Friday, August 31, 2018

Some alternative history perspectives.

- I wrote this as a response to my Latin American Studies coursemates.

I am reading many comments that look the same here, those evoking surprise, and I am genuinely curious why there isn’t more skepticism to spoon-feed facts. There is a famous line by Winston Churchill (the eugenist who bumbled WW1 and then was called out of the shadows to be the British face opposed to Hitler): “History is written by the victors.” Only if you read a few books though! The voices of the oppressed, whether Anne Frank or Slave Narratives, roar louder than the pruned and manicured version societies choose to inflict upon their youth, because they are genuine (propaganda almost always sounds like fairy tales.) And that might be the real surprise, that the story sounds like it may have happened.
Poke around and you’ll find a lot more, but own your skepticism, because every historian has a political message too—if you care about an issue like racism or feminism you can’t help but to let your enthusiasm be projected. Also, I excuse you if you secretly believe history is boring, because most books you’ve been instructed to read to get your grades and move on are pretty bad. There are alternatives though. Here are some texts I have found that helped me get a better bearing:

Lies My Teacher Told Me—James Loewen
I’d start with this interview with the author to get an idea of the scope:

Essentially, the idea is we dumb down and censor our history to avoid things like inflicting pox on Native American populations. Were any of you taught that some thought Earth was flat before Columbus sailed? That fable was actually invented by Washington Irving in 1828 who added it for dramatic flare. Most everyone on both sides of the Atlantic knew the world was round. The horizon is circular. We cast a circular disk shadow on the Moon. Plus, people actually sailed to China the other way without falling off Earth.
I still hear the “States Rights” argument about the Civil War. Historians point to how the text of the seceding states mention their rights to execute their choice to be slave states and say it’s a 10th Amendment issue, in spite of the evidence of racial inequity that continues until today. Yes, there are different ways of looking at history, but not all of them are equally legitimate. One that seems hard to gainsay at this point is that slavery never ended—it was just converted to the prison labor system.

1491—Charles Mann

Mann, a journalist (not a historian) discusses the state of America before Columbus and the errors of past historians illustrated in text books like the 1987 edition of American History: A Survey:

For thousands of centuries—centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities, and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia, and Europe—the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of mankind and its works.

1491 uses the tools of modern science combined with archaeology and (yes) skepticism to build a more coherent worldview of native societies before the genocide inflicted upon them by Europeans. We learn about agricultural methods in South America, how maize was changed through genetic engineering to feed large populations by supposedly “primitive” cultures, and so forth. We learn about running water and closed sewers in Tiwanaku, a city of 115,000 people in 1000 AD located beside Lake Titicaca, situated at almost 4,000 meters above sea level. These people obviously were not doing subsistence farming, not only do few crops grow at this height, but the rainfall is seasonal, so fresh water for irrigation (not to mention for the tens of thousands of citizens) is an issue.
There is a lot more here, but essentially it comes down to past historians fabricating a fairy tale history of primitive Americans to attempt to absolve the genocide perpetrated by the European. I am reminded of Rebecca Roanhorse’s answer a couple weeks ago at Worldcon when asked about Native American impressions of dystopian worlds. She said, “My people are already living in a dystopian world.”  

