What You Make of It

I was checking the Kindle Daily Deals yesterday morning, noticing the offerings, when two books caught my eye: The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, by Timothy Egan, and Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Changed a President and Fueled His Greatness, by Joshua Wolf Shenk. For the record, I haven’t read these books and they might be quite good. What caught my eye was the premise contained in the titles. In one the assumption is that conservation movement “saved” America; in the other that Lincoln was “great.” Just hinting that Lincoln might not have been so hot is enough to raise hackles, and yet . . .

Well, when you go through the statements and writings of Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln, things become considerably muddy. Davis promoted self-government among blacks; Lincoln stated in 1858 that blacks were inferior to whites. Neither fits the common stereotype of either man. Lincoln initially thought the Civil War would last just three months and 75,000 volunteers would be sufficient to end it. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus , and when the US Supreme Chief Justice Taney ruled against him, signed papers for his arrest. Lincoln apparently thought better of it, for the warrant against Taney was never served. Hardly something we’d normally associate with Lincoln, and at best causes discomfort and at worst attempts at spin.

In the same way, residents of Western states, increasingly resentful at what they see as land grabs by the Federal government, likely have a different opinion of the conservation movement “saving “ America. My opinion is shaped by the occasional whiff of the distinctive pine and peat smoke from the West Mims Fire on the Florida Georgia line and part of the Okefenokee, and memories of how the conservation movement’s no forest fires at any cost almost ruined national parks and wildlife refuges and made fires worse. Whether or not the conservation movement “saved” America, or if America endured in spite of it, is an open question.

How we view the past is shaped more by how we view the present than we like to think. While events are what they are, which ones are exaggerated and which are downplayed is shaped by personal views. In part we acknowledge this, from Walter Benjamin’s “History is written by the victors” to Napoleon Bonaparte’s “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” Yet just how subtle this is can slip under radar.

I like history, but focus on events. While I knew of bias in history, unconscious and otherwise, it was not until I read those book titles did I realize that the interpretation of history is as subjective as literary criticism. The events obviously do not change, but how we see them does. It is remarkably like the following skit from Hee Haw:

Funny? Yes. But whether an event is good or bad depends on how we see it, and that’s incredibly subjective.

The only solution, such as it is, is to do our best to take a warts and all view of history. This happened, but so did this. Let future generations see it as they wish.

This is incredibly hard, due to our own unconscious bias. Can it be done? Sort of. We can include enough information that even if we have intentional bias a reader can make up their own minds. If we want to do a wide encompassing work about Lincoln, we include his views on race and how he suspended the writ of habeas corpus. We shouldn’t exclusively concentrate on his faults, but we shouldn’t make him look like he walked on water. Regardless of our opinion, we should include enough information that someone can form their own opinion.

The last thing we should do it to slant things to bolster our opinion. We might do so unconsciously, but if we have to spin things to protect an interpretation of history, we really need to take a cold, hard look at our assumptions. The interpretation of history might be what we make of it, but that doesn’t mean it has to be made up out of whole cloth.