The cliché that history is written by the victors, as a rule, is hard to dispute. We have to be a little careful about oversimplifying the categories of winner and loser, though. Take the history of the American Civil War. A generation or two after it ended the daughters and granddaughters of the great families of the South, the wealthiest families, the “best” families, in the popular parlance, became very concerned with how history would remember their glorious families. An influential school of historians arose, largely supported by these well-born gals, who told the story the way they preferred it: a glorious history of high principle and protection of an inferior race who became predictably savage when liberated from the protection of their former masters.
It may also be said that this history, written in the late 19th – early 20th century when most of the Confederate monuments were being erected to the heroes of the violent rebellion against federal tyranny, gave a moral fig leaf to a new generation of American racial terrorists. The history is only now being written of the long, bloody decades of lynching and intimidation that went along with this sanitized, glorified version of the antebellum south and the Civil War. It became cool, and often politically smart, for glory-seeking white racists to become “knights” in the Ku Klux Klan, membership soared nationwide after World War One. Nothing like a good old-fashioned beating, mutilation and death by torture to remind everybody of their places. The lessons of this brutality, even as it was most often kept a local secret, were not lost on anyone.
Who gets to tell the story? In American politics mass media pundits (even drug addled ones), with no background in anything but self-promotion, are more influential than our most well-read, well-spoken, deepest thinking scholars. Put the scholar on one side, a defiant blowhard on the other side, and America gets to watch another egghead get put in his fucking place. It is a kind of thought crime here, basing your thoughts on too many fucking facts. Fuck you and the fucking facts you rode in on, asshole! You think you’re better than me just because you’re smart, and devoted to knowledge, and actively seeking facts and something you claim is truth? I got your truth right here…
Who gets to tell the story, even in your family? Put any spin on it you like, dismiss the version that makes you feel bad. No need to ever feel bad, just write anything bad out of history. See how simple it is? Most people I know, like my highly intelligent, idealistic father, eventually give up after enough time banging their head against the imperatives of our frequently merciless world.
I wrote the book about my father. Not yet a book, it is a collection of stories and conversations, evoking the times, conflicts and the complicated spirit of a gifted man who did not fully enjoy his gifts, who died full of regrets. More regretful than angry, even at himself. How’s that for a deathbed surprise, dad? The lifetime of rage and denial yields to the reality that death is hours away, your thoughts became more and more focused on how you missed out on the most beautiful parts of the ride your gifts might have otherwise provided you.
“Oh, give it up, Elie!” says the skeleton of my father. “Better to go through the hundreds of pages you’ve already written, picking likely lottery winning passages, pasting them together into a scroll. Your lifetime of rage and denial will end in your own terrible regrets, when death is closing in on you, that you never managed to sell your book, be interviewed by Terry Gross. I hear your man Leonard Lopate got canned for some likely sexual impropriety or other, so you missed that boat. Keep paddling, Elie, is all I’m saying.”
Righty-oh, dad. I remind myself, while I’m wondering about who gets to write the stories we all come to believe, that there are many ways to see a given thing, a given person. Not to say that every point of view is equally valid, equally interesting, equally revealing. Can we separate a devoted Nazi’s beliefs from his watercolors? I mean, the guy may have been a supremely gifted watercolorist, a regular Winslow Homer, but he was a major fucking Nazi. A Nazi, dude, those beautiful watercolors were painted by an officer in the SS. Nazi watercolors, dude. Ain’t dassum shit?
The best artist I ever knew, a few nights before she died, expressed this very clearly. She had no truck with Nazis who were otherwise very artistic people.