The historical lies we tell ourselves

How do we like our history?

I had masala tea tonight. Is that coffee? the guy who works for the hostel asks. No, but he goes on to say he doesn’t like coffee in this country; he asks for a cappuccino and gets a latte. Nobody knows how to make it with the right texture, he says. I say I quite like the coffee I’ve had in India – when my relatives make it, they dump milk and sugar so that it’s almost unrecognizable, in stark contrast to the black coffee some people I know prefer.

In the back of my mind lately has been how history is told – the term is historiography – but a story about how Rush Limbaugh responded to Trump’s falling poll numbers brought it front and center. In his mind, the youth are getting black, bitter coffee that wakes one up to a cruel and indecent America:

We’ve gotten to the point that 2-1/2 generations alive today having been raised having been taught what a rotten place this country is, how it was founded in a totally unjust and immoral way, and that it was not about liberty and freedom. It’s not about any of the things that people think this country is about. That’s just a myth that the propagandists pushed.

This is what young people have been taught for two generations in grade school, junior high.

Howard Zinn. Z-I-N-N. Look it up.

Ok, don’t bother. Howard Zinn, a self-described democratic socialist, wrote A People’s History of the United States, a critical telling of said history. From what I can see Zinn wasn’t a particularly good historian, so much as someone offering an alternate narrative to what was then cleanly presented in school textbooks – the sweet and milky, but probably unhealthy, coffee,  if you will.

Even though Rush is not right that this is to blame for Americans responding negatively to Trump’s xenophobia and self-congratulating (I’d blame good sense and decency), he is right that how we tell history matters – and that it’s largely a fabrication.

When I first started learning economics, I had to come to grip with the fact that it is not an exact science; since it’s about people, it’s a lot of chaos and inexplicable movements. History, another social science, is similar. As in economics, some principles apply, but sometimes events are just events and you can’t ascribe some all-encompassing theory to their progression. For instance, take India, whose history I’ve been reading. One of the biggest takeaways already has been that “India” is a difficult concept to define.

Despite the pick-and-preach approach of many nationalist historians, geographical India is not now, and never has been, a single politico-cultural entity.

Pakistan, India (North and South), Bangladesh, etc. Parts of all of these were part of some historical empire at one time or another and only the British controlled the entire region (although admittedly the Mughals seemed to have most of it at one point). But India is a concept pushed by the 20th century independence movement and nationalists after 1947, to give the new government legitimacy. If coffee is the unadulterated nastiness of history, then milk and sugar is then nationalism one adds to make a functioning state.

The name of the Indian state in Hindi – which, I’m fond of reminding people, is not the universal Indian language – is Bhārat Gaṇarājya, which at first I thought was kinda beautiful. It means the Republic (People’s State, more literally) of India, and harks back to ancient Indian democracy. Of course, my admiration was the idea:

[Ancient texts] hinted at a definition of Bharata-varsha [“Land of the Bharats/Indians”] which, as ‘Bharat’, would nicely serve the purposes of twentieth-century nationalists in a Pakistan-less India.

The partition into Pakistan and India was awkward to say the least for these nationalists. Could you still be India without Pakistan? The folks pushing the legitimacy of the new republic were hoping yes – if they emphasized an often complicated history the right way. And since I feel myself stepping onto a minefield here, I’m going to stop talking.

This tactic is hardly limited to South Asia. In Japan, the idea of the Emperor was largely a creation, as Japan didn’t experience real unification until the 1600s, and the shoguns and future military leaders needed an institution that would bolster their legitimacy. Even MacArthur, acting on behalf of the U.S., used the Emperor to enhance the legitimacy of the American-imposed constitution.

And don’t think America is unique in this regard. The Founders knew quite well they had to follow the same practice; they made up for a lack of history by creating the National Mall. Someone noted to me the near-religious reverence expressed in the associated monuments – that was the idea. And John Adams insisted that there be fireworks every July 2 to commemorate the declaration – aside from being off two days and with the help of Oscar Meyer, he was pretty successful with that.

I’m not saying this strategy is wrong. We have to make sense of our history somehow, because there are lessons in it, and there is something of an identity in it. In fact, countries that haven’t been able to take advantage of such a reading of their history haven’t fared well in keeping themselves together (I’m thinking of the Sudans and Yugoslavias of the world). We just shouldn’t take such clean histories so blindly after the 5th grade, the same way we wouldn’t assume sugar-laden coffee on the daily is a healthy habit.

I once explained to an older, perhaps more traditional thinking couple how I was learning that the American Revolution and Constitutional Convention were led by two very different groups of Americans – the first a bunch of young radicals good at revolution-ing but little idea of how to set up a country, the second conservative, wealthy, smart old men scared of the mob. Just my mention of “you didn’t see all the ‘heroes’ from the Revolution at the Convention” set my friends off a bit. What do you mean no heroes? What are they teaching you in school?

Uh, nuance? In any case, I’m also *shudder* going to side with Rush Limbaugh for a second here. We ought to be wary of narratives that push the idea that America has always acted selfishly and been motivated by bad intentions. This, too, is too simple a history, just in the other direction. I’ve talked to folks citing America’s poor record in a variety of categories, listened to them go on and on only to realize that they’re not interested in proclaiming the facts, just in putting America down. And I’m not even denouncing that as a patriot, I’m denouncing that as an agenda as stupid as all the others.

The agendas have consequences. I don’t wish to reference Hitler in vain, but it did come up in my history reading:

Gratified by the discovery of their proud historical pedigree, India’s aspiring nationalists embraced the Aryans as readily as did Europe’s cultural supremacists.

European scholars and colonialists were on board with the idea that they were descendents of this missing link and superior group, the Aryans, who were likely people from Central Asia who settled in ancient India, though like most things in ancient India, no one knows for sure. I’m saying Europeans in general, including the British; then the Nazis trumpeted the Aryan thing and everyone was off that train real quick.

It’s an election year, and you’re going to see appeals to history. (Or maybe just appeals to common sense and decency this time.) We’ve already seen “Make America Great Again,” assuming that we were once great and aren’t anymore. Or were we pure capitalist evil? Hmm. I don’t think these help solve our problems in any concrete way. And I don’t even think they make us feel better.

History, it’s been said many times, is not black and white. I don’t know how you like your coffee, but I guess it wouldn’t hurt to sweeten it a little to make it worth drinking, and I suppose it shouldn’t be so sweet you can’t tell it’s coffee.


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