Why is History so Dangerous?

You’d think that events that occurred thousands of years ago wouldn’t be that relevant or threatening to current governments and their policies, right? Au contraire! One of the benefits of developing an awareness of and sensitivity to history is that you come to understand that even really, REALLY old stuff can have an impact on current events. Moreover, you come to understand that there are very often people out there in positions of power eager to suppress that information because it threatens whatever agenda they wish to advance at the moment.

Case in point: a week ago this news story appeared about the authorities’ shutting down in western China a museum exhibit featuring a 4,000-year-old mummy. Why all the fuss?

Well, you see, this mummy is not Chinese; it’s Caucasian. This fact is quite inconvenient for the Chinese government because it indicates that the earliest settlers of the region were not Chinese. Of course, anyone who knows much about the history of the region knows that the Chinese are relative newcomers. In fact, they are still a minority. However, there is a strong separatist movement among the Turkic peoples in western China, and this mummy could potentially strengthen their case in the public mind that the Chinese are interlopers who need to be thrown out.

The Han Chinese have had their government drill into their heads from their youth the idea that the current borders of China are sacrosanct and must remain part of China now and forever. In fact, in the late 1990s when I lived and taught in China, I had students try to tell me that China had never gone through a period of expansion at any point in its history; they seemed to think that the Chinese people had simply sprung from the soil thousands of years ago in all the places they currently reside. A Caucasian mummy in Xinjiang threatens that cherished myth.

So, please be aware that when you learn about history, particularly by reading primary sources, that you are committing a potentially revolutionary act and could bring the anger of the authorities down on yourself. It is an enterprise not for the faint of heart.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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15 Responses to Why is History so Dangerous?

  1. worldtake says:

    I totally agree that the popular media and people in general, tend to ignore the impact of history on the events of today, but it is not just ancient history that seems to be considered irrelevant. The historical attention span seems to be limited, at least in our society, to only looking back in history as far as the last administration.
    One example I will give would be the way people generally think about the World Wars of the 20th century. Much nostalgia has been heaped on us all about the wonderful job we did in conjunction with our allies in removing the Hitler and his Nazis from power, while ignoring the FACT that those same allied powers created the conditions that allowed Hitler and the national socialists to gain power. I refer to the Treaty of Versailles which offered no reparations for the devastated Germany at the end of World War I — an imperialistic war that was fought over partitioning of Europe between various autocratic rulers and which in my opinion and many others we should never have been involved in this imperialistic struggle — leaving a country with a totally destroyed infrastructure and inflation so high that a loaf of bread cost three Billion Marks ! Contrast that with Germany today, a result of the reparations offered in the Marshall Plan , and the difference in result is more than a little striking.

    When such a vacuum is created, there will always be extreme groups ready to jump in and fill it, with the promise of some kind of order — as the Nazis did — and the bewildered and starving populace will not see the (what seems to us as obvious) darker nature of such groups.
    I submit that history is one long string of vacuums created by one violent intrusive power and then replaced by another one worse than the first.
    Examples:
    1. The conquest and colonization of south and central America by the Spanish.
    2. The conquest and colonization of India and countless other countries around the world by the English
    3. The economic colonization by The US all over the world.

    • Dr. J says:

      I stressed ancient history in the post because it seems that the pre-modern influence on the present is more likely to be ignored. At least in the modern era there are “pockets of awareness” like the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement, even if people are exposed more to platitudes and self-congratulation than serious analysis.

  2. ER says:

    I would argue that the English were much more benign than the Moguls in colonizing India. If not for the English, the Hindu majority would still be under the thumb of an Islamic oppressor.

  3. worldtake says:

    I was just giving a couple of examples, but while Mongol hoards were quite brutal I agree, the population of the world at that time was much smaller than during the English empire conquests and the number of dead and disenfranchised, can in no way compare to the millions of such created by the English and the close to 1 billion by the Spanish conquests — entire cultures wiped out in the name of Jesus Christ the prince of peace.

  4. worldtake says:

    I agree with what Dr. J says about “pockets of Awareness” — illusions of progress.

  5. Kay Pelham says:

    Been thinking about this very thing. Primary sources can be very threatening to the powers-that-be. I’m currently reading The Real Lincoln and it’s hard to argue with direct quotes from a letter or document. It would be great to eye the documents myself, but until then, I have to rely on the author’s honesty (or the further step of the guy he’s citing as someone who has seen the document.) Context is definitely helpful, as it’s quite easy to be misled otherwise. And the PTB long to mislead and manipulate information to their benefit and purposes.

    I agree about it not being for the “faint at heart.” The resistance and ridicule and rolling eyes from family and friends and media and authorities is ever present when you express a belief different from “the norm.”

  6. worldtake says:

    Ok, I thought he just misspelled Mongol, but that doesn’t negate my argument. I was just using the the English and the Spanish as two examples among countless others.
    Vacuums are created and then filled by extremists.

