Tag: History

Heroification, however wrongly placed can still be good?

| February 10, 2011 | 2 Replies
Heroification, however wrongly placed can still be good?

I knew next to nothing about the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars before reading about Rep. Harman’s resignation from Congress to be its next president, CEO and director. But I did learn some things 13 or 14 years ago about Woodrow Wilson, that prompted me to do a little checking. So I wiki’d it, and went to its site:

The mission of the Center is to commemorate the ideals and concerns of Woodrow Wilson by: providing a link between the world of ideas and the world of policy; and fostering research, study, discussion, and collaboration among a full spectrum of individuals concerned with policy and scholarship in national and world affairs.

And…

Woodrow Wilson, nicknamed the “schoolmaster in politics,” is chiefly remembered for his high-minded idealism, which appeared both in his leadership on the faculty and in the presidency of Princeton University, and in his national and world statesmanship during and after World War I.

So what is it about the two freely admitted cherry-picked quotes that bugs me?

I consider James Loewen’s 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, one of the most important books I have ever read. And I have read a lot. It opened my eyes, took me out of my comfort zone, and inspired a lot more reading in areas I either abandoned or never felt an interest in. (I am left-brained, technically minded, naturally and enhanced skeptical.) For me, history was something you took in school because you had to. I chose other electives in college, because I didn’t have to. And I always had problems with the teachers’ interpretations not agreeing with my own (meaning I didn’t get as many “A”s because I couldn’t break the code of what they wanted me to say.) To me, history, as I felt about psychology – and biology, sociology, philosophy, etc. – history…was too arbitrary. But, we all seem to know the same Trivial Pursuit nuggets that pervade popular history “knowledge”, regardless of whether we liked the subject or not. And there’s a reason.

For those unfamiliar with Loewen’s book, he surveyed the 12 most commonly sold high school American history textbooks, “only to find an embarrassing blend of bland optimism, blind nationalism, and plain misinformation, weighing in at an average of 888 pages and almost five pounds”, uncovering a host of blatant errors, dismal treatment of significant events (an average of three pages on the Battle of Gettysburg, one and a half of which were about Lincoln’s Address), omissions, white-washing, and {well known “News” channel personality}-izing serious lack of scholarship. I understand that most college courses will correct the damage, but how many of us studied college level history? Or if we did, which “facts” stuck with us?

I grew up in a small town in Connecticut. I can’t remember what American history book we had, but given that we were a small school district in a small state, I don’t think we got much say in what the textbook companies sold us. Not unlike the problem the Texas Board of Education decision to rewrite texts visits on the small markets. Nor do I think there was much critical thought put into which books were better than others. I imagine it all came down to the best cost. So I don’t know if my textbook was one of the earlier editions of those Loewen checked, but given the small school, small state conditions it probably was. One of the (minor) reasons we homeschool is that total lack of control students of compulsory schools and their parents have over what is being taught – or not taught.

Loewen does present his findings with bias and editorial. But, he did his research, presents the sources the reader can check, and his points are intuitively obvious to me. More so now than when I first read the book, because on retroflection I think/know he’s right. Writing this, I surveyed some of the comments from the 10% “one star” critics on Amazon and while you can read for yourself the mindset of the naysayers, more than 70% of the 394 reviews posted were favorable.

Now, Woodrow Wilson quick shot news bites that might normally come to mind of the average person are: “he kept us out of war” (until it became obvious that the Central Powers were going to lose, and then we’d better get in and get our piece, thus the Fourteen Points – or was it really submarine attacks?); president of Princeton and the only US President with a Ph.D; a failed League of Nations; had a stroke and maybe his wife ran the government until his term ended; “make the world safe for democracy”; perhaps the Espionage and Sedition Acts, but not likely.

Not covered in the glorifying textbooks of our youth is how Wilson was an outspoken racist (is that the “high-minded” part?) who undid all the desegregation his Republican (remember the times…the Republicans almost liked people back then) predecessors worked to implement, ordering the segregation of white and black federal employees. Not covered is the “world” that he wanted to make safe for democracy only included Europe; under his orders, direction or just on his watch, the US invaded Mexico 11 times, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba and Panama and militarily occupied Nicaragua all eight years and controlled its government, setting the tone for pretty much then on for how we are viewed in Central America (sensing a parallel with a place Middle of East?). Plus we apparently funded and militarily supported the “wrong” side of the Russian revolution. Read the book for the cites, but an excerpt dealing specifically with Wilson can be read here).

I guess it’s obvious now why those quotes bugged me.

Anyway, I learned from reading Loewen to be more critical of things about which I know little or nothing, not just things I am interested in about which I may or may not know nothing. And I resolved to read more history – if only to unlearn what I thought I knew. I like footnotes now, which is why, off-topic, though I enjoy his work, David McCullough frustrates me because he makes statements without reference (bibliographies don’t count) which may be his summation, may be “actual” history, or may be totally off. And who has time to check?

