Finding Inspiration in the Sickening Tragedy of History

I must take a moment off from trying to put all of my hard-earned insights about life into the mouth of the skeleton of my difficult, at times impossible, father.

To be more accurate:  I need to take a break from trying to put these insights into our ‘conversations’ by way of giving you, gentle reader, these hopefully tantalizing crusts to chew on.   I generously give the fucking skeleton most of the good lines because I am that kind of son.  But I’m afraid my dear old father can add nothing at the moment to what I need to say.  

“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time you completely underestimated me, would it, Elie?” said the familiar pain in the ass from his bed inside the earth.  

Most people I know are very upset at the recent political turns of fortune here in the land of the free and the home of the brave.    They have little faith that a vain, thin-skinned, attention and adulation-seeking man, born filthy rich, to a self-made millionaire father, Frederick Christ “Fred” Trump (I shit thee not), who sent the troubled boy to a military academy to make him less of a vain, thin-skinned, attention-seeker, and later battled government charges of systematic racism with this same son, aided by Roy Cohn, the son by then the young president of his father’s real estate company, can lead our troubled and divided nation to better times.  They look at his Harvard-trained, Goldman Sachs exec turned successful profiteer of hate and innuendo, his Chief Strategist, and see Dr. Goebbels, Minister of Public Enlightenment, the man with the intellectual fire power to sell his passionate master’s vision of National Greatness to the persuadable, and they shudder with horror.    

Sekhnet is more upset than most.   She suffers from PTSD, is more susceptible than many to loud rumblings of the worst case scenario.   She can’t hear much on any subject related to any of this without becoming tearful.   She told me tonight that I’m incapable of talking about anything else (though, in fairness to me, I spend plenty of time doling out Obama’s share of blame for the current state of affairs).  I must therefore take a few moments from trying to craft a salable manuscript about my father and history, written with a slavish devotion to the tastes of the razor-toothed corporate cocksuckers I hope will embrace it, promote it, and pay me for it, to speak bluntly and honestly about something that quickly reduces Sekhnet to tears.   History.  

She had terrible history teachers in school who made studying the subject a boring, meaningless chore.  As a consequence she never read history once she graduated.   She much preferred the intellectual rigors of philosophy and science, though she no longer reads much of the former and doesn’t have as much time as she’d like to keep up with most aspects of the latter.   History, she says, is like the politics and ‘alternative facts’ that divide us now, a data dump of unquantifiable sludge, or propaganda, dull and/or dangerous, the stuff of which the horror we live in today is actually crafted.    

“She’s not entirely wrong about that,” said the skeleton wryly.  

I tried to explain to her that uncovering the pertinent facts and learning useful lessons from history is, indeed, an ongoing battle.  It’s like the battle I must constantly wage against anger.  There are plenty of reasons to rage, always, no shit.   The struggle not to become angry must be ongoing if it is to have any hope of success.  You might learn to eliminate the reflexive tensing of your arms, the clenching of your fists, even the snarl that might feel irresistible — but the look on your face will still betray your feelings most of the time.  

The best history is a nuanced telling of what happened in the past in the context of how this past effects things going forward.  No professional historian can actually present this story in all its nuance, though some come much closer than others.  History, at its best, is an earnest search for deeper truth about our world that inspires the imagination.  

It’s true that most historians write for their masters, serve a powerful force of one kind or another.  It is said that history is written by the victors, often in the blood of those they defeat and vilify.  Much of what we call history is written to justify one set of beliefs or another.   The historian, we’re told, must start with a thesis, in the manner of a scientist, and demonstrate the truth of the theory by presenting and interpreting the known and uncovered facts.  

“Sounds a lot like a data dump of unquantifiable sludge, when you put it like that,” said the skeleton.  

Yeah, maybe so.   History is slippery, I’ll give it that.  Certain things, however, happened, they objectively happened and they cannot unhappen.  There were a few hundred years of chattel slavery here, for example, from the earliest colonial days through almost the entire first century of our great democracy.   That part is beyond dispute, even if you refer to it as The Peculiar Institution and the rich people who owned slaves, raped the ones they liked, had the ones whipped that they didn’t like, as Planters.  Then the Civil War.  Then things get slippery.  

