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National historical myths and bias on AE

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Decebal View Drop Down
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  Quote Decebal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: National historical myths and bias on AE
    Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 14:43

I think that this may be a somewhat controversial topic, for reasons that I'll outline below, but I definitely think it warrants some thought. It probably doesn't come as much of a surprise to many that history, the way it is taught in schools around the world, is presented (I daresay even manipulated) in a certain manner to school-children, so as to correspond to the view of the respective nation-state on certain historical events. This official view is usually used to promote certain national interests, whether they be to justify the posession of a certain territory, the policy of a state towards another of its neighbors or the claim to some other territory not within that state's borders. This version of history is the first that people are usually exposed to, and so it is often the bias with which a regular person approaches history. What's more, this history is also reproduced in movies and literature produced in that state, and aimed at adults. The indoctrination is thus maintained throughout a person's life.

I would say that there are definite patterns to this type of history:

1. The creation of great historical national heroes. Often, historical figures from the past, are presented in such a manner as to make them mythical. Their bad traits are omitted, or glossed over, their good traits are exacerbated, and their true motives are often manipulated to suit the nation state's propaganda. Thus we see statements such as "ABC was the first great hero who fought for the nation XYZ", even though ABC lived hundreds of years before XYZ really existed as a nation.

2. The creation of a nemesis. A good hero is not credible unless there is some sort of nemesis. More often than not, that nemesis is not even a person, but a people, a nation, a religion, or an entire civilization; depending on what the interests of the mnodern nation state is. Often, the nemesis gets credited as the source of many of the problems plaguing the nation-state. Thus, statements such as "the Nation XYZ was glorious and the most advanced in the world until the evil MNP came around".

3. Sometimes, great heros transcend national lines and become the great mythical figures of entire civilizations. A good example would be Alexander the Great in the West.

 

These stories are usually based on some sort of historical truth, but their presentation to the people is really equivalent to the creation of historical myths, based on the truth, but much more romantic and one-sided. Eventually, regular people associate all of history with these romantic mythical figures. I would actually argue that people's general interest in history is usually linked to the existence of these romantic figures. People whose nations have a good number of mythical heroes are often interested in the history of their own country. People whose nations don't have a good deal of such heroes are either not interested in history, or are simply interested in the history revolving around mythical heroes of the civilizational type.

I will actually use AE as an excellent environment that proves this theory. Topics on AE often revolve around mythical figures. Most flame wars occur between members of countries which not only have mythical heroic figures, but especially when these heroic figures happen to be each other's nemesis. We then have a situation where people who have been taught diametrically opposite versions of history in school talk about certain events and discover that the others' version of history is radically different. It is hardly surprising considering the deep bias instilled in these people as children, that they often get emotional and a flame war occurs. It is also hardly surprising that there's so many of these wars, since , according to my theory, it is precisely the people who have biases, who are most interested in history (and thus likely to come on AE), due to the large number of mythical figures in the history taught by their respective nation state.


I will now examine some examples.

A) America. National history as taught in the US, has among other roles the justification of American exceptionalism and the justification of the posession of certain territories. Thus, the American Revolution is not only presented as a moral struggle for freedom (when the primary motives were economic), but George Washington is presented as a larger than life figure (ex. a "great general", when in fact he was rather lousy). The French intervention is minimized and even ignored; the fact that most colonists were loyal to Britain is also glossed over, and so the story revolves largely around the colonists "fighting for freedom" led by the great Washington.  Abraham Lincoln is another example: he is made to appear as "Honest Abe", somebody so morally upright that he couldn't make a moral mistake; and this completely overshadows the fact that the Southern States had a constitional right to seccede. As for the posession of certain territories, one has to look no further than the presentation of the Wild West: gun slinging cowboys fighting against brutal Redskins was and still is, despite recent trends, the archetypal image of the American West. The fact was that the vast majority of western colonists didn't ever own a gun, and the reports of American indians attacking colonists were very rare and wildly exagerrated when they occured. I have personally seen many examples of Americans on AE talking about thir own country's history as exceptional, and of the corresponding historical myths as truth. We also have a relatively large American contingent: often it is immigrants interested in their own country; but we also have many second (or older) generation Americans, interested in American history.

