Thursday, October 31, 2019

Revisionist History

In Chicago's Grant Park there is a statue that was commissioned in 1933 by the Italian community of this city, devoted in the words inscribed on the front of its pedestal: "To Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of America"

In Humboldt Park about five miles to the northwest, there is another sculpture, this one commissioned by the Norwegian community of Chicago, devoted, in the words inscribed on its roughly-hewn granite base, to  "Leif Erikson, Discoverer of America."

This city also has a significant Native American community, most of whom would more than likely dispute either claim, as their ancestors lived in the Americas tens of thousands of years before either European explorer set foot upon these shores.

Depending upon your definition of the word "discovery", any one of these claims could have merit. Such is the challenge of history, the narrative depends upon who is telling the story.

In 1893, Chicago hosted a tremendous World's Fair, held in honor of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's first journey across the Atlantic. (Actually the 401st anniversary as the city couldn't quite pull off the event in time). Ninety nine years later on the 500th anniversary of the event, there was barely any mention of the milestone. And today, nearly thirty years after that, while Columbus Day is still an official holiday, mostly I think out of deference to the Italian-American community, there are plans afoot to keep the holiday but swap the recognition of it from Columbus to Indigenous Americans.

"It's about time", says one segment of society, while another segment indignantly shouts: "revisionist history."

I found a wonderful quote about that old bugaboo "revisionist history" from a noted historian. James McPherson, the author of several books on the American Civil War such as The Battle Cry of Freedom writes that far from something to be avoided, revisionism: the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past.
I didn't find the quote in a story about the Civil War or the "discovery" of America, but in a recent Chicago Sun Times article about the founder of the Chicago White Sox. The article titled Pop History Gave a Bad Shake to 1919 ‘Black Sox’ owner Charles A. Comiskey, written by Richard Lindberg, tells the story of how Comiskey's bad reputation comes from the characterization of him in the novel Eight Men Out by Eliot Azinov, the story of the notorious Black Sox Scandal of 1919. The book was made into a popular movie in the eighties.

Quoting myself from a piece I wrote about this very subject four years ago:
The book and especially the film depict Comiskey as a real bastard; imagine a pre-redemtion Ebeneezer Scrooge mixed with old man Potter and Simon Legree without the good side, and you get the picture.
Without understanding (or caring) that Eight Men Out is essentially a work of fiction with a few historical facts thrown in for good measure, popular historians such as Ken Burns have taken the book to be the definitive source on the scandal that rocked baseball in the second decade of the twentieth century. In doing so, they have perpetuated the myth that Comiskey was a notoriously greedy tightwad who all but forced his players to take money from gangsters to throw the 1919 World Series. Research in the past decade has shown this to be pure rubbish, as is another popular myth also perpetuated by Burns and others about the character of one of baseball's greatest players, Ty Cobb.

Yet despite conclusive evidence to the contrary, many people still hold on to their strong biases against the two men, claiming the serious research that went into discovering irrefutable facts that ended up clearing both their names, is not to be trusted as it is merely "revisionist history". In my piece about Ty Cobb, I quoted the estimable baseball writer and statistician Bill James who speaks eloquently not only about the ballplayer, but also about the general public's attitude about history:
If one were to take the time to document a thousand times in which Ty Cobb went out of his way to be kind to other people, including black people, would this change his image? I fear it would not.
Why is it so hard to let go of our historical biases, especially when confronted with compelling facts to the contrary? In his book Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, Author Charles Leerhsen's theory is that we all need people like the mythical bad guys Charles Comiskey and Ty Cobb because they make us feel better about our own inadequacies. We say to ourselves, I may be bad, but hey, at least I'm not as bad as those two. In other words, if we like the story, it becomes a part of us and we stick with it, come hell or high water.

In the past couple of years, the interpretation of history has been at the center of a controversy involving the removal of century old monuments to Confederate leaders in the American South. The argument against the removal of the statues is that by doing so, communities are practicing their own brand of revisionism by "whitewashing history." In a sense the critics are right, but the history being removed is the history of the statues themselves, NOT the history of the event they were intended to commemorate. Decades after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, VA., marking the end of the Civil War, a movement that would become known as the "Cult of the Lost Cause" took it upon themselves to revise history by portraying the Confederacy in a kinder, gentler light. According to members of this group, which included historians responsible for much of the understanding of the Civil War for many subsequent decades, the Confederate States fought not to preserve slavery, but to defend states' rights over what they viewed as a tyrannical federal government, to preserve the noble "southern way of life", and to defend their land from the onslaught of Northern aggression.  Union leaders were portrayed, not always wrongly, as drunken, incompetent fools, and the institution of slavery was quite wrongly explained away as one of benevolence, not oppression. Capping it off. the leaders of the Confederacy were portrayed as heroic defenders of the lost cause and tributes and monuments to them went up all over, some even in the north.

