Sunday, September 13, 2009

There's Only One Version of History: Mine.

I CAME CLOSE TO NOT existing. Very close.

During World War II, my grandfather served in the Army, fighting in the Philippines. It was hot and swampy, he tells me. He contracted malaria for which he still receives disability checks. But that's not the only point when the family tree was nearly cut before I came along.

My other grandfather - my mother's father - served in the Japanese military (he shot the image above). And he was in the Philippines, roughly about the same time as my American grandfather. My Japanese grandfather was shot in the eye during a battle there, and he nearly died, I'm told.

Sometimes I wonder if my grandfathers were shooting at each other.

And sometimes I wonder where the real history lies. By American standards, Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack, unprompted in a military sense. Sure, there had been trade injunctions and verbal sparring, but crush the Pacific fleet? That was uncalled for.

What about the Japanese perspective? Is that history?

What I gather from Ian Tyrrell's Historians in Public is that some traditional scientific historians are uncomfortable with the democratization of knowledge. They'd prefer that there was a universal idea of what is considered history, and multiculturalism and political correctness be damned. History is what they say it is - with they being Ivory Tower intellectuals (i.e. white American dudes).

I find that shocking.

The discomfort that historians apparently have dealt with since the origin of "History" is more understandable. As Carl Becker says, the facts are malleable. They are subjective and constantly changing as needed. How can an historian, even one of ph.D caliber, claim to know anything for certain when the facts are so easily massaged to suit one's needs?

As education evolved, and social sciences garnered credibility, and political power ignored historians, and mass media rendered them relatively obsolete beyond academia, traditional scientific historians seemed to grasp for appreciation, influence, importance, and indeed, relevance. They complained about the narrowness and fragmentation of the field (while at the same time perpetuating it). They called for specializations to act as bricks that build a collective home.

That's progressive?

There is a purpose to history, I think. It's more than nostalgia or romance. We can study the past, looking for best practices and warning signs. It is the infrastructure of the present, and an outline for the future. While the historical facts themselves may be debatable, so are the moral outcomes. And that's a wonderful thing.

I think this really comes down to how we define history. If everyman is an historian in some fashion, then there are millions, if not billions of histories. There are commonalities, for certain, but there are also different perspectives. That doesn't have to hinder history. It can actually enhance it by making history inclusive, maybe even personal (that's my Japanese grandfather on the far right).

In the end, history belongs to the individual. Nobody knows my history better than I do.

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