B) Turkey. Perhaps nowhere else in the world is history more important as a tool for the nation state as here. We must remember that after WW1, Turkey lost not only its status as a multinational empire, but also its Islamic tradition was discarded. Nationalism thus was essential for providing an identity to its people, and history played an important part. Great mythical heroic figures such as Alp-Arslan, Bayazid, Mehmet, Suleyman and of course Ataturk were glorified and made central to the Turkish identity. The Turks were presented as the bravest of people, creating the largest empire in history (the Ottoman Empire, with little regard for actual facts), and treating other populations very fairly. This mythic version of their own history has made the Turks very passionate about their own history, as evidenced by the disproportionately large number of Turkish forumers. However, according to the rules of "the game", the creation of a national mythical history also implied the glossing over of such topics as the Armenian genocide, the history of the Kurds and the treatment of Balkan peoples. Imagine the shock of Turkish forumers coming into contact with members from Balkan countries, or Armenians, whose own national histories hads the Turks as their nemesis! All of a sudden, that idyllic version of Turkish history was confronted by diametrically opposed national histories. I've seen quite often comments of Turks completely mystified by the general hostility of other forumers (whose national histories usually presented the Turks as the nemesis and often as the root cause of all the problems in their own country). Thus, we also have a disproportionate amount of flame wars involvign Turks and other nations.

C) Canada. This is an example of history not being much manipulated (for pragmatic reasons). Canada has a policy of multiculturalism, and an uneasy situation whereby a large French enclave is sandwiched between 2 English speaking regions. What's more, its only neighbor is the most poweful country in the world, and Canada has no interest in being antagonistic against the US. The creation of mythical figures is very dangerous, because it would also imply the creation of a nemesis. Since most of Canada's history from which such heroes could be drawn (the Seven Years War, the War of 1812, the two World Wars), is linked either with the conflict between the French and the English, either with the conflict with the US, or conflict with countries from which large parts of the population may come (for the world wars), national mythical heroes are conspicously absent from Canadian history. Thus popular Canadian interest in history is very low. We have a large number of Canadian forumers, that is true (probably due to the availablity of the internet in Canada), but there are very very few topics on Canadian history that are opened. Canadians who are interested in history are interested in civilizational heroes, or in the heroes of the countries of their immigrant background.


Please note that I will not acknowledge any virulent attacks on my presentation of any of the examples I have given. If anything, is some forumer disagrees too much with my assesment of their history, I will actually take it as proof of my theory, as being indoctrinated by their respective national myths.

What is history but a fable agreed upon?
Napoleon Bonaparte

Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.- Mohandas Gandhi

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  Quote Emperor Barbarossa Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 15:25
"A) America. National history as taught in the US, has among other roles the justification of American exceptionalism and the justification of the posession of certain territories. Thus, the American Revolution is not only presented as a moral struggle for freedom (when the primary motives were economic), but George Washington is presented as a larger than life figure (ex. a "great general", when in fact he was rather lousy). The French intervention is minimized and even ignored; the fact that most colonists were loyal to Britain is also glossed over, and so the story revolves largely around the colonists "fighting for freedom" led by the great Washington."

You are correct, that is a very common misconception here in America. I remember reading about Flora McDonald(whose own sister aided in the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie to the Orkneys). Anyways, her and many of her fellow Highlanders who fled to North Carolina were some of the most loyal to the throne during the American Revolution. Now, I know it sounds strange(especially because she had connections to a rebellion against the same government), but she did not like the way the American Revolution looked. The Americans rebelled not because of "freedom" or "democracy", but because of greed for money and land. Yes, the leadership, of course, turned the revolution into a fight for freedom and democracy later in the war. Lexington and Concord were fought because of anger over taxation(though a little overbearing, it was justified, due to the fact that the British people were paying more taxes for a war that was not fought for them), and land(the Proclamation Line, making frontiersmen angry). If you asked any soldier at the beginning of the American Revolution why he was fighting, I doubt he would say "for democracy."
As for the myth about cowboys and Native Americans, I have not seen it taught in schools anymore. I think that is more of a myth in old westerns than in actual society.

