Who owns history?
I heard a very interesting interview with Jill Lepore which discussed the idea that people throughout history, but especially now, have co-opted history and use their version to further their own political aims. Her particular area of expertise is the American Revolution and the way (mostly) right leaning political groups (as well as ordinary people who are heavily influenced by these political groups) claim to hold the key to the only true version of our American genesis and have, in a sense, turned it into gospel. A gospel that is so infallible (to them) that anyone who questions it is labeled, for lack of a better word, an un-American heretic.
They claim to know what the founding fathers would say about our current state and have canonized them to such a degree that taking a deeper look into who they were as people and accepting that their thinking was grey, nuanced, and fraught with tension seems unthinkable if you want to be taken seriously in the political sphere. (and this isn’t all hyperbole…it’s a commonly accepted belief that the Constitution was divinely inspired. That’s a scary thought because if you believe that…which version of God inspired it and who’s side is He on?)
She makes the compelling point that, for most people, the American Revolution is not a sexy thing to study and is often overlooked for more ‘exciting’ periods like the Civil War and the Cold War. Therefore, a large number of people carry with them a 3rd grade idea of what happened when America became America. The issue is dropped and settles into black/white compartments within us and we usually don’t question it further. This is dangerous. It pushes critical thinking aside and allows people to fall victim to the untrue and divisive rhetoric of history’s ‘false prophets’.
The interview is housed here: http://kuow.org/program.php?id=25554
She wrote a more detailed opinion piece for the New Yorker and it can be found here: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2011/01/17/110117crat_atlarge_lepore?currentPage=1
This got me thinking: who owns history? I believe that the simple act of asking this question to students would do a lot of good. The mere acknowledgement that history can be/is subjective would likely increase the amount of humility and civility in our discourse. If we were fully able to sit with the fact that we do not really know what really happened in ‘the old times’ (or the reasons for the things we really do know happened) perhaps that would make us more able to think of solutions to current problems collaboratively? If no one ‘owned’ the American gospel and it was, rather, a working/living story that was owned by the Commons…wouldn’t we be more careful with our lore and the stories we tell?
So, Fluvial fans, I encourage you to do your own digging when it comes to the stories you’ve been told. Be radical and don’t accept something just because someone told you so. Because that is the stuff of a true revolution…American or otherwise.
But don’t listen to me…I’m just a lefty un-American mudslinger. 😉