Monday, November 11, 2013

Two disjointed thoughts

Reactions! Discussions! Interesting thoughts! New lines of flight! All these things have happened in response to my last post on European history. And before they escape and elude into the mists of time, I want to capture them. Two, in particular.

The first is the contrast to the American style of history writing. Or, rather, the stereotypical American style of writing history, characterized by such things as manifest destiny, military prowess and the eternal heroism of the free world. The good guy vs bad guy narrative, where John Wayne rides in on a white horse to save the day in the nick of time. The Hollywood way of viewing the world.

Now, to be sure, this is a stereotype, and an oversimplified one at that. Actual Americans don't think that simplemindedly, especially not those who think about history. But you can see the general outline of the differences from this short generalization - the difference between the "we went abroad to slay a foreign dragon, Hitler was his name" and the "and then millions died, again" narratives. It's not subtle.

There are many ways to go on about this difference. The most obvious one being the difference in mode and tone - in oh so many ways, the European outlook will resonate with the color gray. There is something dissonant in the cheerful, pragmatic, can do mentality of American individualism - the notion that everyone can get their slice of heaven on earth if they work hard enough for it. It jars. It screams of a lesson not learned: that everyone is created equal, and that everyone is equally capable of being crushed by the machinery of oppression once it gets in motion. That individual optimism is not translatable to societal optimism.

One has to mourn before moving on.

The second thought I want to capture (to slightly shift gears) is the value of history. Of learning what happened. Or, rather, the detours you will find yourself having to take while trying to learn what happened. Suddenly, you end up places where you wouldn't have ended up otherwise, and become all the wiser for it.

To take an unrelated example question: why did Napoleon lose at Waterloo? To answer this, one has to take account of the things that happened before that particular battle, and before long, one is reading up on how the revolutionary process led to France having an emperor in the first place, and from there it is a short step to thinking about the dynamics of social segmentation and stratification. Suddenly, your mind makes leaps of understanding it very likely wouldn't have done otherwise.

Knowing what happened in and of itself won't get you to this place. But knowing that things happened and that they happened for a reason - a whole host of reasons, reasoning in unison - lets your mind take flight. Suddenly, a thing is not just a thing - it is as it is for a reason, and if you put enough contextual effort to it, you can understand this reason.

It is not that you're thinking back that's important. It's that you're thinking big.

Two thoughts. Two fragments. Captured before they ran away, as these things are wont to do. -

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