Sunday, May 1, 2011

History can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards

This post's title is a misquote of Kierkegaard, substituting "history" for "life," but I'd argue it's even more appropriate. It's why history is so often repeated, or governments end up doing the opposite of what they swore they would do, or why a good history book can only be written long after the fact when  historians gain some perspective.
Unfortunately, many history books are written too soon, and the authors seldom if ever recant their "facts" when the truth comes out. 
History books are also swayed by politics and community pressure. Texans don't like the idea that one of the main reasons they separated from Mexico was that they wanted to remain a slave state. Or that the Confederacy was formed to preserve slavery instead of to promote "state's rights." The North also doesn't like that one of the reasons they wanted to eliminate slavery WAS to keep the South down. And the so-called Boston tea party, from which today's Tea Party Patriots take their name, had more to do with keeping cheap tea from smugglers profitable as taxation without representation. (How was dressing up as Indians and destroying property ever considered a heroic or patriotic act? At the very least, it seems a bit cowardly to try to pin the blame on Indians).
There are many cherished myths of American history, many of which are exposed in “The Mental Floss History of the United States: The (Almost) Complete and (Entirely) Entertaining Story of America” by Erik Sass with Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur (Harper, 2010). It’s objective, amusing and guaranteed to irritate liberals at least as much as conservatives.
The title refers to Mental Floss magazine, a periodical billed as "where knowledge junkies get their fix" that finds humor in odd facts. In some ways it's a snarkier version of “Jeopardy” (whose famous champion Ken Jennings had a regular feature in the mag for a year or so). The history of our nation is ripe for this treatment, whether you believe the Puritans were fans of religious freedom (they weren’t) or that FDR saved the economy with the New Deal (sorry, but he didn’t). If you, like Glen Beck, believe Woodrow Wilson is the evilest man in history, you’ll even find evidence that might bolster your claim.
It’s not a perfect book. It peters out for me as it approaches the present day (Obama is president before it ends), and sometimes skimps on details I would have liked. But it follows no agenda except fact amusingly reported, and is user friendly with year-by-year overviews and "Lies your history teacher told you" sections. It even resembles a high school textbook in appearance.
Mental Floss also has a history of the world. I may have to hunt that one down too. 

There was a great flurry of hits  following my post on Ayn Rand and the film of “Atlas Shrugged.” Unfortunately, as I still haven’t seen the film, nor have I read or re-read any of her books lately -- and no one posted a comment on what I wrote -- I have nothing else to add on the topic … except that there was a lot of vicious comments about the film and Ayn Rand on Rotten Tomatoes and elsewhere that I didn’t think entirely fair. I wonder if most people formed an opinion of Ayn Rand and Objectivism from second-hand accounts -- such as the character in “Dirty Dancing” who justifies his disinterest in the young woman whom he has impregnated as “some people don’t matter,” based on his reading of Ayn Rand. No character, even the baddies, in her books does that, and I've never heard it said that Rand endorsed such behavior.
On the other hand, I do think there are good reasons to criticize Rand, including her writing's lack of subtlety and her shocking personal behavior towards her husband and the Brandens (both of whom wrote memoirs that -- if half of what they claim is 50 percent true -- were too kind). But if you plan to criticize, get your facts firsthand.


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