Jun 24, 2009


In today's paragraphs maybe I'm only adding a random footnote to the conflict between the Great Man theory of history and its opposite, the people’s history. However, it seems worthwhile to revisit the ways we look at past and current events, the ways we do and do not see or talk about certain subjects—ourselves, our heroes, turning points in their history and our own.

If there’s anything like a thesis here, it might be expressed in the conclusion of W. H. Auden’s poem, “The Unknown Citizen.” The lines are also worth re-reading in their own right for their ironic wisdom about regular folks—you and me:

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard

So, our notables in history: were they free? Were they happy? Is the question absurd? And what about the non-notables?

What do ordinary Americans think about today? Do we see ourselves as unknown
citizens? The explosion of blogs, Twitter, My Space (Mine, Mine, Mine—I have space; I have territory; I say who can come in; maybe you'll make the cut, maybe not), Facebook, and Face Lift (oops)—do these forms of communication amount to a need to be known, seen, and understood,especially among the young, perhaps?

And that might relate to history, our reluctance to learn it, or at least to learn from it. We're too busy studying ourselves in various mirrors to care about history, especially a history of ordinary people--after all, we're not ordinary, are we. What could be worse than being ordinary?

Does our our lack of interest in history boil down to this obvious, icky point: as young people, we were, or are, too hyper, horny, and self-centered to care about days of yore, possible explanations of how things came to be the way they are, and where each of us and each culture stand in relation to history's stream of events?


But there’s also the fact that for a long while, family, church, and school suppressed unpleasant information and sugar-coated or flag-coated the tales they did tell. It was a good time for the Great Man theory.

Were parents and institutions trying to avoid getting the kids riled up or scared poop-less? In the 1960s and 1970s, television coverage of the U.S. war in Vietnam and our Civil Rights movement took care of that, as mass media came closer than ever to revealing hideous events in almost real time. Mirrors were everywhere. The world refused to let us fail to see ourselves and our culture-- as imperfect and vulnerable, among other features.

I hope it’s old news by now that history courses and polite conversation “back in the day” could be labeled “History as Headlines”—centered on “his-story,” as “told by the winners,” which translated to adventure, invasion, war victories, treaties and politics. Those are probably some of the deficits of The Great Man theory of history.

The day-to-day lives of ordinary people of all stripes weren’t newsworthy. No one seemed to be asking, for example, about the young Americans who were not called to combat in World War II. Nobody asks, "What did you not do in the war, Daddy." Only recently did I hear about the number of non-combat military personnel—the unknown citizen-soldiers—required to sustain one soldier in combat. The figure was somewhere around 16 to 1, and I think I've heard that the ratio was similar during our war in Vietnam. Was it a vacation in the sun? Does no one want to know what life was like for a military mechanic or cook in the Philippines?

On a more everyday, domestic, but still heroic note, TV series like Lonesome Dove and Deadwood were too realistic to appear until fairly recently (they surely would not have appeared in the 1950s). Although there was still some nobility, some heroism hanging around, especially as portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall, who knew that the great American cowboy was so devoted to whores and whiskey? On the other hand, how could we have failed to guess it?

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