issue 247 - September 1993
Myth and memory
Truth in history is elusive. Richard Swift argues for a sceptical
approach to those who would teach us the lessons of the past.
‘Remember the Alamo.’ The words ring out with typical Texan abandon. The year was 1836. For 13 days, so the legend has it, 185 brave ‘Americans’ stood their ground in a crumbling south Texas fort against 10,000 (or was it 15,000? 20,000??) Mexican troops led by the ‘ruthless’ General Santa Ana. Some remember the Alamo as a battle for freedom; others see it as part of a cynical landgrab. But there is no question which version plays better in San Antonio, where it is the prize tourist attraction, a piece of patriotic heritage mythologized in film by Walt Disney that draws millions every year.
This is history as epic: Mr and Mrs Mainstreet drag their kids past the illustrated legends of Davy Crocket, Jim Bowie, Colonel Travis and the rest. Entrance is free and it’s all maintained at no cost to the taxpayer by The Daughters of the Texas Revolution. In the gift shop you can buy painted plates bearing a picture of the old Spanish fort and the bold inscription ‘Alamo: The Price of Freedom’.
As you wind your way along with the crowd past the exhibits you come across a curious quote blown up from an obscure 1939 article in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. The quote relates to an incident said to have happened just before Santa Ana’s final assault. Colonel Travis drew a line with his sabre in the sand and said that any man who crossed the line could avoid the final battle. Of course ‘not a soldier crossed the line’. How do we know this really happened? The quote from historian John King Bossetta seeks to put any lingering doubts to rest: ‘Is there any definite proof that Travis did not draw the line... if not then let us believe it.’
This tells us a lot about history. First about the process of turning moral ambiguities and factual uncertainties into powerful patriotic myths – this of course is not the exclusive preserve of the US, as each nation, church and political party on the globe seems to have its own store of such binding myths. The second thing the quote tells us is that history is not over but rather something we continue to live through or even live down. Witness the Vietnamese peasants who had bombs dropped on them bearing the insignia ‘Remember the Alamo’. And if we cannot escape history then we should be pretty sure we know whose version of it we are listening to – so we can figure out what cards they have up their sleeves.
The official version of history is now continually being challenged as groups excluded from it – women, workers, the colonized – point out the traditional biases and tell their own largely untold stories. History, once dressed proudly in the robes of power, is becoming contested ground. Gender history, the hidden history of Africa, native history, oral history, the history of everyday life – all these have shone the spotlight on those parts of the past that official versions preferred to leave in shadow. Over the last three decades there has been a veritable explosion of alternative versions. As a result the official stories that are supposed to give us meaning are looking more and more bedraggled. In some key areas – such as the history of the French and English revolutions, the origins of the Cold War, the history of imperialism – alternative views are close to becoming the dominant ones.
The past has traditionally been the preserve of the winners – a way of binding servants to the fate of their masters. This was not the case at the very beginning. Then a sense of the past, still shared by hunter-gatherers from the Amazon to the highland Philippines, was one of human interaction with the life-giving if somewhat whimsical spirits of the plant and animal world. Their sense of what mattered in history was closely bound to ecology and the cycles of the seasons. But as the first states and then empires grew out of the settled agricultural societies of the Middle East, history became instead the stories of priest-kings and how their fates were influenced by various sky-gods. The cyclical version of the past lingered on in the East but in the West it gave way to a more linear idea of the passage of time.
This point of view was quickly hardened by the Judeo-Christian and Muslim religions into belief in a human story revolving around one true God whose ‘chosen people’ were to carry out his earthly agenda. These philosophies of history were inherited by the modern nation-state which shifted the chosen people onto a secular national stage. Each nation-state had its own roll-call of leaders and heroes – almost always male and often warriors – Drake, Napoleon, Bolivar; Patton, Alexander, De Gaulle. Historical achievements were passed down by the governing classes to the rest of us. Historically derived and shared values ended up as national myths – the US is the ‘freest’ country in the world, France the most civilized, the Slavs the toughest people, and so on. Such binding beliefs serve to avoid excessive introspection over who ends up behind bars or the cost of a loaf of bread.
This national historiography came to see all the world through a Eurocentric lens. In the nineteenth century history was rewritten to detach ancient Greece from its Egyptian and Phoenician roots. Golden Greece was celebrated as the glorious childhood of Europe. Yet the split in classical times was between a ‘civilized’ East (Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia) and a ‘barbaric’ West (Europe, North Africa). It had nothing to do with the north/south divide later shaped by European colonial expansion. Similarly the histories of Asia, Africa and indigenous America were buried and distorted; their populations turned into ‘people without history’ upon whom European history could then be superimposed.
