Putting History in its Place – A Rant

By Eilene Lyon

The premise of this blog is learning from the past, so why would I rant about history? Because I see occasions when history is not put in its proper place as a way to improve the present and future. When we target our outrage toward past abuses, events that can’t be changed and which involved parties all long dead, we diminish our focus and outrage for atrocities that are occurring right now.

Why the windmills? I suppose because any rant is a quixotic quest at best. And these windmills are collected together museum-like, no longer serving the purpose for which they were constructed. They teach us about the past – what our ancestors had to do to get water – and how they helped advance technology to where we now use windmills to generate renewable energy. Let’s use all history in the same manner.

Improperly demonizing the past is not uncommon. The vast majority of people acknowledge that Adolph Hitler was evil. Those who don’t aren’t going to be convinced by our sermonizing. Instead, we have to tackle them on present realities and events. Can we take them down without resorting to violence? Continually committing Hitler and dead Nazis to hell gets us nowhere.

For example, I was recently reading a book on the atrocities committed against the Native Americans in California in the mid-19th century (American Genocide by Benjamin Madley). It’s an important piece of work and a real eye-opener to the carnage and abuse that occurred. It helped me to view works written at that time in a new light.

However, the deeper I got into the book, the more the author’s outrage was such that it seemed he just wanted to dig up all those perpetrators and collectively pound stakes through their (nonexistent) hearts. What, really, is the point of crucifying dead men who have no opportunity to redeem themselves? Does it serve any useful purpose? It will not bring back the dead Indians.

It’s better to let the facts speak for themselves. The descriptions of the deeds are plenty graphic and nauseating. The analysis of the events that led up to them is very good. And the suggestion to remove the names of the offenders from public buildings, streets and other places, like the removal of statues honoring Confederate generals, is sound.

But let’s not assume that we understand what was really happening in 1850. Despite the adage, hindsight is NOT 20/20. We do not have the power to time travel and experience the reality of people living 170 years ago, no matter how many documents we read or photos we view. It’s still not a complete picture.

People living then did not always have a larger perspective of the events transpiring around them, but they were influenced by the media and social institutions (or lack thereof in California’s case) much as we are today. The fear and loathing of native people gestated for centuries and was promoted by greedy people and religions preaching moral superiority. See any parallels here?

Rather than railing about the horrors of the past, we need to see what they can teach us to make today better. There are genocides occurring right now. What can we do to stem that? There is intolerance, greed, and immorality disguised as moral superiority happening all around us. There is continuing disregard for Native American rights. These urgently need to be addressed. We can’t amend the past – we can change the future. Will you join me?

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