- Defense Nerds Strike BackAt Wired, there was a symposium on the Battle of Hoth (from the Empire Strikes Back, awhere contributors analyzed the battle as though it was a historical event. My favorite contribution, though was by Tim Burke, The Longue Duree of the Galactive Empire, wherein he talks about Hoth as a particularly well known, but otherwise unremarkable example of a recurring type of event in the Star Wars Universe.
”Treating the Rebellion as a privileged mode of dissent in an era when many other systems and social classes were in other ways ‘slipping through the fingers’ of the Coruscant metropole is itself granting too much credit to a ragtag band of avidly self-promoting malcontents.”
- Quitters Never Win– An article on the Atlantic about the pitfalls of leaving social media. The author specifically addresses recent articles advising or giving strategies for opting out of Facebook and he is right to a point. Not being on Facebook does cut you out of opportunities for “self-expression,” and it is true that most of the security concerns about Facebook in contrast to other social outlets are overblown, that many of the strategies for hiding important information are self-defeating, and that an increasing amount of social planning (even for academic events) is going through Facebook. What he doesn’t address is the veneer of proximity that lulls people into a false sense of connectivity and intimacy, a feeling that I miss sometimes, but that also left me with a deep sense of disquiet. Then there was the amount of idle time spent on Facebook and my frustrations with some of the heavy handed changes Facebook was making.
That being said, the author tries to use the example of Facebook as to why you shouldn’t quit any social media sites, and the same concerns on those other media sites as to why you should not quit Facebook. It sounds nice and, like I said, true to a point, but it is also overly simplistic.
- The Geography of Happiness– A study of vocabulary from Twitter charts happiness by state. Certainly there is more that could be done to substantiate the findings (as the article points out), but it provides food for thought.
- New Book Traces the Education of Adolf Hitler– There is a new history (in German) the examines the period in Hitler’s life between the end of the first world war and his political involvement.
A bit over eight and a half years ago I wrote my college entrance essay. It was an exploratory essay wherein I discussed an evolution in my thought from a world of black and white, good and evil to one of indistinct shades of grey. In this essay I advanced one of my core tenets: that in the most saintly people there are flaws and in the most heinous something of good. If memory serves, my examples were Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. Admittedly Roosevelt would not have considered himself a saint, but I had an aversion to work back then and the apposition worked nicely.
The larger issue is that a true black and white version of good and evil exists only in fiction. Both moral terms are easy to throw around in writing and speech, but, ultimately, they are perceived categories. To repeat my Hitler example, only taking it one step more polemical, he genuinely believed that the extermination of the Jews was a morally good–or at least necessary–act. I think perpetrators of genocide everywhere feel the same way. This does not exonerate the actions taken by any stretch of the imagination, but when there is active thought behind these actions they must be explained somehow. If not, the actions are done without thought or done in insanity. Actions themselves may be evil when done under these circumstances, but I have a hard time categorically labeling them, or even people who do bad things rationally, truly evil. That is a subjective category.
I am not the same person I was then, both for better and for worse, but that tenet remains. It is part of what it means to be human. There are also evils in the world. There are truths. There are facts. There are “universal” goods. These concepts are unique to each person, at least at the level of understanding. This is relativism.
Relativism is the fundamental claim that perception will not be uniform from person to person to person even if the underlying facts have not changed. What we call universal truths (or facts) are that way because people collectively agree upon them. I believe that the same principal applies to language. Words mean what they do because they are, more or less, agreed upon–not because they simply are. Moreover, many words have multiple meanings and/or carry different meanings to different people. Yes, words are used to convey and describe things that are, but the perception of those things will not be the same.
Perhaps this is a tacit admittance of objective truths. I am willing to admit that they may exist. Nonetheless those objective truths are inaccessible. Relativism–my version of relativism, anyway–argues that perception is what is relative, not the underlying facts. Thus, when someone pokes holes in relativism by demonstrating there are inarguable facts there is no problem. It is merely a demonstration that some perceptions are more universal than others.
Then there is the issue of relativity versus objectivity in history. In the world as we know it today, actions and events do take place. The Olympics are going on right now; the bird flew from the tree to the feed and back again, pausing only to snatch a seed; I am typing with my laptop set on a wooden table. Some of these actions are currently ongoing but will, at some point, exist only in the past, a past that is in that future time entirely inaccessible except through a retelling. It is the job of reporters, historians, essayists, and other storytellers to conjure up that past for an audience. Presumably the storyteller sees some merit in the writing (even if that merit is financial), and the audience will agree or disagree with the merit. Of course, the better the storyteller, the more likely the audience will accept it.
So there is an objective history that once happened, but merely from a narrative standpoint, the past is beyond our reach and therefore subject to the relative perception and interpretation of first the storyteller and then the audience. The relativistic nature is further pronounced when the objective behind the story is to draw conclusions from the past or to ascribe motive.
This is not an indictment of the endeavor, either. If anything, the relative nature of history means that more people should become involved in the research and writing so that more voices get heard. Historians themselves are conduits of the stories and of the past, but, by their very human, flawed, nature, do not have access to the Truth.