You need only stand in the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal in the Guatemalan jungle, in the holy city of Axum, highland home of Ethiopian Christianity, or in a hundred other such places to feel the weight of this lie. Throughout the Third World, history is being rediscovered and revitalized by both scholars and activists often working from minimal oral and archeological sources. They stand in danger themselves of creating ‘anti-imperialist’ but highly romanticized versions of the same national myths that continue to haunt Europe. But they have done much to overturn the arrogant assumptions of the West and to challenge the Northern equation of Eurocentrism with progress – the racist core not only of much historiography but of most development theory.
This gospel of progress rooted in the European Enlightenment is the last and maybe most persistent philosophy of history. If you go to Disney World in Florida you can visit the General Electric (GE) Carousel of Progress where they lay it all out for you. Generations of Middle-American nuclear families from the past century or so pass by you on a revolving stage, their lives steadily improving thanks to the latest electrical goodie from GE. Crude but effective.
Our confidence in ‘progress’ is rooted in a dark mythology of our origins as cave dwellers who led lives that were nasty, brutish and short. But such negative judgments about our ancestors’ lives have been challenged recently by historical anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins, whose Stone Age Economics paints a very different picture of hunter-gatherers. Their lives were admittedly short but they spent remarkably little time providing for food needs and had much more leisure time than the average industrial working day allows. They also had much greater confidence in the reliability of their survival mechanisms than we have in our own global economy where livelihoods are removed with the stroke of a computer key half a world away.1
Faith in progress has passed from historical philosophy to become part of the common sense of our culture. But even this belief – held with equal fervour by Darwin, Marx and today’s free marketeers – is looking a little tattered. The triumph of classless society seems anything but inevitable. Our growth machine is stalled in ecological quicksand. Genocide and starvation stalk the globe. But maybe a few of us will, with the help of GE, get to the moon before it all comes apart.
From the vantage-point of the late twentieth century it seems unlikely that history contains any overall destiny for us – unless you are thinking of the astrophysicists’ prediction that our sunstar will eventually burn out, torching all biological life on earth. Short of that the grand meanings of national and progressive history seem either self-serving or naive. But this does not mean, as some would have it, that we can do without history. The end of any overarching philosophy of history is being taken as the end of any meaning in history at all.
It is easy enough to sympathize with those who would put far behind them the nightmares associated with history’s grand designs for racial purity, the planned economy, perfect competition or the territorial integrity of expanding nation states. German Jews or Ukrainian peasants, those thrown on the scrapheap of redundancy or sacrificed in East Timor on the altar of a Greater Indonesia: all these would doubtless be happy to consign history’s big ideas to the fire.
Yet calling an end to history at this particular point is a bit too convenient. Such an end would ensure the unqualified acceptance of the present notion of ‘progress’ that history itself was once used to prove. This is the perfect view for a de-politicized consumer society. Indeed historian JH Plumb in his classic essay The Death of the Past held that industrial society no longer needed a past which has become for it ‘a matter of curiosity, of nostalgia, a sentimentality’.2
We live in an era addicted to innovation. We are told that evils such as slavery and oppression are products of the bad old days and that, as Jimmy Porter said in John Osborne’s famous 1950s play Look Back in Anger, there are ‘no good brave causes’ left to be fought. It is simply a matter of getting the basic formula of modernity right in order to address the minor shortcomings which remain. Engels, another believer in bringing history to an end, called this euphoric state ‘the administration of things’. But while history may not have come up with any clear-cut solutions, it has certainly created more problems than this kind of tinkering can hope to handle. And it seems unlikely that a population drunk with futurethink and mesmerized by techno-gimmicks will have the historical bearings necessary to tackle such problems.
The idea that history can disappear is of course absurd. Most people realize this and have a strong instinctive interest in the past. The popular appetite for the subject is amazing: historical bookclubs, romantic novels, period films, theme parks, journals, museums, magazines, the re-enactment of historical events. History – or ‘heritage’, as the hucksters call it – is big business.
But if the mythologies associated with the ‘grand governing narratives’ are being banished in the learned circles of the academy they still persist in this popular realm. JH Plumb held out great hopes for critical history: ‘the past has only served the few; perhaps history may serve the multitude’. But specialized doctorate theses about the minutiae of stamp taxes or calculations of township population growth will never provide the kind of public engagement needed to challenge the official memory tailored by the powerful. Historians must not shy away from the big questions, even if they don’t have all the answers.
The 1980s saw a great fuss by conservative politicians worrying about whether students were being taught the proper ‘shared national values’ in their history courses. A general counter-offensive against critical education paid special attention to history. A quote from Reagan’s education secretary William Bennett catches the flavour of this assault: ‘the study of history will give our students a grasp of their nation that... will reveal it is still (in Abraham Lincoln’s words) “the last best hope on earth” ... They must know that nations can be destroyed from without, but they can also be destroyed from within.’ Bennett understands what Nikita Khruschev also saw from the other side of the Iron Curtain, where an historical slip could mean a bullet in the head: ‘Historians are dangerous people. They are capable of upsetting everything’.3 If history has now escaped the selective tradition of the powerful it is no wonder they would have it abolished rather than see it serving Plumb’s ‘multitude’.
