Flavin’s Corner May 2003

The Hubris of History

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 
with conquering limbs astride from land to land; 
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 
a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand 
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame, 
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she 
with silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
"The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus (1849-1887).


© Robin Stevens, rejs@cynic.org.uk, April 2002.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (?484-?420 BCE), credited as the “father of history,” wrote in Ionic Greek, composed with a Hellenic agenda or bias, and his works were initially marketed to a Greek speaking (and reading) audience.  This template of language, agenda or bias, and marketing has continued for over twenty-four centuries to serve those who attempt to describe people and events in non-fiction prose.  It’s hubris to maintain that any work of history is impartial.  Everyone has an agenda or bias.  Everyone.

Science often allows for partiality as observer effect, though when historians are outed as either revisionists, propagandists, positivists or relativists, an assumption is implied that other historians have managed to get it right.  Science strives for objectivity, but history is inherently subjective and will always remain so.  No history is complete and unbiased, though some are easier to suffer through than others.  James Joyce compared history to a nightmare, George Santayana suggested paying attention during class or risk having to repeat, and Henry Ford and Homer Simpson gave the same opinion that history is (more or less) bunk.  I react to most histories like an underemployed transvestite at a thrift-store who spends too much time wondering what things would be like if they were different* and direct any followup questions to Sen. Santorum (R-PA), a leading privacy rights advocate for sufferers of foot-in-mouth syndrome. *We generally buy what’s available, sale or not.

I’ve always loved history.  Narratives about our past have enriched and inspired me.  That said, my amateur approach to history began with comic-books and mythology and became critical when I was ready for it (read: able to understand).  Here’s my self-expository skinny re: history – in 7th grade I purchased a paperback copy of John M. Allegro’s The Dead Sea Scrolls (2nd ed.; Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1965) for a nickel and asked my parents and teachers if Jesus had a brother named James, then at 18 I read about the Nuremberg Trials and how the captured Nazis were motivated by art, booze, sex and drugs (like the American gangster era of the '20s and '30s), and later having the good fortune to pick up Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century (trans. Siân Reynolds; New York: Harper & Row, 1981-1984; Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme XVe-XVIIIe siècle, 3 vols.; Les structures du Quotidien, Les jeux de l'Échange, and Le temps du Monde; Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1967-1979), followed by reading about the so-called “new archaeology,” which challenged the Howard Carter (or Indy Jones) approach of brushing spider-webs aside to go after the gold and, instead, stopping before brushing and calling in various specialists to analyze the web for trapped pollen and other factual indicators of set and setting.  Yeah, many histories are comic book narratives, but some are the result of a lot of hard and good work.  Biased?  Tipping sacred bovines with Hegel and Popper, we need to carefully move on... 

The familiar aphoristic suggestion that one should walk a mile in another man’s shoes before criticizing is appropriate for the study of history as well, as we’re most often concerned with histories written in our native language and which describe peoples and events from our immediate cultural background and milieu (here, meaning English speakers and Euro-centric western civilization).  Important dates such as 1066, 1215, 1455, 1776, etc., may have significance for us, but what of the rest of the world?  Is it fair to hold our histories as more important than those of other peoples?  It’s a slippery slope we climb.

I fondly recall visiting the late Prof. Harald A. T. Reiche (MIT-Classics and Philosophy) in his campus chambers in early 1989 and noticing next to his typewriter a particular reference book which I also owned.  It was an oversized paperback and, like my copy, was dog-eared from much use.  The book (Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events by Bernard Grun, forward by Daniel J. Boorstin; New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975 with subsequent updated editions, based on Kulturfahrplan: Die wichtigsten Daten der Kulturgeschichte von Anbeginn bis heute by Werner Stein, Berlin: F. A. Herbig, 1946) charts history in various catagories (politics, literature, religion, music, science, etc.) with a comparitive timeline representing major cultures.  This attempt at a global chronology is a must-have, right up there with a good dictionary, thesaurus and a current almanac.  After I commented on the importance of the book, Prof. Reiche enthusiastically agreed. [Note: A comparable online “hypertext” history is available here.]

