I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think it Means...

Indigo Montoya a great character is a great book made into an even better movie, says this to Vizzini when he utters 'inconceivable' one too many times while being pursued by the highly resourceful Man in Black. I find that quote is often useful.

I read a lot of history books. Some of them are good. Many aren't for a variety of reasons but the two most egregious reasons I hate a history book are either because it is revisionist history or filtered through modern perspectives. The latter is the hardest for a historian, I suspect. It's hard to put ourselves in the mindset of an earlier time. But we need to as often as possible. Particularly when discussing history.

The trigger point for this particular mental meandering concerns two books. One, arguably the greatest American fiction and another a history of events leading to the American Civil War. The word in question is not the one you might be thinking. It's the word that other word calls to mind - racism.

In modern usage we label essentially any ethnic generalization regarding relative worth as racist with all the negative connotations that generates. Implicit in our disgust with racist acts is the underlying notion that 'we should know better'. That is true today but I would argue that it may not be fair to those who went before us. I think this is important for at least two reasons. One, the prevailing wisdom of earlier times did not include modern knowledge that we take for granted and which we can rightly say, is readily available to anyone with an open mind. So to use our definition of concepts like racism is unfair to the majority of people who really, didn't know any better. Ignorance is not the same as racism, at least in the past. Like us today, most people went about their lives trying the best that they could with what they had.

The second reason is that using modern perspectives on the past just doesn't do a disservice to the average guy on the street. It does a greater disservice to those individuals of an earlier time who rose above convention. These are the people upon whose shoulders our modern conventions arose. We can pat ourselves on the back because of our 'superior' perspectives. But when you see what the pioneers really had to work with, it makes their efforts even more impressive.


mac said...

I can see Jefferson in this post.

By today's standards, he would be racist, sexist, and totally unelectable due to his theological leanings. But, he was a great thinker, and, in no small way, responsible for a lot of our national identity.
In fact, if we examine closely enough, we'll find all the "founders fathers" of this nation were Rich, Priveleged, White, Males. Does that mean we can't learn anything from them?

I don't think we should gloss over the fact that historical figures (like Jefferson) were sexist/racist/whateverist. We should, however, take those facts in context with the times.

Michael Lockridge said...

I sometimes wonder how much it matters, this history thing. One would think that Viet Nam should inform Afghanistan, but then I may not have the perspective of our leaders (or better said, directors.)

The patina of history colors all of our 'modern' (post-modern?) perspectives. It seems obvious that that coloring should be taken into account, but that does not seem to be the case much of the time.

So, I take it that you might not be in full support of the revision of 'Huckleberry Finn?'

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

I think we agree on this. My beef has always been that we use so called modern sensibilities to judge past behaviors. By today's standards Jefferson would be considered racist, but in his time did such a concept have any meaning? Certainly different from today.

On the revision of art to fit modern views I am reminded of the Ministry of Truth from 1984. We have no right to alter the works of another artist or change the sentiment of the work.

Teach the context of the work and let the students decide what it means to them. Changing art is one of the nodal points of tyranny. It's insulting, paternalistic and dangerous.