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  Quote Aelfgifu Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 15:43

Great post Decebal, very clear and smart writing.

I can only speak for myself, on this subject, it cannot be possible to speak for others. I think the Netherlands are a country with a lack of great heroes. We had them once, but they were forgotten. The Dutch do not seem turn to other heroes, they tend not to interest themselves for history. I meet lots of people who claim to be interested in history, but their knowledge seldom exeeds the level of holywood movies and some arthistory.
 
As for me, my interest for history once started with heroes of some sort, but they were the small personal heroes of historical childrensbooks I read. And now, when history is my sole occupation for the moment, I still am more interested in people than in heroes, in the why rather than the how, an interest I see also in my fellow students, but I hardly ever meet on this forum...

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  Quote Ikki Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 15:49
Umm, i have not clear this. First, look the enviroment where you are making the study: popular forum, with many proffesionals but mainly popular. Here of course we have the problem that many of the forumers don't perform according to a scientific discussion, but according  with a hooligan discussion.

Althought i agree that most of your scheme can be applied here, but must be completed. The level of historical discussion that you see here was typical in western world at the beginning of the XX century, until 1945; after that date and looking the great damage that this approach to the history had for the societies, and probably because specially in Europe the nations finally got a stability, in the western a democratic live, the historical discussion overpassed the nationalistic view adopting without doubts a more scientifical position.

Contrary, today we have a lot of countries in the same stage than we one century before: for example, Turkey, where according with the law they can't say anything that damage the national identity ??? Or China, an emergent power that need replace their historical position in the world. These two groups, by far the most agressive, have a view of the history in their countries heavily directed by the politic, not according with scientific points but dogmatic points. Of course we have many exceptions, specially in the case of China with a lot of very rigorous forumers.

So agree with your point or view, but only for one portion of the differents historiographics levels.
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  Quote Decebal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 16:02
Originally posted by Ikki


Althought i agree that most of your scheme can be applied here, but must be completed. The level of historical discussion that you see here was typical in western world at the beginning of the XX century, until 1945; after that date and looking the great damage that this approach to the history had for the societies, and probably because specially in Europe the nations finally got a stability, in the western a democratic live, the historical discussion overpassed the nationalistic view adopting without doubts a more scientifical position.

Of course, when making general statements, one invariably overlooks particular cases. I would say that Western Europe is a particular case. But then again, if one looks at the level of interest in history in Western Europe, simply based on the number of forumers, it is rather low. This is even more obvious when considering the wide-spread access to the internet which exists in Western Europe. For example, we don't have many British forumers, which would be otherwise surprising for an advanced country in whose language AE is run... I would say that the new approach to history in western Europe has lessened public interest in history.

One should also consider that the new approach to teaching history in Western Europe is also quite compatible with the respective governments's aims, which stress greater cooperation with the neighbors. Presenting Lord Nelson as a mythical hero for example might cause some unwanted tension with France, for example, due to the necessary nemesis.
What is history but a fable agreed upon?
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Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.- Mohandas Gandhi

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  Quote Aelfgifu Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 16:18
You should also take into account that western Europe faced the consequences of nationalistic and overzealous history, and learned from it. We must not forget that history itself is a product of the appearance of Nationalism.
I also once heard a theory that agressive nationalism is bigger countries with shorter pasts. Those nations still need to build themselves a solid identity, and history is an important factor in that. Most countries in western Europe are old and have a well documented history without a lot of large controversies in it. This makes nationalism less necessary, as 'we know who we are, and there is no doubt about it...' Smile

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  Quote Ikki Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 16:24
Originally posted by Decebal

...