It is easy to become obsessed or trapped by history. We should above all never think of it as a sure guide to the future. Wallowing in the ‘lessons’ of World War Two helped fuel a crippling arms race that brought us to the brink of nuclear destruction. The people of the Third World are still living in a state of militarized poverty as a consequence. Justifying present policies simply by reference to righting historical wrongs is another dead-end street. It cannot but create a continuing spiral of grievance and revenge such as we see today from Palestine to Sri Lanka.
We still need history – but a history with all its warts and blemishes that does not yield to nationalistic morality plays of good and evil. A history that does not whitewash massacres as ‘nation building’. That celebrates not only the grand struggles for justice but also the no-less-heroic adaptations and resistances of everyday life. That is not afraid to look at the hidden histories of those who have tried to do it differently – utopian communities, religious dissenters, political heretics, sexual rebels and so many others upon whom progress has passed a negative judgment.
We need such history not only for its own sake but also because it gives us a sense of the potential in people. We need to draw on such potential in order to face the future.
1 Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (Aldine, Chicago 1972).
2 JH Plumb, The Death of the Past (MacMillan, London 1967).
3 Harvey J Kaye, The Powers of the Past (Harvester Wheatsheaf, London 1991).
Facing history in ourselves
Anyone who is familiar with teenagers will tell you that they are highly conformist, acutely self-conscious and mightily preoccupied with the here and now. Since teenagers are likely to laugh at any adult who suggests that what happened 50 years ago might be worth thinking about, high-school history teachers have a rough job. But a Boston-based organization called Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) has designed a program which takes advantage of teenage traits to teach what might be one of the most difficult historical topics of all: the Holocaust.
The FHAO approach begins by asking students to consider the social forces which shape their lives. How do they decide what to believe and whom to trust? How do they know that they are not being propagandized by their teachers, their government, by television? How do they cope with peer pressure, with prejudice and discrimination? How have they reacted when they’ve seen or heard something unjust?
By starting with the student’s own perception and experiences, FHAO offers them respect and so compels their attention. ‘It works because it takes seriously adolescents’ capacity to think deeply and to think about disturbing things in a complicated way,’ says Toronto teacher Myra Novogrodsky. ‘And it plugs into the issues that almost every adolescent is thinking about.’
‘Facing History and Ourselves’ is as much about moral and political responsibility as about the Holocaust itself. Students may also learn about the genocides in Cambodia and Armenia and about the American civil-rights movement. But teachers insist that their students don’t lapse into an easy self-righteousness. Boston teacher Gerrard Kelly explains: ‘When kids say “We should have done something about this” I ask “Well, what about the Serbs in Bosnia? Should we stop them? How can we stop them?” Students are forced to insert themselves into history; to understand the choices people made and how individuals became victims, perpetrators, or bystanders.’
‘There’s a tendency to objectify, to say that it’s this or that person’s fault,’ says New York teacher Peter Nelson. ‘Or they’ll say “If I was there, I would have just shot them all up”.’ Most of Nelson’s students are Black or Hispanic and New York has no shortage of racial troubles. ‘I always ask: “What about you?” I won’t say it’s wrong because they won’t listen to me. But another kid will say that it is.’
The FHAO program was started 17 years ago by two teachers in the Boston suburb of Brookline. Co-founder Margot Stern Storm believed that ‘if you’re trying to teach about social justice and democracy, you have to look at how it failed. The whole lesson is to say that history is not inevitable and that the Holocaust could have been prevented.’ Since its inception, 30,000 educators have taken the FHAO workshops and each year 500,000 students across North America are taught using the FHAO approach.
For Peter Nelson’s students, the Holocaust provides an oblique route to confronting the painful subject of racism in their daily lives. ‘I’d tried with the story of slavery and segregation,’ says Nelson, ‘but for black kids, that history just made them feel like they were victims of the world, that because it kept happening to them they must have somehow merited it. When I started using FHAO they saw that other people have suffered this way too. They could hear the same message without feeling that victim-guilt.’
These teachers are passionate about the FHAO program and what it can accomplish. Nelson wants his students to understand that ‘the Holocaust is a heavy-duty message for the world – a massive warning siren about the results of racism’. Kelly says: ‘I want my students to understand moral complexity. I want them to be challenging the status quo.’
The extraordinary impact of FHAO on both students and teachers is indisputable. Those who have used it in their classrooms have seen what other teachers dream about: intellectually serious and emotionally engaged students who understand that history resides not in facts and dates but in themselves.
Erica Simmons is a regular contributor to the NI based in Toronto.