Thursday, January 28, 2010

‘History is The Memory of States” - Henry Kissinger (And He Ought To Know)

For all that Henry Kissinger is the Devil war criminal he did get the above quote exactly right. And even without that Kissinger BoBo Head, I know about the cultural fictions that human beings engage in; I know about the shifting contexts that define cultures and peoples in certain ways at certain points in time.  The stories we tell one another about Who We Are and What That Means change, as if True and False change with the times; to borrow from Trinh Minh-ha, what is "'crooked thinking' today may be 'right thinking' tomorrow.'"

Despite that, the stories that form the Foundational Myths of the United States have proved remarkably persistent in the face of both Time and Truth, despite the disconnect between Truth and Fiction so many of the stories embody. I have come to think of Writers of History in many ways as purveyors of a Past That Never Was, a totally arbitrary past, and in the case of Our United States, one consisting mostly of constructions of conquest.  However. It is my current understanding that those who write history (personal and political) are also those who can rewrite it if the mood strikes.  Isn’t everyone and every nation's history littered with all manner of erasures and additions?

Yesterday we lost a WICKED good Re-Writer of History - one of the best, Howard Zinn.

Howard Zinn's groundbreaking A People's History of The United States gave many of us our first glimpse at an alternative historical understanding, one that offered many more possibilities for our own lives even as it challenged long-held beliefs. Zinn argued that as consumers of History - in general and U.S. History in particular - we should consume the messages of our Histories in the same way we consume any other political rhetoric, because they are actually exactly the same thing.  Zinn dumped "the official version of history taught in schools -- with its emphasis on great men in high places -- to focus on the street, the home, and the, workplace" and replaced it with
"America's story from the point of view of -- and in the words of -- America's women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers. As historian Howard Zinn shows, many of our country's greatest battles -- the fights for a fair wage, an eight-hour workday, child-labor laws, health and safety standards, universal suffrage, women's rights, racial equality -- were carried out at the grassroots level, against bloody resistance." - Google Books Overview
Zinn showed us that re-examining our history reveals a patriarchal and imperialistic culture constructing itself, and other cultures; it reveals how our culture interprets those cultures, always through the cloudy lens of time and circumstance and privilege.

I still read History, although I do so differently now than I did before reading Zinn.  Now I read it to (among other things) internalize an understanding of the many privileges allotted to white Americans of European descent, I read histories to undermine their implicit authority, looking as much for what isn’t there as much as for what is. Thank you, Mr. Zinn for all of that. You will be missed.