what is history?

Photo off of Twitter August 22, 2017

What is history?  By straight definition it is the study of past events, particularly in human affairs.

In the early 1960s, an English Historian named Edward Hallett Carr wrote a book titled What is History.  It was a study of historiography (study of historical writing/the writing of history). The book discusses history, facts, the bias of historians, science, morality, individuals and society, and moral judgments in history.  I find that so timely considering the craziness of revisionist history overtaking the US today.

Allow me to quote Cambridge University on his book (Cambridge University Press printed it originally in 1961):

…Historiography consists partly of the study of historians and partly of the study of historical method, the study of the study of history. Many eminent historians have turned their hand to it, reflecting on the nature of the work they undertake and its relationship both to the reader and to the past….. he chose as his theme the question ‘What is History?’ and sought to undermine the idea, then very much current, that historians enjoy a sort of objectivity and authority over the history they study. At one point he pictured the past as a long procession of people and events, twisting and turning so that different ages might look at each other with greater or lesser clarity. He warned, however, against the idea that the historian was in any sort of commanding position, like a general taking the salute; instead the historian is in the procession with everyone else, commenting on events as they appear from there, with no detachment from them nor, of course, any idea of what events might lie in the future.

Carr also discussed the influence that a society will play on forming the approach of the historian and the interpretation of historical facts. He wrote about how historians as individual people are also influenced by the society that surrounds them.  He also wrote about the cause and effect of history, and that history is human progression.  It’s fascinating, really. It makes you understand how and why certain historical events seem so different from generation to generation.

So let’s look at our history in the USA.  We are a country born of immigrants, yet today we seem to have such issues with them.  Truthfully, nothing new as every era in the U.S. has historically had issues with various ethnicities  coming to the U.S. in search of their American dream, correct?

We as Americans have ugly wars in our past.  It’s all part of our history. How we got here today, has it’s roots in our past.  It’s how we learn and grow as a society.

Today we are a nation seething with anger and self-righteousness. People love one politician, and hate another.  People love each other, and also hate each other.  It is kind of part and parcel of the human condition, is it not?

We learn from history what we do not wish to repeat, correct? So why is it people do not get if we do not acknowledge and learn from our history we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes?

Our history is not pretty.  No history is 100% pretty.  Even fairy tales are not 100% pretty, so why is it people think they can change the history by removing statues?  I get why people want to remove some statues – like Robert E. Lee.  Even when some versions of history try to be gentle, there isn’t exactly much that is truly redemptive about him. But his personal history was interesting, and he seems to have been a  contradiction of himself at times. (And no I am not a fan of his, that is merely an observation after doing a bit of reading on him when writing this post.)

At the center of the Robert E Lee and tearing down of statues debate is slavery.  Trump asked if we were going to start removing George Washington things as well,  and as a column in the Chicago Tribune asks, where do we as Americans draw the line?

Here is a snippet from the article by Eric Zorn:

It can be an interesting and difficult debate — think of Christopher Columbus, Henry Ford, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and other historical figures whose great accomplishments are tainted by words or deeds that horrify those with modern sensibilities….It’s an easy distinction. Washington, Jefferson and other flawed founders built this country. Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and other rebels tried to tear it apart. Unlike Washington and Jefferson, they have no significant compensating virtues or accomplishments to counterbalance their treachery and justify the numerous honors and tributes bestowed on them as symbols of Southern “heritage.”…

This doesn’t mean, as one piously aggrieved reader wrote, that we must purge our personal libraries of accounts of the Civil War. It doesn’t mean we have to sanitize our museums, pave over our battlegrounds or write the Confederacy out of history textbooks. It doesn’t even mean that good ol’ boys and girls can’t put rebel-flag stickers on their cars or build shrines to losing generals on their property.

It means we all have to stop pretending. It means we have to acknowledge Robert E. Lee isn’t an anodyne mascot for sweet tea, stock car races and Faulkner novels, particularly for African Americans, whose continued bondage he fought for.

 

Ahh yes, but here in the Philadelphia area, we have to have what the media calls in situations at times “the Philadelphia connection.”

Enter Frank Rizzo.

Yes that Frank Rizzo, former Mayor of Philadelphia, dead since 1991.

As seen in The Elephant Bar blog, I think this was originally an AP Photo

So as I was researching, I stumbled accross this blog – I found it interesting (and timely), so let me share:

Saturday, December 09, 2006
One Tough Philly Cop, Frank L. Rizzo.

Rizzo was born in 1920 in the Italian-American neighborhood of South Philadelphia. In 1943, like his father before him, he joined the Philadelphia police force and rose to became Commissioner in 1966. Rizzo didn’t care much for the sixties. To him it was all about law and order and he had zero tolerance for those who acted otherwise….Other American cities burned, not Philadelphia. …The man was asymmetric in force and style. Look left at this photo. Check the nightstick from his sharkskin tux. This is Rizzo in 1969, Commissioner Rizzo. While attending a banquet he was informed on an impending riot. Still dressed in his tuxedo, he took charge. No delegating for Rizzo.

