And the Band Played On…

I would like to say that I had the time, and length of page to fully develop all of my thoughts and feelings on the subject of ethical quandaries in the practice of public history. I would like to say that I agreed with one or the other side, or that I felt it my passionate responsibility to correct others’ misinformation and misunderstandings. If only I could understand the community mindset that drives the academic practice and educational process, perhaps then I could say I agreed with something, anything, whole-heartedly. But the fact for me is that I do not. For myself it seems just as dangerous to toe the line of academic communally agreed upon knowledge as the right-wing nut-jobs that still insist on a White House conspiracy causing the nine-eleven attacks. The immediate argument on the academic side is to hedge bets, to err on the side of caution, to go where the evidence leads, to trust the convergence of evidence. On the other side there is the terribly persuasive—if not a little sexy—“How do you know that they are not all in collusion to lead you astray?” Now, aside from the questions of collusion and who “they” are, I must plead guilty to a inquisitive spirit that does not like to let a question be. What I mean by that is that even after academic history as an institution has thoroughly vetted a question and considers it answered, I will remain, firmly, stubbornly planted to any question that I do not feel has been fully and satisfactorily answered. I think that this behavior is relatively common among historians, but not absolute as this week’s readings indicated.

Typically, my issues with the readings were not so much with the immediate content, but with the philosophies that I see entrenched behind the content. It would seem that within the corporate world—what many would refer to as the “real world”—white, male, middle-aged humans hold the power and create relationships and groups that prop up their status and position in an effort to make more money, gain more power and ultimately have more control over things and people. It would also seem that these men are heartless at times and without concern in dealing with the starving human condition in which those in their employ exist. Nor does it appear that they care for the environmental impact of where their decisions lead. Because of this general appearance, middle-aged, white men become an easy target—often too easy a target—at whose feet may be laid the general grievances of society. The avant-garde of this army of grievance expressionists is another group, a group that attempts to be balanced, but who too often find themselves mired in almost the exact same self-preservation system, just on the opposite side of the coin: the academics.

Perhaps I’ll start with the extremely accurate quote of the Native American woman: “We’ve been trying to educate the visitors for five hundred years; how long will it take to educate the visitors?” I found this quote particularly interesting because it expresses the frustration in the education process, as well the rigid inability of education to adapt meaningfully to change. It seems to me that what is present in our society is not so much a problem with misinformation, as it is a complete lack of internal reflection on either party mired in the frustrating battle between money and knowledge. When I look at the education system, I see nothing more than I see among white middle-aged men vying for power, it just happens to be an internal struggle for who gets to corner the market on knowledge rather than money. The economics are the same, only the currency has changed. Ultimately, the educational system would have itself as the ultimate power, controlling who gets what through a system of knowledge exchange. Is this not the purpose in using history to stop fracking? Is it not the purpose in perpetually taking issue with a relative minority that believes the Civil War was over state’s rights? Is it not the case in trying to educate on American internal colonialism? While I will be the first to agree that there were horrible things that were done to indigenous, as well as exogenous people, and that certain attitudes persist, I am enormously critical of any system that seeks change by inversion, particularly when that system ultimately seeks the same thing that its antagonist does: power.

To me it seems that what we have is two identical systems each trying to raise its flag higher and higher while slinging mud at the other in a war to determine who rules. In such a ridiculous and juvenile engagement, I feel it is best to ally with neither. If that makes me a defector, a rat, or a double agent, I am okay with that. It’s not my battle. Even as a historian it is not my battle to correct every error I run across, I can’t. This is the reality that I live in, a reality that recognizes that people are people, they will draw their beliefs and emotions into any situation, that is what makes them human. For me to activate those emotions and beliefs in an effort to twist and warp them to seeing “my side” seems to me the greatest unethical practice. It is no different than playing their material greed to get them to carry out my material will. Ask yourself after reading each of the articles this week whether you agreed with them or disagreed with them merely because of evidence, or if it was because it was presented in an emotionally warping manner? For me, there was a lot of philosophical errors in the articles, they made huge assumptions about the power of education and purpose of history, issues which were not addressed. For these reasons I choose neither to unite with those historians, nor declare them an enemy.

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