  7. worldtake says:

    I have not read The Real Lincoln , but I read one scathing review of it Here
    and from that review, the book sounds like yet another tea party rant to me. Of course that is one opinion, but on the right there is also praise for thisbook.
    My take on the book is that it is filled with distortions and half-truths. Ken Masugi of the Claremont Institute in National Review contends that “DiLorenzo frequently distorts the meaning of the primary sources he cites, Lincoln most of all.” Masugi provides the following example:

    • Dr. J says:

      It would be difficult to find a more pro-Lincoln organization than the Claremont Institute; Harry Jaffa and his students have often built their careers around the championing of Lincoln. I think it is absolutely hilarious, Ross, that you would classify a book you have not read, and in particular a book published way back in 2002 (seven years before there was any such thing as the Tea Party), as “yet another tea party rant . . . filled with distortions and half truths.” I guess we all have our sacred cows we’re not willing to subject to scrutiny. Dilorenzo’s book is immensely important as a healthy corrective to the Lincoln mythology we were all taught in school, even if his case is overstated in some areas. The hysterical nature of some of the denunciations of the book are evidence of this; he obviously struck a nerve.

      BTW, your comment was held for moderation because you put two hyperlinks in it. I just now got back to the computer and was able to approve it.

  8. worldtake says:

    Woops!, I used the block quote tag on the following quote in my last post, but apparrently that did not work. Here is that quote from Ken Masugi:

    Consider this inflammatory assertion: “Eliminating every last black person from American soil, Lincoln proclaimed, would be ‘a glorious consummation.'” Compare the nuances and qualifications in what Lincoln actually said: “If as the friends of colonization hope, the present and coming generations of our countrymen shall by any means, succeed in freeing our land from the dangerous presence of slavery; and, at the same time, in restoring a captive people to their long-lost father-land, with bright prospects for the future; and this too, so gradually, that neither races nor individuals shall have suffered by the change, it will indeed be a glorious consummation.” One need not be a Lincoln admirer to recognize that DiLorenzo is making an unfair characterization. DiLorenzo actually gets so overwrought that at one point he attributes to Lincoln racist views Lincoln was attacking.

    • Kay Pelham says:

      Thank you, worldtake! And there’s my point about context. Quite a different meaning than what is insinuated by pulling out the phrase and inserting it into ones own sentence. I wish for every quote in a book I could click on something to send me to a copy of the entire document.

    • Dr. J says:

      Actually, I would think that most people today absolutely would view as racist the notion that the United States needs have all the black people removed from it, even if the means by which that were to be achieved was a peaceful recolonization of Africa. Lincoln’s defenders recognize this, and it is one reason why they have bent over backwards trying to explain his position away. It’s worth noting here that a new book has uncovered evidence in British archives of Lincoln’s correspondence with British officials in which he sought even in the last stages of the war to have freed slaves removed from American soil: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/feb/9/book-lincoln-sought-to-deport-freed-slaves/

  9. worldtake says:

    The list goes on forever of human activities we agree are not acceptable today with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, that were generally accepted practices in the past. Here are a couple examples:

    Even the most conservative non-feminist women of today would not accept the conditions woman lived under for most of our country’s history and not ancient history either — the 1950’s was the low point of the 20th century for women’s equality.

    It was acceptable to smoke cigarettes in public when I was a kid. People actually sucked on those disgusting things in restaurants while the non-addicted somehow gagged down there meals. Even the non-smokers, though I can guarantee you they never liked it, accepted this as “the way things are”. That is until activists decided enough was enough and now I can eat a meal in public without the fear of throwing up.

    Another similar example of attitude change would be that as late as the 1890’s in America, chewing tobacco was widespread and there were really no regulations about where you could spit the stuff. One account I read detailed that in Manhattan, New York that any public place even those with elegant marble floors, were littered and stained with and by these disgusting blobs and most people just waded through them and excepted it as the way it was.

    I’d like to mention one more example: While we are condemning views of our ancestors with the benefit of our arrogant hindsight, perhaps we should include how a wide range of American’s blithly accepted and often joined in on the government sanctionedgenocide of Native Americans in the 1800’s and 1900’s.

    • Dr. J says:

      I think you’re missing my point. This is one website where you will not find chronological snobbery promoted or tolerated (I think that our hindsight is rarely 20/20). The whole purpose of this site is to recover beneficial elements of the Western tradition that have been discarded over the last 300 years.

      I haven’t condemned Lincoln’s desire to colonize Africa with freed slaves, nor have I condemned slaveholders or abolitionists. I want to understand these ideas in their context. On the other hand, there are plenty of Lincoln apologists out there who want to have their cake and eat it too by playing him up as “The Great Emancipator” egalitarian demigod while trying to sweep under the rug his actual views of race and his gross violations of civil liberties (which were condemned at the time by many in both the North and South), not to mention his share of responsibility for a war that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead Americans.

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