Friday, September 01, 2006
One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other
History seems like a collection of straightforward events that exist as a reference point for the present and future, offering a simple basis of comparison to provide context and understanding. It seems like it. Actually, it's really hard. Take it from me, I know. I have a master's degree in the subject and everything, which automatically makes me an unquestioned expert.
History is actually a complicated series of evaluations and re-evaluations and re-re-evaluations made (and re-made!) in serious academic scholarship based on several complex criteria influenced by changing social norms, a reorientation of priorities within academia as reflected in society as a whole and what exactly it will take to get a publisher to accept the manuscript some historian is working on. That last part seems unimportant and kind of like a dark joke, but honestly, nobody wants another book about the difficulties of Queen Elizabeth I as a woman trying to do the job normally associated with men. Been said. Been pointed out. Really, we noticed the dresses in all the pictures, we're clear on that point. But you know what NOBODY ever wrote a book about? The political and gender idenity among the pets of middle-class Elizabethan wandering gypsies, 1596-1603.
Ha ha, I'm kidding. Someone has totally written that. Nobody has read it, but somebody wrote it.
And that's how historical revisionism happens. Well, it's one way. Publish-this-or-they'll-throw-me-out-of-the-Ivory-Tower is a powerful motivation, but it's a small one that affects very few people in the short term. What academics think about history amongst themselves would blow your mind. Seriously, you'd want to shoot yourself in the head if you listened to it.
On a larger and more popular scale--which incidentally includes every single other iteration of an idea other than amongst academics--historical revisionism happens for more crass and base reasons.
Reason #1, of course, is to impress chicks. Really, if you watch any TV commercial, it's the same reason anyone does anything. Drink beer, buy cars, spray yourself with something called "Axe", eat processed cheese, etc. Why else would anyone knowingly eat Velveeta if there weren't the prospect of a little poon at the end?
But look, if you're out and you see a hot girl and the regular lines don't work ("Hey, that's a nice dress... it would look great crumpled in a ball on the floor next to my bed" etc.) one always has the option of explaining in great detail about how the London fire of 1666 was set by dissident bands of French Huguenot émigrés dissatisfied with laws prohibiting foreigners from participating in government work. It's nonsense of course as everyone knows how the great London fire of 1666 was started (Jews)* but this new "truth" is out there and the Huguenots are once again besmirched.
Reason #2 for popular historical revisionism is, of course, propaganda for political or financial gain. Those in power with the means to spread the word as they would like it to be spread do so in order to create a false diachronic historical symmetry that justifies their actions. Everyone remembers Coca-Cola's infamous propaganda campaign of 1927 associating an upstanding rival soft-drink with Papists and a history of anti-Klan sympathies. The dominance of Coke since then is recorded fact. The effects of the campaign were so swift and complete, poor Leper Kola was out of business within the year.
It might shock you to learn that it's not only companies that engage in this sort of behavior, but also nation-states. No, it's true.
Even now, there is a very public campaign of historical revisionism. In the past few days a concerted effort has been made by both Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and President of the United States George W. Bush to make the policies and tenets of early 20th century fascism align with 21st century Islamic terrorism.
The ubiquitous emergence of the word "fascism" on the lips of everyone associated with Republican politics is standard operating procedure now for the GOP political machine. This organized introduction of an idea was unleashed before, introducing such ideas as Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (remember "smoking gun... mushroom cloud"?), the defense of Creationism ("the jury's still out") and--this is less well known--the introduction of a new slang word for the female genitalia ("meat wallet"). They are ruthless and systematic. Like machines. Filthy, foul-mouthed machines.
"Islamofascism" has been standard nomenclature among right-wing bloggers for some time. Now it has gone mainstream with just a little tweak.
The tricky part is that I can't really figure out what's being revised, actual fascism or how we're supposed to perceive the actions of modern terrorists. Fascism as I understand it is a political method of social organization that regards the state as one coherent, strictly contained whole most commonly defined by race, but extended into areas of language and nationality. Fascism was born as a sort of third-way between communism and market capitalism where the emphasis was less on the production of capital or the struggle between classes and more on an ordered, symbiotic structure of society where all were required to work for the betterment of the state and all were ostensibly equal inasmuch as they were all subject to the dictates of the Leader who physically and singularly represented the state.
I think al-Qaeda is just more into blowing shit up.
I don't know. Am I over-simplifying? Maybe they'd like a fascist-like state eventually, but they certainly don't have one now. And when they did, in Afghanistan, was it really fascistic? I'm not sure. I don't even think the trains ran on time. Or that they even had trains.
Somewhere along the way "fascist" has been conflated with "totalitarian" which has in turn been lost into a general catch-all as "people we would like to shoot." Don't get me wrong, I'm all for shooting al Qaeda-types, but that doesn't really make this WWII by any measurable historical comparative standard. Oh, except we do still use bullets. That's something that's the same.
And, in the interest of fairness, I did find one apt corollary that academic honesty and completeness compels me to share. Perhaps this is the reason why the Bush administration has made this connection and if so, I can certainly see how such a mistake could be made.
Naturally, I'm talking about facial hair.
Look at some of history's most notorious figures.
Hitler, bin Laden, McKay. You think of the atrocities tied to that little toothbrush mustache, that crazy overgrown beard, those thumb-sized sideburns... I will never forgive you for what you put Kelly through, Dylan. That poor girl...
Conversely, look at this list of people with no facial hair from the same period.
Ha! A veritable who's-who of anti-fascism. FDR, Churchill, Mussolini... oh wait. That's not right. Hang on...
There. MUCH scarier. And in unnatural, diabolical color.
You were right, Mr. President. Beards is worse. Carry on, sir.
This post on the Narcissus Scale: 9.8 (mostly for length)
*= not on purpose. They happen to be very combustible.