Tuesday, January 4, 2011

History and memory

An essay reviewing "The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History" by Jill Lepore opened by own eyes a little. (Apparently they only open so far.)

Gordon S. Wood, professor emeritus at Brown, wrote that Lepore came down a bit too hard on the Tea Party, which is only doing what Americans (and people around the world) have been doing forever - taking inspiration from THEIR version of history. That version says nothing of slavery, the subjugation of women, and all that. It's all about white people in white wigs fighting against taxation and for freedom on the individual level.

But the Right is hardly the only side to exploit history for its own uses. For example, when tried in 1970 for blocking a military base, the radical historian Howard Zinn told the court he was acting "in the grand tradition of the Boston Tea Party."

Freethinkers love to point out that Jefferson was a deist and that the founders deliberately excluded God from the Constitution. Unfazed, the fundamentalist Right praises God that the United States has been a Christian nation from the very beginning. Never mind that either point of view leave out a whole lot of history.

Wood says there is as big difference between the job of professional historians - to dispel myths - and the popular memory that acts as a touchstone for people's beliefs. For instance, a 1996 biography of Sojourner Truth correctly pointed out that she never said, "A'n't I a woman?" Fans of the woman hated the book. They felt blindsided by the debunking of beloved myth.

Many think that kind of collective memory, true or not, is essential for fostering community, identity, and continuity. At the least, it deserves respect for its role in the understanding of the emotional lives of a people.

No comments:

Post a Comment