Wednesday, October 28, 2009

all right we are two nations

usually my history class is pretty worthless, but this morning was interesting. it made me even more angry with the sphincter-headed way that history is generally understood and taught, but it was interesting. we were discussing the sacco and vanzetti case. it was eery how similar the case is to the recent troy davis case, and infuriating how the professor kept claiming that nothing like what happened to sacco and vanzetti could happen now in the ever-so-enlightened present. her basic take on all historical issues is that we in the present are wise and advanced and can look back on mistakes of the past with certainty and bemused superiority. i'd like to say that she's just one professor, and that she doesn't represent most historians. but that would be a lie. she epitomizes modern (by which i mean 'of the modern era/mindset' rather than contemporary) historical thought. but i think the hideous smugness is the inescapable result of viewing history as a science rather than an art. historians confuse knowing facts about the past with knowing the truth.

i resolutely hold that history a)is subjective b)is subjunctive and c)is only important (although critically so) in as much as it tells us about the present and ourselves....or, in as much as it provides a vocabulary for us to tell ourselves about ourselves. history is the great myth (i don't use 'myth' to mean imaginary or primitive, but that it functions as an overarching source of meaning) of western civilization.
history is a collective memory and, as such, is absolutely subjective. memories are never what happened, but rather what we think happened based on our viewpoint, past experience, and present needs.
history is subjunctive in that there are no real historical facts, only historical possibilities. we can never, ever, know with certainty what happened 60 years ago, let alone 600 or 6,000. we can hazard guesses and string together theories, but that is all. anyone who claims to present 'historical fact' is an idiot or a liar.
history is never really about the past. every reason for studying the past has to do with a need of the present. humans want to know who we are now, and we look to the past for clues. the idea is that if we understand who humans were in the past, we can extrapolate that knowledge to ourselves. the more unsure of its identity that a society becomes, the more formally and broadly history is studied. societies in which people are sure of themselves have no use for history. such societies may create oral traditions, but these traditions put history in its proper place as myth. it is only those of us who descartes burdened with thinking ourselves into being who search for 'facts' about human history. but even if it were possible to determine historical facts, they would never become human truth. one can know all the facts of every battle of every war since the dawn of civilization, and not know the truth about war. it is like trying to understand what love feels like by reading psychological papers on attraction and affection and relational dynamics.
now, none of the above is meant to say that history is not an important study. that would be a little strange for me, as a history major, to say. rather, i mean that the way that history is commonly taught and studied is silly and counter productive. history, when recognized as myth, is an excellent way of shaping one's identity. i create a place for myself in the world through thinking about those who have come before me and influenced me. but pretending that it is a factual discipline only clutters things up and gets in the way. it leads to people thinking that humans now are somehow more enlightened and better than humans then, or that what look like glaring injustices in the past would never be allowed in our time.
the truth about the sacco and vanzetti trial and the troy davis trial is the same. the facts may differ slightly, but the truth about power, discrimination, fear, violence, and injustice is the same now as it was in the 20's. knowing the facts of sacco and vanzetti will never stop future troy davis's from being executed, but setting aside the terrible smugness and desperate academic jargon and getting to the truth of both situations might.

there was a poem written about sacco and vanzetti by john dos passos (he doesn't capitalize either) that i love. it is the truest thing i know about the historical event. here is part of it:

they have clubbed us off the streets they are stronger they are rich they hire and fire the politicians the newspapereditors the old judges the small men with reputations the collegepresidents the ward heelers (listen college presidents
judges America will not forget her betrayers)....
all right you have won you will kill the brave men our friends tonight
there is nothing left to do we are beaten....
America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our Fathers spoke and made
them slimy and foul....
they have built the electric chair and hired the executioner to throw the switch
all right we are two nations

read that poem and tell me it will never happen again because in the present we are wise and just. read it and tell me that because you know the facts of the trial you know what happened. read it and tell me that history is an objective discipline and there is no place in it for emotions and opinions (what about yours?). i dare you.

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