Of course, when making general statements, one invariably overlooks particular cases. I would say that Western Europe is a particular case. But then again, if one looks at the level of interest in history in Western Europe, simply based on the number of forumers, it is rather low. This is even more obvious when considering the wide-spread access to the internet which exists in Western Europe. For example, we don't have many British forumers, which would be otherwise surprising for an advanced country in whose language AE is run... I would say that the new approach to history in western Europe has lessened public interest in history.



Totally agree. There is a clear divorce between the history of the historians and the feeling of the people; there are decades that the european historiography is centered around the structural problems and not in the personal achievements, gaining scientific accuracy and losing popularity. How is covered this great and dangerous fracture? Because althought not very interested in the more complex points of the history, the are a few necesity of history between the people: the historical novel. A huge, massive, production of historical novel (and now, movies).

Originally posted by Decebal



One should also consider that the new approach to teaching history in Western Europe is also quite compatible with the respective governments's aims, which stress greater cooperation with the neighbors. Presenting Lord Nelson as a mythical hero for example might cause some unwanted tension with France, for example, due to the necessary nemesis.


Yes, all the european countries have an official-statal point of view, but contrary to those other countries out of western world (and here i NOT include Japan, who clearly fall in the same category than Turkey or China) there are independent actors in the universities or "private" historians that counterbalance the statal argument. So, we have the figure of Nelson, but too a hard criticism with all the english history in a huge amount of books not from out of the system but into the system (look the studies of universities like Cambridge), beginning with the heroic figure of Richard Lionheart and following with the many times barbarian imperialist expansion, not forgetting the figure of Elisabeth I.


Edited by Ikki - 16-Oct-2006 at 16:26
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  Quote Seko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 16:28
I agree with most of you analysis about history taught in the US. Didn't know much about the French helping us out till the Independence movie with Mel Gibson. Of course, we all know that he is a born patriot.

In Turkey, history is a warning as is it about being a morale boost. The warning is many. Anything from being conqueered and assimilated to doing the conquering and assimilation. Another reason Turks have a rough go at describing mythic figures is because those very figures are shared by other nationalities. Nesreddin Hoca, Oguz Han, Genghis Khan, Attila, Rumi, etc have Turkic and central asian historical significance. They are shared and divided at the same time. Then it becomes a free for all as to who takes credit for what. It's not wrong but certainly is selfish.

There is a rude awakening for Turks. Not only due to shared history but due to resentment by those who don't share history as Turks do. A frame of mind and sense of preogative. One man's treasure is another man's trash sort of speak.

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  Quote Aelfgifu Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 16:37
Originally posted by seko

Didn't know much about the French helping us out till the Independence movie with Mel Gibson. Of course, we all know that he is a born patriot.
 
I always found it ironical that in a movie about American freedom, the main roles were played by Aussies. I suppose that is a nice example of what America is about... Wink

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  Quote Ikki Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 16:48
Originally posted by Aelfgifu

You should also take into account that western Europe faced the consequences of nationalistic and overzealous history, and learned from it. We must not forget that history itself is a product of the appearance of Nationalism.
I also once heard a theory that agressive nationalism is bigger countries with shorter pasts. Those nations still need to build themselves a solid identity, and history is an important factor in that. Most countries in western Europe are old and have a well documented history without a lot of large controversies in it. This makes nationalism less necessary, as 'we know who we are, and there is no doubt about it...' Smile


Umm yes and no. If you look a history discussion of 1910 you will see fierce fights between the nationalist of all countries, in fact, all the historians was nationalist, so i can't agree with your last phrase. But the rest of the text is true, the nationalist-personalist historiography grew at the same time than the liberal-nation states of the XIX century. This process is more dangerous as you say in the case of countries with short history or with historical complexs.
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  Quote Roberts Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 17:11
Great post Decebal Clap

When reading about general history of Latvia, I always try to avoid books or information written before 1991.
During the first republic (1918-1940) - the history was very nationalized. The popular misconception in Latvian history about "700 years of slavery" appeared, thats something like "latvian" people lived better before crusader conquest in 13th century, and after it they lost all their freedom and became serfs of German knights. That was very wrong myth and it still has some roots in modern society.
During (1940-1991) Soviet occupation, the history was thought like the Russians always were those positive heroes which time to time liberated our land either from German nobles, Swedish and Polish land hungry states or from our own capitalists.