Ethnic superiority is a funny thing. Not ha-ha funny, but rather a queer sort of temperament, world view and modus operandi. Many nations and, especially in places where the population is largely heterogeneous, extreme nationalism devolves into ethnic superiority.1 Perhaps this ethnic superiority is most infamous in the case of the German Third Reich, wherein there was a state sanctioned ethnic ideal to the exclusion of all others, and ultimately the Final Solution.
In retrospect, and even to those who saw the horrors first hand, there was no excuse for it and the ethnic superiority in this case (and, as should be noted, in the case of Japan during the same period), resulted in among the greatest evils that humans have ever inflicted upon each other. Yet when viewing Germans, the ethnic superiority is something associated with Hitler, something associated with the Nazi regime. This is misleading.
After reading the Dr. Faustus of Thomas Mann, <Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist of Friedrich Nietzsche and most of Mein Kampf, plus a number of works on the German Empire created by Bismark through its end under Wilhelm II, I am struck by the overwhelming arrogance, and surety each of these works contains. While evident in the other works, Nietzsche is the most glaring example of this.
I am not going to analyze the philosophy, if for no other reason than I am tired and not properly suited to relate it back to any audience, however Nietzsche is convinced of his own superiority and that of the German Race. I do not imagine that Nietzsche would have liked the Nazis, let alone Hitler, but it would be interesting to think of what he would have said about him since their ideal ethnicity was one and the same, just as Wilhelm and Hitler shared the ideal of a powerful Germany, for which reason Hitler sent flowers to Wilhelm’s funeral.
By and large it is not that these men simply looked down upon other races or actively scorned them, but there is a seemingly natural underlying assumption that Germans were superior; this is not a moralistic judgment that many of the authors care to explain, it is simply so.
1 Not that ethnic superiority cannot create nationalism in heterogeneous areas and what is to follow could be said to be of this sort; my own view is that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two and I chose to start with nationalism because there is an unswerving loyalty that a nation is capable of creating even in ethnically diverse countries.
Seeing with eyes unclouded
Two of my most recent reads were A History of Modern Greece by C.M. Woodhouse and Alexander the Great by W.W. Tarn. Each has value; Woodhouse endeavours to document Greece from 306 C.E. up through 1977, while using just 300 page; Tarn almost single-handedly launched the modern study of Alexander III. They also have deficiencies. Most glaring for each is their tendency towards racial, ethnic or other stereotypes, combined with unabashed judgments about people or events. Tarn believes that Alexander was the first person to suggest the universal brotherhood of mankind, began the two main trends in political theory (monarchism and universal brotherhood, from what I can tell) and that if Alexander hadn’t died, we would be living in a Utopia under his descendants; Woodhouse hates Mussolini with a passion and is perfectly willing to deride him as an absolute monster without justification other than that he attacked Greece and felt petty jealousy toward Hitler.
If I actually had to use these two authors as sources, I would find myself in a deep dilemma. On one hand they know what they are talking about for the actual narrative, on the other, their arguments and their methodology is weak (in fact, I would go so far as to say that Thucydides, writing thousands of years earlier had better methodology, but that is a pet argument for me). To my mind, outrageous arguments such as the ones suggested above tarnish what could otherwise be very good work. The same is true of primary sources and ancient secondary sources, though in the latter case they often suffer from source problems as well and make do with comments such as “I don’t know how they did it, but here is what should have been done or what I would have done.”
As I do not need them for any sources (and even in Alexander studies, I find Tarn usually of secondary import), I can be somewhat amused at their eccentricities, but it goes to show that historians must always be vigilant lest their sources lead them astray. Of course this doesn’t mean that simple narrative with no explanation or analysis takes place, but the historian should make up their own mind rather than allowing the biases of their sources play a prominent role.
fact vs fiction vs fabrication
Without spoiling much of the plot, Slaughterhouse Five emphasized one particular view of history in that the past, the present and the future are all composed of beings that are living at that particular moment. Traveling through time to another point is simple in that those times live and exist in some tangible manner.
This is not how history is usually thought of.
Usually history is viewed as a linear passage where the past is set in some concrete fashion, yet gone forever, the future subject to possibilities and therefore only existent in the most theoretical way; the only thing real by this view is the present. On one hand there is some argument here: while individual facts of history can be reinterpreted or discovered, what has come before, in theory, is done and immutable, however my chosen profession would be even further out of reach if this were the case.
In other ways all of human history is nothing more than an elaborate fiction constructed to provide lessons, morals, entertainment and justification. At the heart history is no more tangible than a work of fiction and in the works of fiction there is often some inner dialogue as to motive, where the basic fact of reality is that you can never know with one hundred percent certainty what goes on in the head of another human. Combine this with the simple fact that people tend to concern themselves with that which they know personally and history and fiction are suddenly equatable.
Intellectually it is understood that history actually happened, but functionally fiction and history are much the same. Built on this is that the job of the historian is to sift through facts; lenses with the proper angle of sifting can result in bizarre products and some of the greatest propaganda in history: Hitler the family man and misunderstood artist, Roosevelt the chain-smoking, boozing liar, etc.
Once more I find myself asking the question how much of history is actual events and how much of it is really a superficial fabrication by “historians?”