Wednesday Word of the Week, June 8

8 Jun

I did WHAT?

This week’s word is: HISTORY

  • the study of the events of the past
  • the whole of time before the present, and all things that happened in that time
  • an account of the events that happened during a particular period of the past

During the past week, former fractional Governor and failed Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin put her foot in her mouth once again. (Sadly the foot did not penetrate far enough to nudge her brain facsimile.)

In off-the-cuff remarks about Paul Revere, hero of the American Revolution, Palin totally misrepresented Revere’s actions. With at best a gross distortion and at worst a complete fabrication, she invented a mission for Revere in which he taunted the British with a message of braggadocio embroidered with the Colonists’ hypothetical, pre-Constitution (in fact, pre-Independence!) right to bear arms.

As has happened too many times in the past (thank you Katie Couric), the media have corrected Palin and pointed out her departure from established reality. Of course, the pundits of Teabagistan have rallied to her defense, also ignoring history. As reported on NPR, using Revere’s own words, Palin clearly misrepresented Revere’s primary mission. Some right-wing commentators have used a single incident (actions Revere took when briefly captured during one mission) to support Palin. This flimsy and inaccurate view is nicely analyzed on another blog. In the final analysis, can Palin and her supporters claim that she has presented a moment of history? Let’s dissect that definition and find out.

Given that Palin can’t name a single major newspaper nor identify even a “favorite” American Founder, we can safely dismiss the concept of STUDY

the process of learning about a problem or subject using scientific methods

from her use of history.

Since the events Palin recounts did not actually HAPPEN

come into being; become reality

we can throw out the second definition as well.

If we choose to be generous, we can give Ms. Palin some credit for creating an ACCOUNT

a written or spoken report about something

since she did speak about something, however inaccurately. In most cases, however, I think we would prefer that our history be based on fact, not whim, sloppy interpretation, or political agenda.

Despite our best intentions to create an accurate record, the aphorism attributed to Alex Haley has merit:

History is written by the winners.

Just ask significant figures like Victoria Woodhull or Bayard Rustin, who were obscured in or nearly eliminated from the historical record because their contributions were problematic to the narrative a certain population wanted to create. Conversely, ask Presidents Grant or Wilson, both of whom have rosier histories than they merit based on very specific accomplishments that some narrators wish to emphasize.

Revere’s story is problematic because it is mostly known to us from Longfellow’s poem, which takes great artistic license with the history. Much of our childhood history comes from art like this or fables like Washington and the cherry tree or Betsy Ross and the flag. It is helpful to children to have simple stories to whet their appetite for history; we must not, however allow art, fables, agendas, or outright lies to be spun into the web of real history. When we become lazy about our understanding of the events that precede us, like Michele Bachmann repeatedly does, we either revel in dangerous ignorance or allow others to craft the narrative of our lives for us.

George Santayana famously said

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

which is often paraphrased with a  reference to the word history. This is very true. How much more perilous must it be, then, when we opt to remember a past that meets our needs and not the truth?

(All definitions courtesy of Macmillan Dictionary Online)

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