That said, the truth of the Holocaust must be taught. Never again means never again, not to any group of people, and we’ve let it happen again and again. Cambodia, Burundi (Myanmar), China, and so forth and so on. This we should be ashamed of, and that shame should convince us to act when we see this sort of thing happening, as we do with refugees in Europe, for instance. But we don’t.
On the 1619 project, what I’ve read about it anyway, I don’t think that it’s helpful to attack America over the enslavement of persons. If we want to get to the bottom of this horrendous evil, we have to go to Europe, and as far back as history will take us. And to be clear, 1619 isn’t the starting date at all. Columbus had African slaves on his ships in 1492. Indeed, the BBC, which I used to trust, wrote an article calling slavery American “original sin”. Sorry folks, Europe introduced it, Europe enslaved people as a matter of course, Europe and Christopher Columbus who was a brutal thug brought this to these United States.
No, the question should be what history teaches us about the enslavement of people. Initially, people and generations of people were enslaved due to defeat in battle, as spoils of victory, and sold at a price. That’s evil but easy to understand. As time wore on and countries grew with wars being fought on much larger scales, this practice seems to have decreased in favor of forced enslavement of persons from areas unable to mount a defense – enslavement, always a source of cash to the solider, then became a commercial enterprise. The enslaved were considered to be, and were treated as, less than human. This horrendous practice of enslaving persons, often but certainly not exclusively from Africa, ended in the United States at about the same time that Great Britain banned such enterprises, in 1807. That the enslaved remained in the status of property in most areas, including these United States, left the final matter untended. We should note that while Europe profited by forced enslavement of persons throughout the regions they dominated, they had very few such persons on the continent or the English Isles. America, on the other hand, had a large population of enslaved persons.
That these United States literally broke apart and fought a very bloody civil war over the enslavement of persons and for other supplemental reasons, is a matter of fact. That white society did not embrace these newly freed citizens and see to their education and empowerment in our society is also a fact, and one which we collectively suffer from each day as it remains unresolved. If we are to put shame on ourselves, it is that lack of resolution that, in my opinion, we should still be ashamed of because we’ve still not put persons of color on the same playing field with whites, and that’s a fact too. I say the same thing about our treatment of the poor in general, and lots of people of color are poor as well. Therefore, I find the notion of the 1619 project unhelpful because a true historical discourse will focus on why people did what they did, not the results and what is unresolved, even oppressive and murderous.
That said, let’s look briefly at the economic impact of enslavement. Most people seem to think that slave labor is a boon to an economy, and that’s simply not correct, not in the long term. I want to spend a bit of time on this point because it also has to do with “cheap” labor and people who are virtually enslaved at low wages due to their immigration status. We must remember that the Latin whence the term extorsion (Ex Torsion – from twisting) is used across the business world for normal business, and for evil. Our Socialist and Communist frenemies tell us that capitalism will fail when there are no more people to exploit. This is not so, capitalism fails when there is no opportunity for investment in innovations that bring a return. And nothing kills innovation like cheap labor. Nothing.
If we peek behind the curtain at ancient societies, we notice several rather odd things. Firstly, people like Aristotle (385-323 BCE) knew a whole bunch of things, but very few machines were built, very few labor-saving inventions were made, society largely stagnated in the so called golden age of Greece. It seems that noting practical came from these enormously ingenious persons, and that’s odd by our standards. We also note that traditions were given force of law throughout the world that I study, and to be clear, the old testament prohibition of moving boundary markers “You must not move your neighbor’s boundary marker, set up by former generations, on the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.” (Deuteronomy 19:14 NRS) was taken as a prohibition from changing any traditions, and that’s widely true in all sorts of societies. The rigid dependence on traditions and then inability to change them impacted and still impacts a lot of the world with American being a notable exception, at least, and only for the most part, as far as codified restrictions are concerned. This, too, is odd unless society thinks that it has perfected itself. Thinking that it had not is what got Socrates killed.
One time honored tradition is that thinkers thought. They didn’t do except in time of war. That’s why there is little labor-saving innovation and why times of war brought innovation. You see, it would cause a thinker in those times to lose their status if they conducted practical experiments to make discoveries, and labor-saving was not an imperative due to enslavement and cheap labor. This sort of blue collar – white collar split was present long, long ago. Jesus Ben Sirach writes of it in the Wisdom of Sirach (aka the book of Ecclesiasticus). Engineers were a different, practical, group, largely marching with armies to overcome barriers. And battlefields used surgeons not really doctors although that distinction did not fully manifest until the U. S. Civil war where the practical life saving measures of surgeons overtook the book wisdom of the doctors forever making a distinction in the disciplines.
Thus, enslavement and people put in positions necessitating cheap labor are universally pejorative to innovation, technological advance, standard of living advance, and capitalism in general. That said, some societies do not welcome change as we see in Deuteronomy and its interpretation. Indeed, part of the evil of ISIS was the return of enslavement in areas that this group controlled, people praying before they rape someone. Lord Jesus, have mercy.
In conclusion, what is healthy is understanding what is wrong now and enough about how it got that way to both avoid recurrence and to remedy the root causes. The primary cause of our current situation is the dehumanization of people because of their skin color, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their gender, and so forth. What is, in my view, unhealthy is to attempt to mangle history to force people in the now to be ashamed of the then except inasmuch as this makes the case for what we’ve failed to do which is to fully embrace persons that our European society, our white society, as previously, heinously, and wrongly treated as less than human. Actions can only correct things in the now and the future, not the past.
In some cases, the history that has been taught for a long, long time is in and of itself revisionist and needs to change. As I’ve said, Christopher Columbus was a greedy thug and is venerated largely because of the wealth he brought to Europe, not because of his nobility or courageous actions. If I were going to fix something in our texts, that’s where I’d start. Then I’d focus very strongly on the reconstruction following the civil war and our failure to assimilate these citizens to their full potential. And, while I don’t like to politicize history, the truth is that the democrats in the south blocked a lot of the reforms attempted by Grant and others. History must be cut from whole cloth or it is propaganda.