I always approach critical to history.
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  Quote Hellios Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 18:18
What Decebal said about Canada is true.  The country has a very low sense of nationalism.  We find Canadian history boring compared to the history of the countries where immigrants are from, and nationalistic manipulation of history is difficult here because the various ethnic communities closely scrutinize all academic material used by schools.
 
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  Quote Emperor Barbarossa Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 18:21
Originally posted by Seko

I agree with most of you analysis about history taught in the US. Didn't know much about the French helping us out till the Independence movie with Mel Gibson. Of course, we all know that he is a born patriot.

Yes, it is true that the French aid to the U.S. is very downplayed. Without their help with supplies during the early stages of the war, we may not be a country right now.

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  Quote Cezar Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 18:29
Originally posted by Aelfgifu

I meet lots of people who claim to be interested in history, but their knowledge seldom exeeds the level of holywood movies and some arthistory.
I'm sad of what you've wrote being so funny...CryClap


Edited by Cezar - 16-Oct-2006 at 18:30
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  Quote Goban Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 18:32
Yes, great post Decebal. This is why a forum like this is important. Here we have a multi-biased, multi-national view of history. Now, all we have to do is sift through it to find the "golden mean". Tongue
 
 
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  Quote Guests Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 18:49
Originally posted by Aelfgifu

I think the Netherlands are a country with a lack of great heroes.

But at least since today we have a historical canon Tongue

And I have to say that the canon is better than I expected. It's way better than those 10 eras with silly names and dito pictograms.


Edited by Mixcoatl - 16-Oct-2006 at 18:49
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  Quote flyingzone Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 21:31

Of course, the idea of the creation of national myths is central to the thesis of Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities". As a matter of fact, it is not simply the homogenization of the curriculum and the teaching of history that helps to create these national myths, hence boosting the idea of a "national identity" that does not really exist. Anderson shrewdly points out three other institutions of power which eventually help to shape the way in which states imagine its dominion - the census, the map, and the museum. These three institutions correspond flawlessly to the nature of the human beings a state rules, the geography of its domain, and the legitimacy of its ancestry.

"Interlinked with one another, then, the census, the map and the museum illuminate the ... state's style of thinking about its domian. The 'warp' of this thinking was a totalizing classificatory grid, which could be applied with endless flexibility to anything under the state's real or contemplated control: peoples, regions, religions, languages, products, monuments, and so forth. The effect of the grid was always to be able to say of anything that it was this, not that; it belonged here, not there. It was bounded, determinante, and therefore - in principle - countable." (p. 184)
 
Reference:
 
Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined Communities. Verso; New York, New York.
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  Quote flyingzone Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Oct-2006 at 21:36
It is very sad that it is those people who need most to understand these national historical myths and biases ignore a thread like this one. But this isn't surprising at all, given the fact that their limited intellectual capability may find the title of a thread like this one off-putting or intimidating. Aelfgifu is absolutely right in her description of some people who claim to "love history" but whose knowledge in history is probably limited to the level of Hollywood movies.
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  Quote Vivek Sharma Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17-Oct-2006 at 00:45
One of the few posts of AE that I have been able to like.
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  Quote Timotheus Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17-Oct-2006 at 01:12
Originally posted by Emperor Barbarossa


Yes, it is true that the French aid to the U.S. is very downplayed. Without their help with supplies during the early stages of the war, we may not be a country right now.


Haha, absolutely.

Decebal, you made a wonderful post. I would merely pick at one part of it -- an analysis of the Constitution shows that the Southern states neither had the right to secede nor were forbidden to secede. I have seen it argued with equal vehemence on both sides, but the truth is the Constitution says nothing.

When the New England states met at the Hartford Convention to discuss secession, you could barely find a Southerner who was not pouring vitriol into the very idea of people who dared to think that states had the right to secede LOL One of the myths of the Civil War that is very much glossed over...
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