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Are We Too Politically Correct to Accurately Portray the Past?

Last weekend, I attended the 14th Annual Marilla Civil War Days in western New York. I haven’t been to a Civil War reenactment since I briefly participated at the Gettysburg reenactment in 2009 (aw yea, check it out ladies—->).

The event website promised a unique experience (“The Civil War Days event is nowhere close to your typical reenactment. We have been known for barn burnings, ground charges, falling trees & buildings and much more!”). Suffice to say, only one of those things happened while I was there. I left disappointed, but not only because nothing caught on fire.

I thought the purpose of reenacting was not just to have fun and dress up for the day but to educate the public and commemorate the American soldiers who fought on both sides.

Before I continue, a disclaimer: Nothing I’m about to say is meant to disparage the men and women who have a passion for history, the Civil War, and historical reenacting. I love all those things, and am happy to find people who share those interests. I wish more would become involved in these events.

However, there were a number of things that left me shaking my head.

  • Where were the horses? Horses were the primary means of transportation for wagons, cannon, officers, and mounted troops during the Civil War. Not. One. Single. Horse.
  • The Confederates used what I was told was a 30-pound cannon. The 4.2-inch (30-pounder) Parrott rifle was a siege cannon that wasn’t used in the field. Historically, Confederates used two at the Battle of Fredericksburg in defensive positions but their barrels burst.
  • I saw women reenactors dressed up as soldiers and fighting in infantry units.
  • I saw African American reenactors (one with a huge Afro) fighting with white troops in a Union regiment.
  • I saw some reenactors wearing obviously modern clothing (including sneakers).

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The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History

In The Great Cat Massacre: and other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), historian Robert Darton attempted to reconstruct and understand the mental world of early modern French peasants through their folktales. He began with the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” as told around firesides in peasant cottages during long winter evenings in eighteenth-century France. It’s a little different than the version you may have been told. The story went as follows:

A young girl was instructed to bring some milk and bread to her grandmother’s house. While walking down a path through the woods, a wolf stopped her and asked her where she was going. She told him, and the wolf took off down a second path. The wolf, “arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed…”

When the young girl arrived, the wolf (disguised as her grandmother) offered her meat and wine from the pantry. “So the little girl ate what she was offered; and as she did, a little cat said, ‘Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!’ Then the wolf said, ‘Undress and get into bed with me.’”

After a prolonged scene in which the young girl is instructed to undress and toss her clothes into the fire, the conclusion proceeds in the now familiar manner until, at the very end, the wolf eats the girl. No hunter comes to her rescue in the original version.

The version as we know it today, according to Darton, was taken by the Grimm brothers from Charles Perrault, a popular writer at the turn of the seventeenth century, who changed the stories to suit the tastes of the Paris elites. The ending we are familiar with, in which the hunter rescues Little Red and kills the wolf, was added by Jeannette Hassenpflug, the Grimm’s neighbor, from a popular German story “The Wolf and the Kids.”

Through an examination of folktales like “Little Red Riding Hood”, Darton hoped to unlock the mentalité of the French peasant during that time period. “Folktales are historical documents,” he argued. “They have evolved over many centuries and have taken different turns in different cultural traditions… they suggest that mentalités themselves have changed. We can appreciate the distance between our mental world and that of our ancestors if we imagine lulling a child of our own to sleep with the primitive peasant version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’”

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A Social History of Truth

a-social-history-of-truthIn A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, Steven Shapin tries to answer the question, why do we believe something is true? He argues there is a disconnect between how we think knowledge is obtained and how it is actually obtained. Like scientists today, men of learning in the seventeenth century believed direct experience was the only way to obtain factual knowledge, and they rejected the “testimony of others.” However, Shapin argues testimony and authority are the very foundations of knowledge.

Trust, a necessary ingredient for working with others, is indispensable in science. Scientists use trust to sustain the structures that allow them to maintain and build on the body of knowledge they have acquired over the centuries. This social interaction, Shapin argued, contains assumed knowledge about the external world and who is trustworthy in that world. “The identification of trustworthy agents is necessary to the constitution of any body of knowledge.”

What kind of person do we trust to tell the truth? According to Shapin, it is the early modern English gentleman. A gentleman was a person who, because he was self-sufficient and free from economic burden, had no motivation to lie. Therefore, he had both the qualities of free action and virtue. The gentleman was culturally encouraged not to deceive. Virtue was enforced by the ever-present threat of loss of his status as a gentleman, which had far reaching social and political consequences.