Rizzo went on to be mayor. He switched parties from a Democrat to a Republican was elected mayor in 1971 and 1975. No cultural ambiguity or political correctness from Frank…Rizzo lived a modest life and was never charged with anything.

Frank Rizzo died 16 July 1991. He is gone and so is a lot else of that era. America has always had flaws and so has her leaders. The cynical cadre on the left side will always make a cause of tearing down America and the tough patriotic men who created and slowly improved her…The Left has seized the agenda and will set the agenda once again. They know what they are about and their leaders stay true to their cause. The never deviate form staying the course. Conservatives have not done well because of misplaced loyalty to those that call themselves conservative and are not. Given that, which side do you think will win?

 

We are still having the conversation today between left and right, but that is not what we’re talking about today.  We are discussing “what is history?”

Frank Rizzo was an Italian from South Philadelphia.  He may have been many things, but a White Supremacist and slave owner wasn’t among them.  That is inconvenient history to some, but it is the truth, isn’t it?

Helen Gym, on Philadelphia City Council seems to be one of the main proponents of Project Topple Frank, and who is she? I frankly, don’t follow Philadelphia city politics particularly closely and had never heard of her before this.

She is apparently the first Asian American woman to hold this position.  She is Korean and was born in Seattle, raised in Ohio.  Went to Penn as per what I see online, and after college worked as a teacher and as a reporter in Ohio.  She is married and has kids and is a community activist.  In 2009 she was active in a Federal Civil Rights case involving the horrible bullying of Asian students in South Philadelphia. (Click here for her subsequent testimony to the US Commission on Civil Rights.)

Here is her website – check it out HelenGym.com. She has done amazing things, but you know I just do not agree with her whole Rizzo thing.

People conveniently forget how the Italians and Irish were discriminated against in Philadelphia.

Rizzo was a big symbol to a lot of Philadelphians. Positive and negative. But that is kind of like the parallel to what is history isn’t it? The good and the bad? The pretty and the ugly? Are we going to sanitize every piece of history in this country? Can we? Should we?

Taking down Frank Rizzo’s statue is not going to do anything except create more of a divide than exists already in Philadelphia.  He’s not Robert E. Lee.  He wasn’t perfect, but he is part of our regional history – we can’t whitewash all of our history.  The heated rhetoric on both sides does not help.

This country is exploding in ugliness. It makes me sad.  I am not so naïve to think “why can’t we all get along” because it is at it’s core completely contrary to human nature.

I remember years ago, a local politician refusing to go to a historic site for a special occasion.  They wouldn’t go because one of the owners (Quakers) owned slaves. It doesn’t matter that one of the more famous owners of the property freed said slaves and if memory serves, paid them wages.

And ironically, if you are a student of history, you will note that Quakers way back when before times changed, were slave owners .

FACT: even Benjamin Franklin owned a slave. Read more about Franklin and slavery here.  Does this mean we should no longer have statues of Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia as well?

(The Society of Friends did not make slave owning a disownable offence until 1776.)

But what we do need to do is to stop the hate, stop the violence.  A country founded by immigrants is now so at war with itself.  It’s like if we do not change course, we soon will be embroiled in a version of another civil war, or is it happening already?

No matter what our race, creed, or color we need to take back our cities and towns and crossroads from ugliness and violence.  We have the knowledge and power to do it peacefully.  But I just do not see taking down the statues of dead Philadelphia mayors as being helpful to that end.

History is a cruel mistress and we can’t undo certain aspects of it.  We can only use what it teaches us to try to move forward more positively. We should not try to deny what happened or do a revisionist history on our history.  We do need to stop pretending, acknowledge history’s dirty and horrible bits, along with the rest of it and move on.

We have to stop trying to tear each other down as well as catering to the agendas of politicians – not trying to be mean, but politicians without some sort of agenda are few and far between, aren’t they?  We need to be the Americans our forefathers fought and died for, a nation of immigrants yearning for a better life and a desire to be free from tyranny.  The thing about tyranny is it comes in many forms.

Some will like this post, and others will not.  This is something I have been thinking about and I hope I have articulated in a way that provokes thoughtful conversation, not a litany of angry, threatening comments.

Please, be a part of the solution to stop the madness infecting this country, not feed it’s eternal fever.  Use our history to make us better in the future.

I wonder, what will the history books say 25 years from now, 50 years from now, and 100 years from now about what is going on across this country right now? How will they recount the history we are presently living?

For further commentary on Rizzo-Statue-Gate:

Was Frank Rizzo racist, or a product of his time?
by David Gambacorta, Chris Brennan & Valerie Russ – Staff Writers

That Rizzo statue is history! (No, seriously…put it in a museum)
Updated: AUGUST 17, 2017 — 12:07 PM EDT by Will Bunch, STAFF COLUMNIST

Kenney says Art Commission will make the call on Rizzo statue
Updated: AUGUST 22, 2017 — 2:20 PM EDT
by Chris Brennan, STAFF WRITER

Frank Rizzo mural defaced in South Philly                                                           Updated: AUGUST 19, 2017 — 1:31 PM EDT
by William Bender, Staff Writer

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