Woodrow Wilson was a great fan of D.W. Griffith’s epic masterpiece of early cinema, the innovative ‘The Birth of A Nation.’  He had the movie screened at the White House, the first movie ever screened there.  

“The aptly named White House, in that instance,” said the skeleton.  

Some feminist professor at CCNY made us watch most of the infernal movie with her, in a darkened room on the City College campus in Harlem.  I watched the thing and said to myself “I’ll be damned.”   I had no idea the freed slaves had created such a massive and intolerable wave of terror, preying on white women, raping them, and that the Ku Klux Klan, far from being the brutal, hate-filled lynching murderers I’d always supposed, were actually modern day knights, living out a code of chivalry as impressively heroic as any from storied antiquity.  

“Sekhnet will tell you to tone down the irony,” said the skeleton.  

Fine, but I give it as an example.  The version of history that was in ascendance in 1915, when the hateful “Birth of A Nation” was made, and Klan membership was soaring, was that American blacks were out of control and needed the harsh penal laws of the southern states and the brutal methods, including occasionally teaching them a collective lesson by torturing and killing the most uppity of them, to keep them in line.  It was better for everybody, these historians argued, to leave the treatment of blacks to the localities that knew them best.   Any black people who could get out of those localities migrated, en masse, to urban centers far from the former Confederacy.  Life wasn’t no crystal stair for them where they went, but it was arguably better than casting your eyes down wherever you went to avoid being strung up. [1]

The history of these things is fascinating to me, even if also maddening and grotesque.  I read historians like W.E.B. Du Bois, Eric Foner and Howard Zinn and nod my head.  These historians are speaking my language, presenting the past in a way that makes perfect sense to me, in light of the present.  Other people may not be moved by these histories at all, still others might never open any of these books in the first place.   I don’t say one way is necessarily better than another, but for me, as it was for my father, this shit is endlessly fascinating.  

“Well, not everybody is cut out for it, Elie.  You can see the long recitation of the horrors of history as an unbearable ordeal to put yourself through.  History is also alive.  You remember when you and your sister were little and I told you not to buy Sugar Babies and Sugar Daddies?  They were Welch candies, made by a company owned by Robert Welch, the man who started the John Birch Society– in the year your sister was born, as a matter of fact.  

“The John Birch Society were rabid right wing fanatics who believed Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Soviet agent.  The infamous billionaire Koch brothers, who have done so much to bring about a more just world — for themselves– , sprung from the syphlitic gonads of one of the founders of the John Birch Society.   Here’s what Welch published about Eisenhower, courtesy of your friend Jeeves:

  • On page 278 of The Politician, Welch summarized, from his perspective, the only two possible interpretations of President Eisenhower’s motives: “The role he has played, as described in all the pages above, would fit just as well into one theory as the other; that he is a mere stooge or that he is a Communist assigned the specific job of being a political front man.”

“Anyway, true enough, any jackass can write history.  You recall Henry Ford’s masterwork about the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, meticulously researched and based largely on the infamous Czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”  

Yeah, look, you and I don’t have much squeamishness about history, but I recognize that many people do.   I will end with Howard Zinn’s inspiring message, delivered as an older man, talking about why he studied and taught history, why he wrote A People’s History of the United States:

“I wanted, in writing this book, to awaken a consciousness in my readers, of class conflict, of racial injustice, of sexual inequality and of national arrogance, and I also wanted to bring into light the hidden resistance of the People against the power of the establishment.   

I thought that to omit these acts of resistance, to omit these victories, however limited, by the people of the United States, was to create the idea that power rests only with those who have the guns, who possess the wealth.  I wanted to point out that people who seem to have no power — working people, people of color, women– once they organize and protest and create national movements, they have a power that no government can suppress.

“I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements, but to think that history writing must simply recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat.  And if history is to be creative, if it’s to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I think, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.

“I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in the solid centuries of warfare.”

 

[1] I have a vivid memory of my mother reading me this wonderful poem by Langston Hughes  (read the poem, but whatever you do, don’t click on the play video button above it)

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