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The Landscape of History: History as a Science

the-landscape-of-historyHistory and the social sciences are very different academic disciplines, and John Lewis Gaddis, in his book The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2004), explains why. Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University and is best known for his work on the Cold War. In The Landscape of History, he argues that both history and the social sciences are scientific, but what the disciplines are concerned with differs. In simplistic terms, social scientists are concerned with the future and historians are concerned with the past. Because the social sciences are more speculative in that way, they are more likely to inaccurately carry out their task. The social sciences will almost never be able to predict future events, but historians will be able to describe the past in more or less accurate ways.

The social sciences understand reality by dividing it into parts and use each part to explain the whole. They look for these independent variables and expect to find them out in the world. Natural sciences like geology and astronomy have an ecological worldview that allows them to study how each part effects the whole and how the whole affects the parts. There is no way to separate each variable from the whole and study them as though the variables could exist independently from the whole.

Gaddis argues, in even more simplistic terms, that the reductionist view is exclusive and the ecological view is inclusive. For the social sciences, the reductionist viewpoint allows them to make predictions about future behavior. Future behavior can be predicted because it conforms to rules that have operated in the past, are operating in the present, and can be discovered. These rules are assumed to apply to everyone, everywhere, and to never change over time. Historians, however, don’t concern themselves with future predictions.

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Patriots Day: A Gut-Wrenching Portrayal of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing

patriotsdayPatriots Day follows fictional Boston police sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) as he helps track down brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who detonated two bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon. The tragedy occurred at 2:49 p.m. local time on April 15, 2013. Massachusetts celebrates Patriots’ Day on April 15 to commemorate the anniversary of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War. It’s estimated around 500,000 spectators attend the marathon. The bombs, made from pressure cookers, detonated 12 seconds apart, killing three and wounding approximately 264.

The film opens the night before the marathon, establishing a backstory for Sergeant Tommy Saunders. He is a well-meaning cop who got into a fight and has to pull guard duty at the marathon finish line before he can assume his regular duties. From there, we are shown snapshots of characters as they get up and start their day, but it is unclear how most of them will tie into the plot. We see future bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his wife and daughter, at their apartment. Their morning is not typical, as one watches a video of masked terrorists demonstrating how to construct a pressure cooker bomb.

The terror, gut-wrenching shock, and confusion of the bombing is dramatically portrayed, as is the following manhunt. We see both law enforcement and the Tsarnaev brothers as they head for a fiery confrontation in the Boston suburb of Watertown. Moments of humor break up the dramatic, heart-racing scenes. During the final shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers, a man tosses a sledgehammer from his porch at police officers crouched behind the fence. “Give ’em hell!” he shouts, as if the crude melee weapon will do anything against the terrorists’ guns and homemade bombs.

It is meant to show defiance and resiliency in the face of terror, and Patriots Day is full of such crowd-pleasing moments, but how accurately does the film depict these events?

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German Women for Empire: Imperial Feminism

german-women-for-empireIn German Women for Empire, 1884-1945, Lora Wildenthal paints a compelling picture of contributions made by German women in the pursuit of imperial ambitions. In Germany’s African and Pacific colonies, women from diverse backgrounds played a conscious and often enthusiastic role, carving out a place for themselves as guardians of “Germanness” and racial purity. In Imperial Germany, feminism took on a distinctly chauvinistic tone, demonstrating that history is full of nuance.

Germany was late to the colonial game, seizing territory in Africa and Asia in the second half of the nineteenth century. This included modern day Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Namibia, Togoland, Cameroon, and parts of Botswana and Nigeria. Its Pacific possessions included parts of present day New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. German women participated in the establishment of these colonies through nursing and missionary work. For women who wanted to experience the most independence, nursing was their chosen field. The German-National Women’s League, founded by Martha von Pfeil and Frieda von Bülow, was one of the first and most influential nursing organizations in the colonies.

Wildenthal portrays von Bülow as a striking figure and an adventurous woman who sheltered the German-National Women’s League from male oversight. She evangelized the colonies in several novels, portraying them as an ideal place for women to work alongside men to promote radical German nationalism. Von Bülow, conservatively dressed and menacingly pointing a revolver, graces the cover of German Women for Empire.

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