No matter how fair-minded the observer, debunking the revisionist history Cult of the Lost Cause is not difficult. All one has to do is read the Articles of Confederation of the states who seceded from the Union (you can find them all online) and right there in black and white, usually near the top of  the documents, is the mention of slavery and its importance to that particular state. The truth, at least as best as we know it today, is that the Civil War did not begin as so many assume, with the Union demanding that slavery be abolished in the South. The issue was the expansion of slavery into the western territories which President Lincoln vehemently objected. Had the Southern states not pressed the issue of expansion, the Civil War may have been delayed or avoided altogether and slavery may have continued for a while until it one way or other, it would have most certainly faded away.

Unlike the popular misconceptions of the causes of the Civil War and the legacies of Ty Cobb and Charles Comiskey, the history of Columbus's voyages to the Americas were not clouded in false assumptions, diversions and outright lies. There was never any question that the results of the European invasion, or expeditions depending upon your point of view, of the Americas initiated unwittingly by Columbus (he never realized that he didn't actually accomplish his goal of reaching Asia), greatly benefited the conquerors, and all but destroyed the conquered, the indigenous people of the so called "New World." What we once viewed as a magnificent accomplishment that ushered in the dawn of the modern age and one of the great triumphs of the human spirit, is now generally viewed as a dark point in history that triggered unconscionable suffering, genocide and the destruction of ancient civilizations. The difference between the way we view the legacy of Columbus today and they way we viewed it in the past is a matter of changing values. Today we are telling the same story but from a different point of view. The truth is that both views of Columbus's legacy are essentially correct.

The most vilified term in academic circles today, next to racism, is colonialism. It's almost impossible to get into any deep conversation about politics, current events, history or just about anything that concerns how we live our lives these days, without the issue of the evils of colonialism coming up. Merely implying that anything good may have come out of colonialism is grounds for at the very least a stern lecture from the rarified world of the cognoscenti. Having just said that, lest you think I am a defender, apologist, or someone who is trying to make a case for colonialism in any form, let me assure you I am not.

The following is my litmus test for judging the merits of anything, asking myself to argue the pros and cons of a particular topic and comparing their merits. Here is my most compelling argument against colonialism:
How would I feel if my country were invaded by another country which enforced its system of rules and government upon us, subjected my people to second class citizenship or worse, and denied us our basic rights? 
You're right I wouldn't like it, not one bit. So why on earth would I advocate subjecting someone else to colonization? On the other hand, here's my best argument in favor of colonialism:
-  -  - 
That's right I don't have any argument supporting colonialism. In my head, the Golden Rule (or whatever you prefer to call the universal gold standard for distinguishing right from wrong), trumps all the fringe benefits that may occur as a result. Wrong is wrong and extenuating circumstances cannot make a wrong a right.

Proponents of a return of colonialism in our time point to liberal democracy, the advancement of science, liberation theology, racial, ethnic and sexual equality, freedom of speech, of religion, of association, and a slew of other ideas and values that have spread throughout the world as a direct result of western colonialism.  Are they wrong? Well those things are all good in my opinion anyway, and whether you like it or not, have all come to us part and parcel as a result of European colonialism.  Yet as far as using those values and attributes as excuses for the continued violation of human rights, then, no, I have to draw the line there.

Which brings to mind this chilling scene from the classic film from 1948, The Third Man, where the character of Harry Lime, as played by Orson Welles, tries to rationalize his evil deeds to his boyhood friend played by Joseph Cotten. Make sure you watch the entire clip as the payoff is at the very end:

Here is a link to an article that chastises as dishonest, a historian favorable to the re-birth of colonialism who happily lists all the glad tidings it has brought to the world, yet failed to note any of the horrors and atrocities of which there were countless.

I get it, but isn't it equally dishonest to only point out the injustices of something we don't like while avoiding any mention of the positive? It is an inescapable fact that our world would be a very different place today, for the worse AND the better, were it not for colonialism. The inconvenient truth historians must accept is this: civilizations of all stripes, both good and evil from time immemorial have been built upon the backs of unfortunate people who suffered greatly in one way or other. This is something we needn't celebrate, nor model our own civilization upon, but need to accept just the same.

I'll give you a personal example of a very inconvenient truth regarding my own life. Had it not been for the events surrounding World War II, a time that witnessed some of the greatest atrocities the world has ever known, and the subsequent Soviet domination of Central and Eastern Europe that was the direct result of that war, my father would not have left his home of Czechoslovakia, come to Chicago, and met my mother. In other words, I owe my very existence, and by extension my children's and God willing that of their children, to World War II.

Do I wake up every morning thanking my lucky stars for the suffering of tens of millions of people in the thirties and forties and advocate for a return of the conditions that led to that terrible time? Of course not. And while I am never unaware of this terrible truth, I do not dwell upon it because it would drive me insane.

Nonetheless it is still a very real fact.

My point is that we should avoid the telling of history simply to fit our own needs, ideologies and belief systems. There is an old adage that says those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. But it is essential that we not just know history, but continually question our understanding of it, reject verifiable falsehoods no matter how appealing they may be, and understand the point of view in which that history was told or written. Finally, hard as it may seem, we must learn to appreciate that different tellings of the same history need not be mutually exclusive, but serve to paint a fuller picture of the past, how it relates to the present, and how we can use it to shape the future.

Like everything else in life, context is essential.

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