The Price of Historical Ignorance

We live in a world where history texts are regularly being revised to meet the demands of special interest groups or various political constituencies.  We live in a world where one can easily find alternative accounts of history at the push of a button. We live in a world where history is not a popular subject, if it ever was, and it is not often studied.  When it is studied, it is often twisted for political or ideological reasons.

There is some justification for viewing history as it has been taught in the past with skepticism.  The old saying that the victor writes the history books has validity.  If the Nazis and their allies were victorious in World War II, does anyone believe Hitler would have been portrayed as a villain while Churchill and Roosevelt were portrayed as heroes?  If the Union had been defeated by the Confederacy, would Lincoln be considered a great president and hero, or a traitor?

Skepticism about history is justified.  Review of the historical records is justified.  Rewriting history books can be justified if proof of inaccuracies or bias is discovered.  However, that is not what happens today.  Instead, history is revised anecdotally or incrementally to fit certain political or other agendas.

One example of how this affects us can be found in a short piece by John M. Robinson, Office of Civil Rights, U. S. Department of State.  Writing in the State Magazine, Mr. Robinson cautioned the members of the Department of State to be careful when using certain phrases or terms that might be misinterpreted by someone overhearing them.

Mr. Robinson explained that language evolves.  He explained the history of these phrases were subject to debate, but the phrases might be viewed negatively by some groups or people.  Some pundits and writers have criticized or made fun of Mr. Robinson’s article.  Yet, from Mr. Robinson’s point of view, and the nature of his position, the article was completely logical.  Still, it points out how history has been altered incrementally or anecdotally to fit specific agendas.

Two of the phrases Robinson highlighted were “Hold down the fort” and “Rule of Thumb.” He cautioned that holding down the fort originally meant “to watch and protect against vicious Native American intruders.”  If that is what he really believes, Mr. Robinson, and others holding this as the original definition of the term, learned their history by watching John Wayne movies.

The original term of “hold the fort” came about long before the cowboys and Indians were fighting over the railroads and the buffalo in the American West. The term “hold down the fort” was reportedly coined during the Civil War.   Neither of these terms was developed nor came about because of the conflicts in the American Wild West as Mr. Richardson alleges.

It is possible some Native Americans find the term uncomfortable.  If so, they probably graduated from the John Wayne Institute of Historical Distortion as well. (I mean no offense to The Duke’s fans.  Historical accuracy was just not that big a concern when he was making westerns.)

The “Rule of Thumb” is another term Mr. Robinson thinks might be offensive.  He is absolutely right here.  Some people do find it offensive.  They find it offensive because it became the stuff of urban legends before there were urban legends. The feminist movement was the nail in the coffin for this term. Feminists claimed, based on what appears to be an urban myth of sorts, that this term related to the size of the switch a man could use to legally beat his wife a few hundred years ago. Actually, the term apparently came from the use of the thumb as a rough measurement in carpentry similar trades.

Mr. Robinson wrote about other terms or phrases as well.  If you are interested in his reasoning, go to his essay “Wait, What Did You Just Say?” and read it for yourself.  Then take the time to research all the phrases and draw your own conclusions about their meaning. The point here is intentionally or unintentionally, our understanding of history changes over time, anecdotally and incrementally.  So, what difference does it make if people are encouraged to stop using a few phrases that may or may not be offensive.

Changing the definition of these phrases does not change history.  It does change our understanding of history.  It changes the way we think about certain activities now and in the past.  As a dislodged pebble or rock can start an avalanche, a change here and there alters our perception or understanding dramatically over time. To this writer, a dramatic example of this is part of the current presidential campaign.

President Obama used the term, “you didn’t build that” in a speech about the relationship between government and business.  The president’s critics and political opponents pounced on his statement, making it a major part of their campaign to unseat the President in November.

The President’s supporters claim the phrase was taken out of context and distorted.  They claim the word “that” is referring to the infrastructure that allowed someone to become successful. That is certainly a possibility.  However, if that is what was meant, the speech was poorly delivered or poorly written.

Anyone hearing the president’s speech could easily believe he was saying business people did not build their business on their own.  Even if the president is given the benefit of the doubt in this case, he, or his speech writers, used an argument based on a misunderstanding or distortion of history.

Historically, with few exceptions, infrastructure came after success.  Additionally, federal involvement in infrastructure development was very limited until well into the 20th century. The idea that business success is dependent on government support or intervention is relatively new, historically speaking.  It is certainly not the reason this nation became the most powerful economic force on the earth.

Infrastructure normally follows success.   Roads and highways are not built or expanded to make it possible for businesses to start or succeed.  Water lines, sewer systems and other services are not developed to serve vacant land or to allow business to be developed.  Schools are not constructed in undeveloped areas to serve people who might live there at some time in the future.  Business development and land development drives infrastructure, not the other way around.

Some, including the President, may disagree with the statement that business success drives the development of infrastructure.  They will point to the increased business and development when highways are extended or widened.  Their disagreement may seem logical, but it has a fatal flaw.

Their argument does not take into consideration why the highways were originally built or why they are being widened or extended.  In almost every case the highways were widened because current business success was clogging existing roadways with traffic.  Any subsequent increase in business activity was a collateral effect of serving the needs of existing businesses and communities.

© S. E. Jackson 2012

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