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has an interesting Board of Trustees, including the cabinet positions of Secs of State, HHS, and Education, though I’m not sure how active they are. And Wikipedia hasn’t been updated, but it caught my eye that physician and medical fiction author Robin Cook apparently used to be one of the private citizen trustees. The Center has a very broad set of programs that do seem to work toward the ideals they profess, if attributed to one so not a hero. I encourage a tour of their web site. (They even had a lecture in 2005 on “some of the most repressive legislation with respect to free speech” being the work of Woodrow Wilson, so they don’t hide their namesake’s history.)

I can’t help but wonder if Rep. Harman’s strong political positions will adjust the focus of the Center, or if it’s even possible under the charter that she can. Why else would she take the job?

I recommend taking the time to read Loewen’s book. It should spark at least one, “Oh, really?” I also have another by him, almost as fascinating: “Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong”. It’s about those brown signs on the side of the road and how we repaint (or sometimes just paint) the stories the ways we want, facts be damned.

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Mark Tiedemann wraps up

| July 21, 2010 | 1 Reply
Mark Tiedemann wraps up

Over the past few days, I’ve been publishing sections of an engaging discussion with Mark Tiedemann that I videotaped about a year ago. I only recently got around to cutting the session up into individual videos, but the delay allowed me to enjoy the discussion anew, and it also allowed me to appreciate more than ever that the topics that draw Mark’s attention tend to be relatively timeless. As you can probably see, this discussion was spontaneous. I went to Mark’s house with a video camera and a few general topics scribbled down, no specific agenda. We both allowed the conversation go where it wanted to go.

In these final two videos from last year’s discussion, the topics are VI) The importance of knowing history and VII) Church and State.

I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know Mark as much as I have. If you’d like to know more about Mark’s way of viewing and analyzing the world, he has already posted almost 200 articles at DI, all of them readily available.

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The conservative rewriting of U.S. history

| April 3, 2010 | 8 Replies
The conservative rewriting of U.S. history

McClatchy has published a video and a written summary of conservatives’ recent efforts to rewrite history.

This evidence-free approach to history is surreal. How can this possibly be happening? It is apparent that these rewrites of history are evidence of the confirmation bias running at full throttle. I recently came across this vivid description of this phenomenon in a book called A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives (2006), by Cordelia Fine:

Reasoning is the vain brain’s of . . . powerful protectorate. This might seem a little odd. Isn’t reasoning supposed to be the compass that guides us toward the truth, not saves us from it? It seems not–particularly when our ego is under attack. In fact, the best we can say for our gift of thinking in these circumstances is that we do at least recognize that conclusions cannot be drawn out of thin air: we need a bit of evidence to support our case. The problem is that we behave like a smart lawyer searching for evidence to bolster his client’s case, rather than a jury searching for the truth. As we’ve seen, memory is often the overzealous secretary who assists in this process by hiding or destroying files that harbor unwanted information. Only when enough of the objectionable stuff has been shredded dare we take a look. Evidence that supports your case is quickly accepted, and the legal assistants are sent out to find more of the same. However, evidence that threatens reason’s most important client–you–is subjected to grueling cross-examination. Accuracy, validity, and plausibility all come under attack on the witness stand. The case is soon won. A victory for justice and truth, you think, conveniently ignoring the fact that yours was the only lawyer in the courtroom.

(Page 13)

Fine adds this additional description toward the end of her book:

Evidence that fits with our beliefs is quickly waved through the mental border control. Counter-evidence, on the other hand, must submit to close interrogation and even then will probably not be allowed in. As a result, people can wind up holding their beliefs even more strongly after seeing counter-evidence. It’s as if we think, “Well, if that’s the best that the other side can come up with then I really must be right.” This phenomenon, called “belief polarization,” may help to explain why attempting to disillusion people of their perverse misconceptions is so often futile.

(Page 108)

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Tortured logic, tortured justice

| September 1, 2009 | 4 Replies
Tortured logic, tortured justice

Sometimes, I cannot comprehend how the United States of America has come to occupy the landscape that it has in the year 2009. Growing up, I learned in school about all of the wonderful things that the United States had done for the world. Out of the tyranny that the British Empire had become, our forefathers had the temerity and the moral fortitude to announce to the world that we would be building a new kind of nation– one in which the rights of the individual would trump government power. People were inherently vested with natural rights, inalienable rights. Our First Amendment- the right to speak freely, to worship (or not) as one pleases, free press, who could ask for a better check on governmental power? Can the government force the citizenry to quarter soldiers?

Not here, we’ve got the Constitution! Governments stopping people for no reason, or on trumped-up charges? No way, we’ve got the 4th Amendment! To be sure, there were some stark contradictions, but I didn’t realize those until I was a little older. I mean, it’s a little hard to take seriously those that would lecture on the topic of liberty while being slave-owners, but the overall idea was pretty great.

