Monday, January 03, 2011

History vs. Heritage, Pt. I

The Age of Enlightenment gave birth to the modern concept of Reason. And ever since, various human endeavors have been adjusted to conform to its exacting razor. Because of its unique way of trimming off irrelevancies and leading thinkers to productive ends, Reason is a sublime power of the human mind, and has transformed the world over.

Science, as a product of the study of nature through the lens of reason, is the best known result of this new Weltanshauung. What came before, alchemy for instance, was fundamentally hindered by the lack of a deductive method. Aided by reason, human understanding of chemistry alone has given us huge reaches of power that were entirely unavailable to our predecessors before the Enlightenment. It's really been quite remarkable. The imagination balks at how much power has been gained by our understanding (incomplete though it may be) of the mechanics of the Universe. Look at how much we now control! Understatement of the millennium: It's overwhelming.

One of the constant narratives of my childhood was Star Trek. Its gung-ho outlook on mankind's expanding horizon of control defined my early views about human progress. In the Star Trek universe, human technological control always barely exceeds the unexpected problems that result, so the net gain is always good. But over the years, I've grown to become wary of that perspective. I've gradually become squeamish about the controls of the planet being seized by squabbling, selfish apes. And what can I blame more than reason? To be completely fair, it's not that reason is flawed, but rather that there are supplemental ways of seeing the world that can prove more useful at times.

So my beef with reason only supplements the inherent problems that exist between reason and history. A reasoned approach to history equates stories with theories. But whereas a scientist can posit a theory and devise tests (or find additional examples) to bolster or refute that theory, historians cannot, because history is not a testable truth. Nonetheless, the practice is to read through the evidence, filter and rank the sources, comprehend the biases, and construct the most likely story to explain the evidence. Just like forensic investigators, but with far less evidence.

I don't much care for this approach. It can be useful, for sure, but it entirely misses the magnitude and usefulness of history. In my view, that approach is best used only as a tool to aid historians in their greater mission: to distill heritage. Heritage is about more than the recorded facts of the past, it's about sacred torches, passions, pride, regrets, groundedness. It's the stuff of myth.

"Myth" is a dirty word now, used to describe stories that are, at best, simply false, or at worst, dangerously misguided. But there's a sense in which myths can be useful and held proactively as a guide. I view myths as not true or false, but as ideology in narrative form. They are Rorschachian mirrors that can explain as much about the external world as they do about the internal culture. They're not exclusive of reason, they just illuminate areas where reason alone is inadequate. They can also be helpful in making sense of the past and charting forward into the future.

Myth and heritage are the heart of my interest in the past, as they are probably for most historians. But there are problems with using myth to interpret the past, the most glaring of which is the massive hangup people have with bias. The traditional approach in science, history, or any other academic field has been to attempt to ignore or cover up bias so that the evidence "can speak for itself." Of course there are also political reasons to disguise bias. Admitting bias can undermine academic authority and make results suspect. But it all seems like a lie to me. We're all either biased or apathetic and I want my heritage distilled by people with a passion. Besides, these days with Faux News and other overtly biased information sources, I think people expect that information reaches them with a bias already engineered in. I hope so, at least.

It's also fascinating to me that certain biases have "won out" so that they're now orthodox. Believing in racial equality and the evil of slavery are no longer biases, as they once were, they are now firm "truths," disputed by only a tiny radical fringe. Interpreting history to read in any way other than affirming these beliefs is fiercely heretical. I hold those beliefs personally, but I would be wrong to call them anything but a bias. So when I interpret history to conform to this bias, I'm dealing with myth... not in the sense that it is "false," but in the sense that it is an ideology.

Next time, I'll work up to applying these thoughts to that powder keg of Southern heritage: the Civil War.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good luck on that. The truth as far as the WBTS is illusive and won't be found in any local textbooks that's for sure.