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. This book changed my impression about history more than any other, because it filled in a lot of the blanks about *why* Europeans were able to conquer the Americans so easily. By now, we know disease was an enormous factor, but why were Europeans inoculated against most American diseases (besides syphilis) and Americans were vulnerable to the diseases of the Conquistadores and other invaders. Diamond contends it has to do mostly with animal husbandry.
In other words, interactions with animals like cows, goats, and sheep provided Europeans with antibodies the Americans didn’t have, and the subsequent ravages of disease were more lethal than even the gunpowder and orchestrated rape and murder of the American First Nations. Diamond’s work is based on genetics and modern medicine (like allergies) combined with archaeology. I think the summary of humanity’s spread across the world is better done in Spencer Wells’s Journey of Man, but Diamond’s contribution to the biological reasons for success are valuable.
On the other hand, just because a culture has tools of conquest is no excuse to conquest, and one issue I have with GG&S is that it releases Europeans from the guilt of their genocidal choice. If it is inevitable that a group of people die, what other result would there be? We know this isn’t true. We know the decisions we make every day impact people around us. So did they. Therefore, the biological argument, while intriguing, is ultimately unsatisfying. The real *why* of the Conquistadores was greed, desperation, and a shocking disregard for the Other. Be careful. These people are still around.
I would also point out that as useful as GG&S is to gain a biological perspective of history, Diamond is not a great writer. I found his book to be dry and relentless. In spite of all its defects, however, I still believe it’s valuable.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I can’t say enough good about this book or the perspectives it will give you. Bryson is a storyteller of non-fiction that gives insights about humanity using vignettes, connecting them through the past. This book also gives you a tremendous base of science, because it tells the story of how our knowledge of science was conceived. That probably doesn’t sound that interesting, but Bryson’s style sells it. I challenge you to read three pages and see if you can put it down. It’s a great story from a great storyteller. One important lesson is how little actual camaraderie existed between scientists and how they were capable of almost anything to sabotage each other.

Two reflections on World War One that was the war that actually defined much of the world we live in today. World War Two was really World War One, Part 2, the Sequel. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman and A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin. All the lines of division that still plague the world were drawn then. Also, the inevitable stupidity of war, how nations follow stubbornly towards their downfall, are all witnessed here. Tuchman was an amazing historian who looked for the story inside the story, the human story, the family relationships, etc. Fromkin’s book is an ungloved pummeling of European stupidity typical of the colonial empires. Both give an invaluable perspective of how our choices are often made for us by those who controlled the past. That still doesn’t excuse our decisions though. ;-)

Finally, if it’s not clear what the problem is with my list so far… where are the voices of the oppressed? Shashi Tharoor, for example, tells a story of British India, Inglorious Empire, that is about East India Trading Company’s 200 years of raping and looting. Tharoor presents unassailable evidence. British claims of unifying India under the Raj ignores more than 2500 years of Indian civilization that preceded it.
Tharoor twists the British apologists on its head. For example, think of the famines that plagued British territories like Ireland, the Sudan, Bangladesh, and India. British governors, like Lord Lytton, who became viceroy of India because he was Queen Victoria’s favorite poet, simply followed Malthusian philosophies, believing helping people in famine led to worse ills later. And that’s why you shouldn’t feed starving people. See?
Isn’t it shocking how people find evidence to support their preconceived notions about their own superiority? Inglorious Empire turns the gaze around and shows us the conquerors and their hubris.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz does the same but from the point-of-view of Native Americans in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. There is a lot of info here, but you get random bits that spin what you used to believe. I remember reading James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans. The racism is so endemic to the author he actually swapped the Iroquois for the Mohicans, making the Iroquois (who actually supported the British in the Seven Years War, or French & Indian War as the Americans called it) into the bad guys, because when TLOTM was published, they were trying to justify the removal of the Iroquois.
I mean, it just goes on. 75% of indigenous land in Florida was seized in 12 years by white settlers. She also gives a badly-needed feminist perspective to the indigenous peoples’ history and their conquest by Europeans. The image sold to us is that primitive people did not believe in gender equality, but they actually did better than Europeans.

I have already posted too much but I want to leave you with two thoughts. You (not your teachers or the media or the politicians) are who controls your perspective of history. To a large extent your perspective depends on the information you consume. Finally (& really this is the last time), if you are feeling overwhelmed or bummed because you’ve ingested too many opinions from the establishment, here are quotes from two people, one who has his face plastered on a sacred mountain in North Dakota and another who has her ideas likely plastered on your consciousness. Read them and know you’ve already likely made the right choice.

There is one feature in the expansion of the peoples of white, or European, blood during the past four centuries which should never be lost sight of, especially by those who denounce such expansion on moral grounds. On the whole, the movement has been fraught with lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place.
—Theodore Roosevelt, “The Expansion of the White Races,” 1909
If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; and if you choose to identify not only with the powerful but with the powerless; and if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”
— JK Rowling

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