Maya J. Dworsky
History Is Written By the Whiners
Question at Issue: What is lost when historical accuracy is sacrificed for the sake of comprehensive cultural and ethnic narratives?
Argument Sentence: Compromising history for the sake of comprehensive cultural and ethnic narratives is dangerous because it alienates cultural and ethnic groups from the rest of the world.
Assumption: Anything that alienates communities from the rest of the world is dangerous.
It is an age-old adage that ‘History is written by the winners’; but in our modern-day media-saturated society that statement is easily contested. As the international narrative (as it is presented by world news organizations and the endless blogosphere) draws ever nearer to the asymptote of objectivity, we continue to face the question motivating historians since the dawn of the very first yesterday: ‘What really happened?’
Today, however, we are faced with another question: ‘Does it matter what really happened?’ Does it matter that ‘Remember the Alamo’ invites people to remember the U.S.’s shameful participation in an unrighteous war? Does it matter that Richard the Lion-Hearted, passive hero and patron of Robin Hood was a mass-murderer who bankrupted his own country? Does it matter that there were, in fact, no Weapons of Mass Destruction?
The answers to such questions may seem self evident; everyone agrees that reality trumps advertisement when asked. But the issue is not usually presented in such terms; instead, it is masked. When, for example, the 1997 Twentieth Century Fox movie Anastasia depicted the Tsar as a loving and carefree family man, outrage was notably absent. In fact, the movie was nominated for two Oscars. While not remotely as destructive as Bush’s blunder in Iraq, the movie’s narrative shared a few disturbing resemblances to the President’s reasoning; much like the concept of ‘A Crusade on Terror’, the warped history of the Tsar and his family made a wonderful story: the lost princess, the rebels incensed by phosphorescent little demons as opposed to despair, poverty and a dawning political awareness. History, transformed into a cartoon, was sacrificed in the name of entertainment.
This apparent hypocrisy slips under our radars for several reasons; in this case there is the American aversion to Communism, but more importantly, the story of the Romanovs fits into a simple world-view. Children and adults retain information better when it is presented in story-form, and the essence of all good stories lies in coherent roles for the players: The brave knight and evil dragon, Davy Crockett and General Santa Anna, Anastasia and the Bolsheviks; Jungian archetypes which all of humanity can relate to. Good Guys and Bad Guys; a distinction that never had a place in history. Children are taught that their right to knowledge and the freedom of information are the building blocks of Liberty and Peace, that denying the past leads to future misfortune; to remember the brave and the fallen so that, supposedly, there will be less of them next time.
The act of remembering seems paramount to the content being remembered. What sticks in the mind of children and adults alike are the triumphs and the trespasses – the South’s centuries long indignation over the loss of the Civil War, Israel’s enduring mantra of ‘a small land surrounded by enemies,’ - ignoring the relevancy of the issue and focusing instead on the self-congratulating or self-pitying narratives peddled by such concepts as Confederate History Month or Jerusalem Day.
Some claim that fabricating the past is harmless; this is not true. A nation, a community at the scale of millions, depends on its future generations; the act of romantically misremembering complicates future relations. When all that is remembered is how They wronged Us, or how We beat Them, younger generations are inspired to emulate and avenge based on the narratives of their forebears. The world is shrinking, while the paths of communication grow ever wider and farther spread, but the history accepted as one’s own very often originates at home as told by members of one’s community. Bias is passed down the generations like a hereditary disease.
Needless to say, it is not only family and friends who shape a person’s world view, or try to bend it for their purposes. For over two decades now the People’s Republic of China has managed to keep the facts and horrors of the Tiananmen Square protests out of their country’s mainstream.
Governments, much like people, shape the past and at times the present to fit their own needs. Lies were told to the American people about Vietnam and Iraq; the concept that we as a nation went to war based on romanticism should at the very least spur us into making one of those emotional oaths: ‘Never Again!’ or ‘Fool me once…’ Instead we fly our flags and sing our songs and make ridiculous statements like: ‘they hate us because we’re free.’ In other words: ‘they hate us because of what we are rather than what we’ve done.’ It is impossible for us to change who or what we are, therefore the enemy is unreasonable and subsequently alien.
Patriotism is just another word for unity, the evolutionarily indispensible form of society most common among human beings; unity is achieved by a superficial communal consciousness, the illusion that all of our individual parts add up to a whole. Being a part of something greater than ourselves lends us importance, and eventually superiority over others who are not part of the same union. We tell ourselves stories to explain this.
There is a small artists’ town near my village called Ein Hod, which despite having been established a mere 60 years ago, is resplendent with ancient dwellings. During the Israeli War of Independence, the original villagers were driven out by the Israeli army and now live in Ein Houd, a neighboring Arab village. Amazingly, Ein Hod is not a controversial place; the story goes that the Arabs of Ein Hod were bandits, and therefore deserved to be evicted from their homes. This is not true. British records of the period prove that. Yet the story and the artists’ town abide.
Such stories bring people closer together, but they do so by alienating others. Through our suffering and hardship, our perseverance in the face of real or fictional threats, we as minorities or superpowers are unified under the flag of Us and Them. This cannot be a simple flaw; the act of uniting people is a just and perhaps even holy work. The greatest powers on earth were first built and then honed upon the concepts of a common enemy. What is lost is the ability to relate to anyone outside that exclusive group – diminishing, if not abolishing the humanity of all outsiders.
As a child in Israel, I experienced that sense of safety and belonging that only communal hate and fear can produce; one of my favorite books was the story of a little girl in Jerusalem who played the violin. She played the violin so beautifully she was invited to perform for the British dignitaries at the King David Hotel, and because she was a brave and patriotic little girl she packed explosives into her violin case and was martyred in the name of Zionism. The rest of the book justified this act of violence in a child’s mind: it painstakingly explained how the arrogant British were in league with the evil Arabs and that their only goal was the eradication of the Jewish people. History was simplified, and therefore the act of terrorism that resulted seemed reasonable and necessary. The isolation that results: ‘Everyone is mad but us’ goes hand in hand with the conceit: ‘everyone is wrong but us.’ It ignores the possibility of reasoning with the enemy and makes peace or compromise unattainable and foolish.
The narrative of a culture is often simplified to its barest and most biased bones because, as centuries of poets have warned us, the romantic stories are the ones people remember, whether or not they actually happened. However, anything that alienates a people will often lead to actions of violence and hate; clear examples of this are the estrangement of the Jewish people, the Roma, and other religious and ethnic groups around the world.
Humanity by its definition is limited by its need to form into sects; therefore natural enmity will occur. However, accurate representation of history must do all it can to prevent such enmity when possible and avoid the pitfalls of championship and victimhood. We must not brag, and we must not whine, just as we have all been told as children.
I have many a time heard it said that it is not how tall we stand that defines us, but how often we stand up. I propose that we better examine the reasons we were knocked down in the first place.
In other news... Maayan and I are taking a 6pm bus to Portland where she's getting on a plane. This week has been ridiculously awesome.