Toward fairness, major cultures are easy and minor ones are usually overlooked.  That’s the rub.  Examples of American hubris, such as the 19th century “Manifest Destiny” movement or the attitudes depicted in the novel The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick (New York: W. W. Norton, 1958), continue to saunter forth on an all too regular basis.  Recently the U.S. Secretary of Defense, the Honorable Donald H. Rumsfeld, declared that there would not be a theocratic government installed in Iraq, while President George W. Bush repeats “God bless America” like a mantra.  We’re still playing the god-games. [Note: For an overview of the “god-games,” see my past column, “It’ll Be Okay.”]

I know, the almighty American dollar has “IN GOD WE TRUST” on its reverse side.  It was a joke.  The Founding Dudes weren’t big on organized religion, though they attempted to respect the beliefs of others.  God?  Got a name for this God?  Ineffable?  Jesus?  Get real.  America.  Flash past the German muddling and consider the predominantly European descendants of those who conquered indigenous peoples to rule a chunk of a continent, a new world, and who introduced a new government centered on uniting states and commonwealths to establish freedom then, now and forever more.  The successors, today's Americans, often subscribe to a belief-system centered around an imperfect English translation of Greek narratives about an Aramaic speaking Jewish itinerant teacher who preached non-violence and died over two thousand years ago, and they're supposed to inspire trust because they mention “God" a lot?  I don’t think so.  God, hypothetically, shouldn’t need reminding.  America may be blessed, but it's because of warranted merit and not because some keep demanding it.

Mother of Exiles?  No, it’s not something from X2: X-Men United; that was in the first movie.  America is flexing as the only superpower, yet we’re reminded “with great power there must also come -- great responsibility.”  We must think of others.  Our notions of good and evil, right and wrong, and deciding if we want fries with our hamburger or a salad and a Diet-Coke, are our notions and we cannot expect others to believe (and dine) as we do.  Freedom fries?  The French gave us Lady Liberty (perhaps modeled after a black woman), a Jewish woman from New York City wrote the wonderful words so many immigrants remember, and America would be best served by the reminder that we’re all exiles.

Operation: Iraqi Freedom is soon to become history.  It’s hubris to imagine that’s any more or less important to others in the world who continue to struggle for identity, subsistence, and basic human rights.  It’s hubris, arrogance, naivete and much else, but it could be changed with patience and understanding.  Thinking outside our litter-box and recognizing the rest of the world would be a great beginning. 

Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) current members:

Abkhazia, Aboriginals of Australia, Acheh/Sumatra, Albanians in Macedonia, Assyria, Bashkortostan, Batwa (Rwanda), Bougainville, Buryatia, Cabinda, Chechen Republic Ichkeria, Chinland, Chittagong Hill Tracts, Chuvash, Circassia, Cordilerra (Phillippines), Crimea (Crimean Tatars), East Timor, East Turkestan, Gagauzia, Greek Minority in Albania, Hungarian Minority in Romania, Ingushetia, Inkeri, Iraqi Turkoman, Kalahui Hawaii, Karenni State, Khmer Kampuchea Krom, Komi, Kosova, Kumyk, Kurdistan (Iraq), Lakota Nation, Maohi People (French Polynesia), Mapuche, Mari, Mon People, Nagaland, Nuxalk Nation, Ogoni (Nigeria), Rusyn People, Sakha Republic (Yakutia), Sanjak, Scania, Shan State, South Moluccas, Taiwan, Tatarstan, Tibet, Tuva, Udmurt, West Papua, Zanzibar

[Note: UNPO maintains individual webpages devoted to its members and the above list provides hyperlinks for further information and online resources.  Though casually referred to as the “United Nations of the dispossesed (sic),” UNPO operates with a budget of chump change and without a cool skyscraper in New York City.  Praise them with great praise!]

riding the tide and supporting a free Hawai'i,
Rick
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