“The Past is a Foreign Country…”

“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” This is from L.P. Hartley’s “The Go Between” and it is a truism far too many current interpreters of history fail to grasp or perhaps, they just ignore it. Seventeenth century America is far and away as different from twenty-first century America as current American culture is from North Korean culture. In foreign countries they speak a different language and you must learn the language to learn the culture correctly. If you do not speak the language you will never fully understand the whys and how’s of the culture.

But, wait, they spoke English, you proclaim that the language is the same and yet, it isn’t. Even the English of the early twentieth century is different from that spoken today. Words carry different meanings, emotions were more guarded, language itself was more expressive and there was no public use of vulgarity. In truth it was a different country, a foreign country and you cannot understand that country by making generalizations about the society of the day without understanding the whys of that society, but that’s what most people do.

In 1858, the concept of a federal government was alien to most people outside Washington, D.C. Politics was mostly local and you voted for or against people you knew; people from your town, city and state. Unless you lived in a port city you had little experience with federal officials. (Port cities because of customs and immigration.) Otherwise most of the experience of day to day living revolved around local and state institutions. But people today find it difficult to understand the concept of loyalty to a state over a federal government because they grew up under the current federal system replete with its 24/7 communications capabilities wherein crimes in Oregon are known immediately and in detail in Florida and vice versa.

The average person will generalize using his or her current knowledge and experience and in doing so will reach a completely erroneous conclusion about the whys and how’s of history. Interpreting the past is a difficult thing to do correctly. It’s like deconstructing a myth, for most of the past is just that, a myth. It is a myth created by the winners in history since the winners are the ones who get to write the history books. To understand the past accurately you must deconstruct the myth and to do that you must understand the language of the period in which you are working. You must also understand the societal values and mores of the period. If you do not you will, again, reach an incorrect conclusion.

One of the greatest myth creators of history is Hollywood and, regrettably, that’s where a lot of people learn history. Not that, of course, the textbooks are all that accurate for they too perpetuate myths of history. When I grew up General Custer was a hero, Hollywood said so and the history books didn’t disabuse us of that idea for Custer’s massacre was an excuse to push the plains Indians out of the Black Hills and allow prospectors in. It was a politically useful myth as were so many other historical events that became myths of American history.

I do not intend to go into a detailed discussion of myth deconstruction, you can read my essays on that elsewhere on this site. I only want to point out the very basic premise that those today who preach the myths of the past are doing themselves and the country the greatest of disservices. People who say they want the truth should realize the past is a foreign country and to understand it takes more than a regurgitation of historical myths.

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