Glossing Over History

Watching the HBO miniseries John Adams, I’m struck by how we whitewash history in classrooms and conversation. We are perhaps most shortsighted in our view of the historical figures that have risen to mythic proportions. Often we’re left thinking of these people as two-dimensional characters that reside only on our rapidly devaluing dollars. These individuals, for all their great achievements, were still human, and thus, in my mind, more appealing.

I fear our willingness to overlook the very humanity of the individuals we admire, in favor of their great exploits, puts us at risk of chasing away the very people we need to lead in society. Consider the men and women who seek public office. While many are true representatives of their communities, others still hold their seats because equally or more qualified candidates refuse to submit to the nonsense that passes as a modern-day election.

Within the business community, the most able are sometimes passed over for the ones with the smoothest tongues. The company scandals—Enron and Worldcom—were brought about because these companies were led by people more interested in appearing successful versus actually being successful. I’ve thought about this reality when compared to what we see in modern day politics. We want our political figures to speak of change, but we’re rarely interested in true change. We want our leaders to say something of value, but we punish them for honest speaking.

This past week saw the political world caught up in the words of Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Attention then fell on Obama as he responded to critics who questioned his membership in Wright’s congregation with a speech many believe made history. For others, it still wasn’t enough. Once again, instead of focusing on the individual’s credentials, we allowed the media to drive the conversation towards requiring Obama to take responsibility for the words of someone else. Do we really believe that Obama’s pastor choice defines whether he is qualified to be president? Aren’t there other questions that would be better qualifiers?

Ultimately, history’s allure lies in our ability to assign responsibility with supposedly perfect hindsight. We can define the heroes, loathe the villains, and laugh at the jesters. Living in the moment requires more patience, but our fast-paced lives don’t allow for the consideration we give to those in the past. And for many, yesterday or last week IS history, but we’re unwilling to recognize how our humanity makes it difficult for living figures to reach mythic proportions without falling off the pedestal.


9 Responses to “Glossing Over History”

  1. March 24, 2008 at 8:45 am

    “While many are true representatives of their communities, others still hold their seats because equally or more qualified candidates refuse to submit to the nonsense that passes as a modern-day election.”

    Agreed – even more, can’t raise, beg borrow or steal the enormous amount of money needed to sustain a campaign. Not everyone has a political machine and/or Oprah available to them – and it’s our loss.

    We allow the media to lead these conversation because for the most part they avoid real journalism (3 source independent confirmations) so as not to get their hands dirty or have ratings drop. And we, actually, are a lazy people, who don’t make demands for anything better or more honest.

    Yikes! Sorry for the negativity! BTW – loving the John Adams miniseries – I’ve been a total groupy and read everything on his and Abigail’s lives since I was small.

  2. 2 Judith G.
    March 24, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    I no longer subscribe to HBO and haven’t had a chance to watch the John Adams miniseries, but you have me intrigued. Maybe I’ll catch it on Netflix when it becomes available.

    Recently I read the book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me.” Although I intuitively knew that history was whitewashed in classrooms, this book was certainly an eye opener. History to me was a bore in high school and because of AP credit I fulfilled any college requirements.

    Perhaps if historical figures were presented in class as they truly were – flawed human beings – we would be more interested in learning about them. We might even be able to learn from them and avoid repeating the mistakes of those past heroes.

  3. 3 Britt
    March 24, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    @Jane: I think you hit on the exact problem. We’re being intellectually dishonest with ourselves, and the media with itself, when we allow the current modus operandi to drive the conversation. Everyone know that modern day politicking does little to provide insight into the candidates. It all seems to be based on saying as a little as possible and keeping one’s foot out of one’s mouth, all because we demand surface perfection, even though we know it isn’t realistic. I think it’s part of the reason the economic markets are in turmoil, too, but that’s a post for another day. 🙂

    @Judith: I also read “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and was blown away by the differences between my historical education versus the reality. I did secondary research, which confirmed the bulk of what I discovered in “Lies” and was dumbfounded. What do educators and/or history writers believe is gained from creating inaccurate representations of history? And how can we learn about the real mistakes if we never knew they existed? Thank you for reminding me of “Lies.”

  4. 4 Robert
    March 25, 2008 at 11:08 am

    Your post had a little throwaway sentence at the end that bears comment:

    “Do we really believe that Obama’s pastor choice defines whether he is qualified to be president?”

    YES YES YES we are known by the company we keep. The man who selected this pastor for many years will be selecting a cabinet an important policy makers – how many of these will be radicals who hate our country. How many?

    This was not a simple question – but it has a simple answer.


  5. March 25, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    You know what struck me when I watched the first episode? Just how purely evil tar-and-feathering is. I actually had to avert my eyes. My history teachers certainly glossed over that fact when I was in school. In fact, they even romanticized it a bit.

  6. 6 Britt
    March 25, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    @Robert: I agree that you can tell something about a man or woman by the company he or she keeps; however, I believe focusing on one member of that company distracts from the bigger picture. Part why I find this issue so frustrating is that is crosses over into religion, which can’t be addressed with any sort of neutrality in this country at this time.

    While I doubt I’ll vote for any of the presidential candidates, I would still appreciate an honest debate. For instance, I believe McCain has put himself in direct contact with equally radical voices on the right like Jerry Falwell. Does this connection disqualify McCain for the presidency?

    My main point is that we would be much better served if we paid equal attention to other questions about a candidate’s qualifications beyond his or her choice of religious leader. For example, who does Obama, or Clinton or McCain for that matter, have advising them on the economy? That type of question, I believe, should have a greater impact on a candidate’s potential as a future president.

    @J.J.: The tarring and feathering made me squirm, too, particularly when combined with the rail riding. History definitely loses its earthiness and rough reality over time. For all our romanticizing of it, we skip over some of the downright disgusting aspects of colonial life.

  7. March 26, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    Wait a second, Britt. You said “I doubt I’ll vote for any of the presidential candidates” – are you saying you aren’t going to vote for any nominee from the 2 major parties, or are you saying you arent going to vote? I don’t have an issue with you going with the green party, writing someone in, or whatever. But please DO vote. Think about all the people around the world who don’t have that right and would just kill for the ability to participate in a democratic process.

  8. 8 Britt
    March 26, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    @J.J.: Sounds like I startled you a bit…to clarify, I will vote in this election. There are important local and state offices up this election cycle. However, I choose to not cast a vote for any presidential candidate, major or minor party. For me, because I believe none of the candidates is truly representative of me, I can’t in good conscience give him or her my vote.

    I’m a firm and vocal proponent of the democratic process. I also believe that we’re where we’re at because we haven’t consciously chosen to NOT vote for someone. Any time I hear someone say they voted for someone else, for example in a primary, so as to hurt a competitor (“the enemy of my enemy is my friend”) I no longer wonder why our political process appears broken.

    For a long time, we’ve adopted the lesser of two evils approach to politics, although I suspect many Obama supporters would say this year is different. The lesser of two evils theory leaves a constituency at the mercy of whoever deigns to run for office. What if a district’s citizens recognized that no particular candidate was suitable for public office and everyone decided to not cast a single vote? I don’t know how election laws might respond to such an instance, but isn’t that as equally powerful as every single person turning out to vote?

    So to sum up, I’m taking the opportunity to exercise my right to vote “no” by not voting for any presidential candidate.

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