Monday, November 26, 2018

Rewriting History

We've all heard the phrase, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it," or some similar variation.

(The original quote is, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," attributed to George Santayana in 1905. It was paraphrased by Winston Churchill in 1948 in a speech to the House of Commons: "Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.")

The phrase makes a pretty big assumption, which is that the past is remembered correctly, and that the right lessons are taken from history.  But another phrase we're all familiar with is, "History is written by the winners."  (This quote is attributed to Dan Brown, who misattributed it as a paraphase of Napoleon's: "What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”  Napoleon never said that, though.  It was Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, who was born a century earlier.  Which just goes to show even historical fiction writers are condemned to repeat things incorrectly.)  (One could argue Dan Brown was being ironic by misquoting a quote about the malleability of history, but more likely, he didn't click on the second page of

And in Dan Brown's defense, researching shit on the internet is hard.

With Thanksgiving having come and gone, I recently learned some disturbing new history.  It seems like lately, people are all about re-assessing history.  Revisionism doesn't have to be bad, of course.  Hamilton is a fucking treasure but does hold some inaccuracies.  (For example, Angelica was already married when she met Hamilton, there are 25 Duel Commandments, not 10, and Lafayette's hip-hop mix tape was not nearly as fresh as it was portrayed.)

But there's a surprising amount of erroneous information not just in our musicals, but also in our history books, which I'd like to examine in today's post.

I first came to realize history books were not to be trusted in a high school AP class.  I, like most students, had been taught the myth of the wise, noble savage, the Native American who uses every part of the buffalo and cries when you throw a candy wrapper on the ground.

No one had mentioned that Native Americans would actually stampede entire herds of buffalo over cliffs as a means of slaughter.  This is a huge waste and, also, it's hard to use every part of a buffalo when it's been smashed into smithereens because you threw it off a 2,000 foot cliff.

The myth of the wise Native American has remained stuck in the modern American maw, in part because of social media.  If you're on Facebook, I can guarantee you've seen some picture of an Indian chief shaking his head at the foolish materialism of the suburban whites.  That picture was probably shared by your typical suburban white mom, a Susan with a kid named Braezzlynn who loves her wine and claims she's 1/18th Blackfoot or some shit.  

~nAtIvE aMeRiCaN pRoVeRb~
Hey Karen can't wait to see the kids on Saturday want to buy some essential oils? 😂😂😂

 That sound you just heard?
That was 800 white suburban moms scrambling for their checkbooks 
to get the whole family matching Mindian sweatshirts. 
I'm sorry you had to see this.

This, perhaps more than anything, is something history failed to do: distinguish the tribes.  "Native American" is a huge, broad term, and saying that all Native Americans held the same cultural values or practices is doing a huge disservice to the individual tribes and nations.

That being said, it's easier to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day than to replace Colombus Day with Cherokee Chippewa Sioux Navajo Pawnee Apache and Like Two Hundred Others Day.  

Did you, as I did, craft cute little turkey and Pilgrim buckle hats, and participate in a play where the hapless Pilgrims were rescued by the generous Native Americans?  Total bullshit.  Plymouth Colony wasn't the first group of colonizers to attempt to settle North America; Roanoke Colony was an unmitigated disaster.  Plymouth Rock wasn't even the first successful colony.  (That honor goes to Jamestown.)

The local tribes were NOT fans of the Pilgrims.  The persistent myth of the Patuxet being friendly with the Pilgrims is pretty much entirely thanks to Squanto, who was captured by Thomas Hunt in 1614, sold into slavery in Spain, and returned in 1619 having developed a wicked case of Stolkholm Syndrome and converted to Christianity.  Squanto-- whose real name was Tisquantum-- might have been willing to teach the colonists about planting maize because he was just really fucking lonely.  See, when he returned to his tribe in 1619... his whole tribe was dead thanks to an epidemic brought to them by, wait for it... Thomas fucking Hunt and his European slave traders. 

This was the horrible discovery that I only made this year, which prompted this blog post: the smallpox blankets were on purpose.

I had always assumed that, since Germ Theory didn't rear its head until the late 1880s, the idiot Pilgrims had no idea that their blankets would make the local tribes sick.  Turns out, even though they did not know the cause, they knew perfectly well the consequences, and they were actively engaging in primitive biological warfare.

In fact, during the French and Indian War, the tokens given to the Shawnee were literally pilfered from a small pox ward, with Lord Amherst writing, “Could it not be contrived to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them.”

Like most historical facts I've had to relearn, this one caused me a fair degree of distress.

(If it makes you feel any bettter-- and it shouldn't-- the Pilgrims were actually pretty terrible at germ warfare.  While they did actively try to give the Shawnee small pox during the French and Indian War, back in settlement times, they were far more likely to use poison or guns than blankets; smallpox is difficult to transmit using only fomites because the virus doesn't last long outside of the body, with over 90% of it breaking down within 24 hours.)

The last time I felt this way was during a discussion about Robert E. Lee.  Having gone to an elementary school in Virginia, I had been under the impression that he was a kind gentlemanly person, a sweet grandfatherly type who, while obviously on the wrong side of history, wasn't an inherently bad person.

Oh, boy, was I wrong.  Robert E. Lee was ruthless, cruel, and a total dick to his slaves.

Since this post is serious I will refrain from memes.  Mostly.

So why the reputation?  Turns out, it had everything to do with repairing the relationship between the North and South.  After the Civil War, restoration meant inviting Southern generals to the White House and shaking their hands and forcing a grin for the camera (or sketch artist... did they have cameras back then?)  Part of mending the nation was mending personal relationships between powerful political individuals... but the myths created by the diplomatic chess game that was the Restoration persisted and ended up being preached as fact.

I learned this in a Facebook conversation about what to do with the old Confederate statues.  I grew up next to Washington & Lee university, where Robert E. Lee is interred, which features a statue of him that I have fond childhood memories of.  When I asked for historical sources or evidence that Robert E. Lee was, in fact, terrible, my friends provided them, and I changed my opinion on the matter, feeling grateful for a non-judgemental interaction wherein I was corrected politely and without malice, for misinformation I was not responsible for.  Ideally, that's how every discussion should go, in my opinion.

This was literally down the block from my house.
I went to check on Google Maps if it was as close as I remember.  
Yep.  One-fifth of a mile... about a 5 minute walk.
I remember visiting it as a child; it felt like a hallowed place, not unlike a historical cathedral.

I understand now why the statue should perhaps not be publicly displayed.  But why not take these historical statues and put them in, say, a Civil War museum?

...because they're not historical at all.  This, too, is revisionist history.  The Civil War monuments of Confederate generals were mostly put up in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in the Jim Crow era the followed the 1870 amendment that allowed black people to vote.

Which really throws a big ol' monkey wrench into the cogs of the "Heritage, Not Hate" argument.  (In fact, only 11 of the estimated 1,500 were put up during or immediately after the Civil War; the vast majority were erected between 1900 and 1920, less than a century ago.)  (By the way, for all of his bad traits, I will point out that Robert E. Lee famously opposed Confederate monuments.)

All of these shocking historical revelations-- that Robert E. Lee was a mean person, that Civil War monuments aren't as old as people think they are, that Pilgrims were dicks, that Lafayette couldn't rap-- are evidence of a broader problem than mere historical revisionism.  Their persistence is evidence that people do not question what they are taught and that childhood lessons, even wrong ones, stick.  The solution?  For people to speak up when they see history being portrayed incorrectly (lookin' at you, Aunt Susan), and to open our minds to being changed in light of new evidence.

History is written by the winners.  Let's be winners, and write it ourselves... correctly, this time.

No comments:

Post a Comment