Monday, October 14, 2002

Goodbye, Columbus

Isn't that a title of a Phillip Roth novel? (Actually, a short story) Was it turned into a dreary movie? (Yes, indeed, with Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw). I don't know (acutally, I do know because before I posted I looked up the title at Amazon) and I don't care (but I'm bored enough to feign caring). What made me think of the title, aside from the fact that today is Columbus Day, is how history is revised, sometimes purposely and sometimes via the inevitable filter of perception.

My Grandmother doesn't quite realize that all history is revisionist in its nature (because of the necessarily limited perceptions of the historian); however, she objects (as do I) to conscious and supposedly reparative revisions. See, when she was a kid, Christopher Columbus had discovered America. When I was a kid, Christopher Columbus had actually discovered the New World (since he never set foot on mainland America, either North or South). Nowadays, children are taught that "Columbus," whose name was really Cristobal Colòn, didn't discover anything at all — not only were there already people there in the so-called "New World" (the indigenous peoples having discovered it some time earlier), but also because he thought he was somewhere else (he went to his grave thinking he was in Japan... which is kind of funny, when you think about it). Columbus has been reduced from a great national hero to a typical comic male who never admits he's really lost.

"If this keeps up," Grandmother quips, "eventually Christopher Columbus won't even have left Spain."

It seems that the current vogue in pedagogy is to minimize Christopher Columbus by negating old-fashioned assumptions about the man and by dwelling on the less pleasant aspects of his trip... that he and his crew introduced venereal diseases to the Caribbean, that they were only looking for weak natives to loot and exploit, that the entire Renaissance thrust of exploration and colonization was inherently evil. In my American Federation of Teachers academic year pocket calendar, today's date reads "Indigenous Peoples discover Columbus." I thought that was pretty funny, the first time I read it... but it shows quite clearly that the re-focus of thinking about Columbus as an interloper rather than an explorer is something that has been planned out for a specific purpose. "Indigenous Peoples discover Columbus" is just as formulaic an oversimplification as "Columbus discovers America."

Either way of looking at it is true, to some extent, but both of these to-some-extent truths are inherently untruthful... for when you simplify history into an easily remembered formula, you have to leave out all of the innumerable extenuating circumstances. You essentially have to filter the facts, and filtering the facts turns them into an untruth. And then, when you choose which facts to leave out of your formula, you are engaging in Propaganda. And I feel that propaganda is inherently evil, because it results in a misunderstanding that benefits the stature of some person or school of thought while degrading the names of real people.

Did you know, for example, that King Richard III of England never did any of the horrible things for which he is credited? But Shakespeare's fabulous play about that unfortunate ruler was more interesting than the real facts... and the subject and contents of that play were Tudor propaganda that apologized for the regicide of a sitting monarch and usurpation of the Throne of England performed by Henry Tudor (the character of "Richmond" in the play), later Henry VI. The reputation of a generally blameless man was sullied in the eye of the world in order that William Shakespeare might flatter Elizabeth I (Henry VI's great-granddaughter) and gain favor in the Tudor Court. The same thing is now being done to Christopher Columbus; perhaps for more noble reasons, but propaganda is propaganda no matter which way you turn it.

Sure, there were Eurocentric evils involved in the exploration of the New World. Colonialism, exploitation, slavery, and religious persecution were the main motives in these explorations... very few of the Great Explorers were in it just for the fun of adventure. Most of them wanted gold and/or power, as well as or instead of adventure. While the thirst for knowledge of the world is commendable, very few commendable virtues come unalloyed with base desires: it's human nature.

But when one writes history, the temptation is to cast people in shades of black and white. Certain historians prefer to think of the Explorers as great adventurers, selfless seekers of knowledge, and genuine humanitarians bringing the glories of civilization to the poor backward natives; others wish to cast the exact same people in the roles of ignorant exploiters, greedy spoilers, self-seeking destroyers hunting for new lands to plunder and new peoples to murder.

But the truth is that they were all peu de toute, some of each... as is everybody else in this world. If you dug deep enough into Hitler's life, you would find some evidence of human compassion and goodness; if you searched hard enough into Mother Theresa's life, you would find moments of selfishness and intolerance. People are never purely good nor purely evil.

