Tone Deaf

In a blog where the hostess discussed forgetting history, though not in the same vein as my own musings, someone commented on a college student ignorant of World War II. As someone who grew up learning of World War II from parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents, this was absolutely astounding. A few exchanges back and forth and my continued amazement that this wasn’t passed down, and the hostess mentioned a couple of ways it could be lost, but then noted that grandparents’ recollections should be taken with a grain of salt.

This reminded me of something that happened while working on a history project. I’d found an account of a unit of Union soldiers far beyond where they should have been, and from that turned up other accounts that confirmed the initial story. While discussing it with the project leader at a library, an older man hearing this became sad. He said his grandfather had told of seeing the smoke from places the Yankees had burned, but no one listened because everyone “knew” the Union never came through that area. And he regretted not listening to what he had to say.

Unfortunately, that’s common. My own warts and all recollection of the last years of Segregation struck a nerve with a poster on a forum I no longer visit (no, she wasn’t why I left: that was due to the perpetual chip on my shoulder), and when she challenged my recollection and I replied she wasn’t there and I didn’t challenge hers, she sniffed about the “tone.” That cut no ice with me and I came close to quoting the famous line uttered by Clark Gable in <i>Gone with the Wind</i> (told you I had a chip on my shoulder). But in truth, when it comes to history, I don’t care about “tone.” Tone is just shorthand for whether you march lockstep with a particular narrative. History is – or should be – an account of events of the past, both good and bad, and nothing more. If an accurate account doesn’t agree with our narrative, it’s time to give our narrative a cold, hard look.

Been there; done that. When I dismissed an account of smelting iron in an area, I just “knew” it couldn’t be so for there was no iron ore to be found. That was before I literally stumbled across a chunk of hematite the size of my fist. So much for what I thought I knew.

At least it was due to ignorance. What do we make of someone dismissing verifiable information? Have run into that, too. It doesn’t matter if you can look at records and inspect sites: if it doesn’t agree with a certain narrative, evidence to the contrary is ignored or worse. For an amateur such as myself who only dabbles in history, that means nothing more than the occasional temptation to give a one-finger salute. For a professional historian, particularly one just starting out, such things can doom a career. Ideally the only thing that should matter is whether claims can be verified. Unfortunately, like many things in this world, what should happen is one thing; what actually does is another.

So it is that inconvenient history is suppressed. This unfortunately, is so common that the accuracy of ancient histories is often questioned, particularly if accounts present a less than flattering view of a ruler. Ironically, you can find discussions on whether we are doing the same thing, just it doesn’t seem to have much an impact, probably because it suits those who have an academic interest in a certain narrative. Never underestimate the power of pride.

Ironically, the same can be said of those who take a stand contrary to the accepted narrative, and a little research can show their narrative to be just as skewed as the other. And if you don’t display the “right” tone, you will be accused of being in the camp of the other narrative. Got the scars from that, too.

As an amateur, though, I have the luxury of being “tone deaf” about such things, and can watch the fun as the narrative first crowd make all sorts of contortions to justify their view. Such as watching SJW try to make sense of Andrew Jackson adopting an Indian boy while maintaining he was a racist. And while Jackson has never been one of my favorite historical figures, the failure to ask “Racist compared to whom?” is painfully obvious. If they knew about his anger over the Chehaw Massacre, it would probably strip their mental gears.

More’s the pity. People are complex and expecting historic figures to follow your narrative is beyond pathetic.

The problem, then, is how to preserve history that doesn’t fit the narrative. About the best you can do is to ensure that it isn’t lost and hope that one day someone will come to their senses. What usually happens, though, is the pendulum swings the other way, and you end up trying to preserve what was once taught in the lecture halls.

For my part, all information should be presented. It probably won’t be the right “tone,” but real history seldom is. And preserving an accurate record of events is more important than agreeing with whatever narrative happens to be popular at the moment. Narrative changes; history doesn’t.