Posted by: Dominic | November 30, 2010

Changing Meaning of Histories

One of the most interesting phenomena of history is its ability to change meaning for those in the present. History is not a fixed set of facts but is interpretation – which is always subject to modern-day biases, concerns and politics.

For instance! Take the example of Glenn Beck. In a speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee in February 2010, he quoted the words of Teddy Roosevelt, a much-admired Republican president. But Beck turned Roosevelt’s progressivism on its head, rejecting what was formerly a treasured part of Republican history.

“‘We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it’s honorably obtained and well spent. . . so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.’

Is this what the Republican Party stands for? It’s big government, it’s a socialist utopia and we need to address it as if it is a cancer… this is the cancer that’s eating at America.”

Laugh at this though we might, and for all its crudeness, Beck is proposing a pretty radical interpretation. Teddy Roosevelt is so well ensconced in American history that we blew up a mountain in his image. But Beck rejects all that for reasons well-known: he is feeding and feeding off of the current populist (well, in some places anyway) climate against “big government.”

Thirty years ago, a similar process was happening in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. One does not normally think of radical, perspective-changing writing in a text-book, but Zinn does it by shifting the focus from the great men of American history to the underclasses – it is a bottom-up history rather than top-down. The first page gives us insight into what lies in store for the reader.

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

“They… brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, and they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…. They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

It’s an interesting story which to lay as the foundation for a history of the United States. Christopher Columbus, of course, is well-known for having “discovered” America. But work on Norse archaeology and sagas reveals that they had been in the “New World” almost 500 years before Columbus. And he really only landed on a few Caribbean islands, and certainly not anything that is the United States today. And the United States did not even exist as a concept in 1492! So how did Columbus become the progenitor of the unjust American society Zinn perceived in his own day?

What is striking is that Zinn’s account, at least on this first page, does not really alter the basic structure of the Columbus narrative in any major way. Columbus is still the representative of Europe, meeting America for the first time. Natives are always good, always victims, always passive in this history. Here they are particularly communistic (in the commune way, not in the Stalin way). The meaning has changed, but the story has retained its significance.

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