And since History is the story of people, it cannot be simplified into terms of pure good and pure evil. By simplifying history, you reduce the great pageant of human experience into a bunch of useless dates and names; and through simplified pedagogy, you rob history of its purpose... because the Purpose of History is to give us to understand how things happen, how they came to be, and how we might consider conducting ourselves in the future. If we can understand the motives behind the great events of the past, if we can understand the mistakes or triumphs that resulted in us being where we are now, we can understand our own behavior, the behavior of others, and the behavior that might result in greater happiness and benefit in the future.

It is said (first by George Santayana and then by a lot of other people) that "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But it is my feeling that those who do not understand their fellow humans are condemned to a life of ignorance, anger, and loneliness. Yes, a knowledge of history does have its practical purposes in mapping the future, but I think that knowledge of history is more beneficial in understanding who people are and why they are the way they are. And for this to make any sense, you have to understand people's intentions as well as their actions.

To judge the characters of the past (like Christopher Columbus) by our own modern standards (of having the entire planet and most of the galaxy mapped, of having learned the evils of colonialism, etc.) is the same as judging our children by the behavior we grew out of in our own childhoods. Should you be condemned as a bed-wetter if you aren't potty-trained? Should you be condemned for having a fourth-grade reading level when you're only in the third grade? Should you be condemned as ignorant when you've never been taught? Well, in the same vein, one has to ask: Should you be condemned as a destroyer of civilizations when you never understood that civilizations could exist that were not your own? Should you be condemned as a religious persecutor when you had no inkling that the bizarre rituals and practices of far-flung Africans were actual religions? Should you be condemned as a vile exploiter of human slaves when it had never once been suggested to you that those creatures were the same as yourself, men and women with minds and souls and blood just like yours, but only a different color of skin and shape of mouth or eye?

These were radical and new ideas in the past, even though they have become commonplace in the present. Even though the ancient Greeks knew that the Earth was round (another thing once credited to Christopher Columbus which has been discarded), nobody had ever tried to go to the other side... and in 1492, the idea that the world was round was a fairly radical notion, just as the sun-centered solar-system was a radical idea (so radical that it landed Galileo in prison and Giordano Bruno in a heretic's pyre). In 1492, nobody really knew what gravity was. They didn't know what oxygen was. They didn't know that there was no such thing as spontaneous generation of life, that all living things in the world are born of parents and that all living things die. They were entirely unaware of the exact placement of organs and the particular makeup of tissues inside their own bodies. They had no means of measuring temperature, of measuring light, or even accurately measuring time.

And so to judge the actions of long-dead people, for whom these basic tidbits of information were completely unknown, by the standards of living people, for whom this and so much more information is readily available and commonly understood, is the same as juding an infant by it's inability to attain its parents' simplest achievements, like defecating in a toilet or chewing its own food. And then, on the same token, to apologize for the behavior of long-dead people by editing the facts of their lives is even worse, because it denies the growth of the human species and robs our race of its historical significance.

I believe the lesson here is to never judge anybody by any personal standard, because you can't know what they know and they can't know what you know. You can only, therefore, judge them by their ability to accessorize.

So anyway... sometimes I think when (or if) I go back to school, I will major in History. Preferably cultural history and anthropology rather than military history and politics. I'm always fascinated by the ways people of different times and different countries dressed, the music they enjoyed, the dances they performed, the foods they ate, the houses they lived in, the family structures they built, the gods they worshipped and the methods by which they decorated their walls. Though I have greatly benefitted from my studies of political history and political science, I prefer to know about what Louis XIV wore to breakfast than what policies he signed.

Well, time to step down from the podium. I'm going to go home and tutor my niece in the uses of the English language. My sister is home-schooling her daughter, but was baffled by possessive pronouns and many of the concepts that come after that. And since I know the English language fairly well (though I do make mistakes once in a while), I offered to help. I'm kind of excited about the opportunity to inculcate good grammar, but am trepidatious about my ability to reach my usually inattentive and sometime unbelievably annoying niece. Either way, it's bound to be more interesting than sitting in front of the TV and doing nothing.

I just love autumn, don't you?

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