I got sucked into a historical Wiki-hole this weekend. (following HTML links in Wikipedia from one subject to another.) Not sure I can even remember what was initially looking up. I ended up reading about The French Resistance, Queen Victoria’s children, Ivan the Terrible, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany… all in one weekend!
I learned some interesting stuff… The writings of people like Ida B Wells and Claude McKay should be taught in schools. Some early-20th century Prussian noble families actually encouraged questioning authority. The Nazi military command was not as lockstep as people think (Oster Conspiracy, Valkyrie, the Canaris group). Ivan the Terrible needed someone to trust and a psychiatrist. Russian tzars and tzarinas (particularly Ivan, Peter the Great, Anna and Elizabeth) have “breathtaking anger-management issues.” And Nikita Khrushchev was a sociopathic son-of-a-you-know-what and not the flawed progressive I previously thought.
So your wondering, “what does all this have to do with the title of your post?” The answer is, the more you learn about human nature, especially the social history around events in history, you become very cynical. You have trouble enjoying historical things. I used to be an avid Victorian-phile, medieval fan and a lover of Classical music. I knew there were nasty aspects, that there were problems that were not being addressed, but I could compartmentalize it. Now I find it hard to experience at castles, manors, palaces and music like Viennese Waltzes with awe and admiration anymore. Now everything I see has “social injustice” stamped on it (maybe it’s an age thing).
My husband often says Europeans and European Americans can’t be proud of our history, either nationally or ethnically, because everything done, except perhaps WW2 (even with WW2, we aren’t allowed 100% pride) has a nasty taste to it now. I’m not saying that White America HASN’T been a-holes. Look at what Ms. Ida Wells and Mr. McKay were talking about! Read about the race riots in 1919 and the attitudes that the FBI and others about it; it’s pretty nasty stuff. Read about Emmet Til, the Apache chief “Red Sleeves”, and millions of others, and you get sick to your stomach. It would be nice however, to have one or two things we can say, “We did good there” with very little “but.”
The problem isn’t that we never did anything good. It’s that we are told we can’t recognize it. We’ve been conditioned to see the worst, take the darkest interpretation, and assume the most nasty intentions. When I heard that Emperor Franz Josef (1830–1916) used to walk through the streets of Vienna every day, did I think, “Wow! That’s cool? How unusual for a Victorian monarch”? Maybe for a second. Then I thought, “I bet he didn’t see, or wasn’t allowed to see, the areas and issues that really needed help!” Immediately, my opinion sours.
It seems we are trained to be cynics in ALL things. While that’s helpful to a point– especially since the winners often oppress the losers, write the history books and destroy documents that might contradict–I don’t think it should be the only reaction someone has. There should be a balance between a modern interpretation using modern viewpoints, taking the original viewpoint into account, and, when it comes to experiencing historical things, a bit of the “romantic” interpretation. We shouldn’t lose our wonder at the world, at the achievements we’ve reached, or at how far we’ve come.
I realize that a lot of this negativity is in reaction to centuries of Euro-centric, pro-Imperialistic, Golden-Age-thinking views in History. I’m not even complaining about high-end academics. I understand that they have a duty to provide the unvarnished truth (though I could argue about the slant they sometimes give that truth). And I realize that each era has their own views on the rules for research. However, I do think that the outlook and assumptions historians have developed might have become as calcified and knee-jerk as the outlook and assumptions that they replaced.
Perhaps this is an “academics thing.” Do you have to regiment thought, style and approach on a topic to such a degree in order to be accepted as respectable, objective and serious by others? In order to be heard and respected in the world, do you have to go after your message like bull down the streets of Paloma?
Whose job is it to provide the framework or explanations that recognize the flaws of the time, don’t dismiss them, but allow the reader/visitor to also appreciate the beauty and quality of the music, architecture or writing? How do we keep our society from becoming bitter cynical self-haters? Or is that how people should behave?
I’m apparently in a bit of a dark place today!