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The Wrong Kind of History

Let me tell you what I think is the wrong kind of history - especially the wrong kind of world history. It would be a history like that told in the Book of Exodus. Here we have the historic figure of Moses confronting Pharaoh, who represents an evil order. Pharoah's Egypt has oppressed the Hebrew people by making them work too hard. But God is on their side. With God's help, Moses leads the Hebrew people out of Egypt as pursuing Egyptian armies drown in the Red Seas.

I don't like histories which make some people heroic at the expense of others. Yes, Moses was heroic. He led a successful, large-scale migration. He gave civilization the Ten Commandments, which many, including me, would say advanced the ideals of a more enlightened and humane civilization. But Moses was also a murderer. He gave the world the idea that some people are superior to others. He introduced a supremacist attitude to western culture which is like what we would today call "racism". It was an ungracious, contentious, warmaking attitude.

If we look back upon the time when Moses lived, there was a lot to admire in Egyptian society at that time. If Egypt oppressed its internal minorities, so do we today. If Pharaoh's overseers make people work too hard, the abuse is quite contemporary. So we have learned little in all these years. Was Moses so great because he advanced the idea of monotheism? He probably got the idea from Pharaoh Ikhnaton. I reserve judgment on the question of whether God is on anyone's side.

Now what does this have to do with contemporary histories? Too many historians in my opinion use history for political ends. Politicians trumpet the worth of our national history. We celebrate the "founding fathers" of the United States as sublime geniuses or persons of uniquely great character. History is thus put in the service of a U.S. imperial order that these national founders would not have embraced.

I own a history textbook written in the 1840s. Published at the time of the Mexican war, it helped glorify the American people and the institution of the United States government. One could see a positive trend in this nation growing larger and stronger, expanding to occupy territories from coast to coast. During this time, we were, of course, seizing territories that belonged to Mexico. Earlier in the century, we had tried to seize part of Canada. We Americans could cry "Remember the Alamo" to justify our aggression against our southern neighbor. In Britain's King George III, we had our own Pharaoh whom George Washington and other revolutionary heroes had defeated.

This kind of history will always get funded, because the winners of political struggles enjoy glorifying themselves. I prefer a history which contributes to a more peaceful world. If some people are considered good and others are bad, I don't want that kind of history. It's close to child abuse to seat innocent boys and girls in a history class to hear how their type of person was defeated by some other type of person or, alternatively, how their type oppressed some other type and was given its just deserts. No type of nationality, race, or religion should claim that world history revolves around itself or its parochial point of view. Such histories are bound to falsify historical facts; for the writers know how the story must turn out. Away with this politically contentious, false history!

History is a prime battle ground in the culture wars being waged in American society today. We have a conflict between nationalities, genders, and races - let's say, between descendants of immigrants from northwest Europe, males, and whites, on one hand; and more recent immigrants from non-European nations, females, and non-white people.

I sympathize with those in the latter group who felt cheated by traditional U.S. histories that glorified types of persons other than themselves. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln may not have been sufficiently close to them as personal role models. I sympathize with the American Indians whose historical role was to take a fall before advancing European civilization. Everyone deserves a positive role model.

But now the pendulum of history teaching has swung to the point of vilifying the whites, the males, and nationalities that were included in the traditional history. Today, U.S. history is all about how the white race enslaved the black race in America and how white segregationists in the South kept the black people subservient under Jim Crow until Martin Luther King and other heroes of the Civil Rights movement came along and defeated them. Dr. King is today's Moses standing up to Pharaoh's corrupt regime. The moral of this history is that white people did these terrible things to black people and must now be watched for any sign of backsliding or concealing their racist views.

Women, as an organized political force, promote Women's History as a means of telling how men have suppressed women for thousands of years. This history tells how famous men have taken credit for ideas stolen from women, often their wives. It's about how women have been kept out of the circle of glamorous public activities, while confined to the petty task of raising children and tending to household chores. Again, this is a kind of contentious history which requires someone else to vilify. Gentlemen, that's your role here.

The new mode of supremacist history is, oddly enough, a history of victimized peoples. These victims were once politically or socially subservient but they were a morally superior group which, in time, gained the upper hand in a glorious struggle which the history celebrates.

The Jewish people have also embraced this type of history as the world's most suffering people. Exhibit A is the Holocaust where the Nazis exterminated six million Jews. The surviving Jewish community has made this a part of its religious heritage. Jews, in some mystical sense, are the heroes. The villains are, besides Adolf Hitler and his Nazi supporters, "anti-Semites" - a vaguely defined concept denoting any non-Jewish person who expresses a critical opinion of Jews or the State of Israel or who alleges their hidden influence in society or, indeed, exhibits anything less than a reverent attitude toward the Jewish people.

It's possible to interpret the Holocaust in another way. For example, it illustrates the danger of totalitarian government where a skilled orator such as Hitler could take control of a modern state and inflict genocide upon a particular people. It may also be a reflection upon the harsh terms imposed upon Germany following World War I which created the resentment that Hitler exploited. But instead the Jewish community chose to interpret the Holocaust in a self-aggrandizing, paranoid way. In its immediate aftermath, Jewish emigres founded the State of Israel in a place where others lived. The world has been living with the consequences of that unpeaceful act ever since.

Today we have Islamic terrorism. We have a new group of victims pursuing historical goals in a violent way. This terrorism feeds upon the injustices visited upon the Palestinian people by the Israelis. It feeds on the humiliation which Islamic societies have experienced with western colonialism and the American imperialism that followed. It feeds on the vision of what Islam used to be in the centuries following the prophet Mohammed. As Mussolini sought to recapture the glory of imperial Rome, so these Islamic zealots want to restore the caliphate and bring infidels to their knees. "Remember the Crusades!" It is yet another historical perversion. Everyone perverts history. Why shouldn't they?

Is there an alternative? Yes, there is. Let's forget the glorious empires of the past, the big injuries like slavery and the Holocaust, and all those other contentious issues remaining from the past. Let's forget our "historic" mission of spreading western-style freedom and democracy to the rest of the world by force. World history can be a story of creation. It can be the story of how our society and our culture were created. We all experience this society; we are equally heirs to its creation.

From that perspective, it makes little difference what type of person made the greater contributions to society. The ancestors of the Iraqis invented writing. Marconi made the first successful radio transmitter. Does that mean that Iraqis and Italians are smarter than other people? However they themselves may answer that question, I choose to accept what their ancestors did as the legacy of all humanity. Ultimately, we want a world history that brings us together - a history with a big heart and not an ammunition dump for those with bones to pick, reputations to be made.

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