We were the force for truth and justice and all that is right. We proved it, too. We fought tyranny in World War II, the most recent (winning) war. We saw the evil that was done in the name of National Socialism, Fascism, or whatever label you want to use. We saw the evil in those Nazi bastards and we would have none of it– and rightly so. The indescribable acts of torture and dehumanization were enough to turn anyone’s stomach. I read Night, as well as some other works by holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and was moved to tears. I looked at the photographs of the concentration camps and saw the shivering, starving groups of people blankly staring at the camera lens. I saw the piles of bodies- massive piles of them! What kind of people could order (or commit?) these horrible, despicable acts? What kind of person could so callously cause the suffering of their fellow human beings? The Nazi experiment was a singular example of the brutality that one group could inflict on another. There is no crime so heinous that it could compare to the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The scale of the suffering defies understanding– we named it The Holocaust. [More . . . ]

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Andrew Sullivan reviews Robert Wright’s account of the evolution of religion

| May 10, 2009 | Reply
Andrew Sullivan reviews Robert Wright’s account of the evolution of religion

At the Daily Dish I learned that Andrew Sullivan reviewed Robert Wright’s new book, The Evolution of God, in the London Times. Here’s an excerpt:

From primitive animists to the legends of the first gods, battling like irrational cloud-inhabiting humans over the cosmos, Wright tells the story of how war and trade, technology and human interaction slowly exposed humans to the gods of others. How this awareness led to the Jewish innovation of a hidden and universal God, how the cosmopolitan early Christians, in order to market their doctrines more successfully, universalised and sanitised this Jewish God in turn, and how Islam equally included a civilising universalism despite its doctrinal rigidity and founding violence.

Fundamentalism, in this reading, is a kind of repetitive neurotic interlude in the evolution of religion towards more benign and global forms.

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Christianity’s same sex marriages

| May 3, 2009 | Reply
Christianity’s same sex marriages

This article from the 8/24/08 edition of the Colfax Record indicates that Christianity once had same-sex ceremonies akin to marriages:

Prof. John Boswell, the late Chairman of Yale University’s history department, discovered that in addition to heterosexual marriage ceremonies in ancient Christian church liturgical documents, there were also ceremonies called the “Office of Same-Sex Union” (10th and 11th century), and the “Order for Uniting Two Men” (11th and 12th century).

These church rites had all the symbols of a heterosexual marriage: the whole community gathered in a church, a blessing of the couple before the altar was conducted with their right hands joined, holy vows were exchanged, a priest officiated in the taking of the Eucharist and a wedding feast for the guests was celebrated afterwards. These elements all appear in contemporary illustrations of the holy union of the Byzantine Warrior-Emperor, Basil the First (867-886 CE) and his companion John.

Fascinating stuff. The article provides quite a bit of detail. This was the first I had heard of this. It does present a challenge to the claims of contemporary Christians who abhor homosexual marriage because the concept of marriage has “always” involved one man and one woman.

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Color-coded history

| March 7, 2009 | 4 Replies
Color-coded history

Consider this description of a significant and tragic event in American history:

[Occurring in May and July 1917, this event] was an outbreak of labor and racially motivated violence against blacks that caused an estimated 100 deaths and extensive property damage in [an American industrial city]. It was the worst incident of labor-related violence in 20th century American history, and one of the worst race riots in U.S. history. It gained national attention. The local Chamber of Commerce called for the resignation of the Police Chief. At the end of the month, ten thousand people marched in silent protest in New York City over the riots, which contributed to the radicalization of many.

[paraphrased from Wikipedia]

Do you know anything about the event described above? The above passage describes the East St. Louis race riot that occurred on Monday, July 2, 1917. I learned about this riot for the first time tonight when I had the opportunity to hear a talk by Harper Barnes, a St. Louis journalist who has recently written a book called Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement.

[caption id="attachment_5419" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Harper Barnes - Photo by Erich Vieth"]Harper Barnes - Photo by Erich Vieth[/caption]

In 1914, the first world war was heating up and so were the heavy industries. East St. Louis, Illinois, located right across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, was the home of large aluminum and steel plants.

To backtrack, through the 1910s, one-half million blacks who had resided in the rural South moved up to northern cities. Employers made use of these blacks as strikebreakers. The blacks certainly wouldn’t have felt much loyalty toward the unions, because the white unions banned black workers.

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Did Muhammed actually exist?

| November 16, 2008 | 9 Replies
Did Muhammed actually exist?

Did Muhammed actually exist? I realize that I make considerable numbers of people upset when I question whether God exists, whether Jesus ever walked on earth or whether Jesus was Divine (three entirely separate questions). Regarding those questions, I’ve long thought that most religious people don’t actually know many facts, but mostly rampant speculation supported […]

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Center For Inquiry questions politically-skewed high school textbook for classes on U.S. government

| April 7, 2008 | 2 Replies
Center For Inquiry questions politically-skewed high school textbook for classes on U.S. government

I read quite a few textbook quotes from this report and I must agree:  they are shockingly inaccurate.  This book repeatedly pushes the conservative line, even when the facts don’t support it–just like the Bush Administration.   The existence of this high school textbook is yet more evidence that we are living in a post-fact era.  […]

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