History and Revision

Here is the thing about history, society and individuals are always choosing what to pass down to our children and what not to pass along. Every time someone creates a history textbook they have to choose what goes in and what has to be left out because there isn’t space for everything, so the book from which children learn is a small subset of history. Every time a teacher uses that textbook they have to choose where to focus their teaching time, because there aren’t enough hours to teach everything that is in the book, so the portion of history that enters common knowledge for a generation is further reduced. Any time a historical movie gets made details are pruned away or rearranged for narrative purposes. Sometimes that makes people upset, so they make another movie where different details are pruned and rearranged. It gets even more complicated when we’re interpreting history, when we’re explaining what a battle or event means. Events, places, dates, names are fairly fixed, but the meanings we assign to those fixed historical points are always in flux. There is no One True Version for history.

I’ve been thinking about that this week as I’ve seen news of protests and counter protests surrounding confederate monuments. The meaning of these symbols to individual persons depends on which interpretation of history that person chooses to accept. Cities have begun to remove these monuments because the majority has come to believe the interpretation that symbols of the confederacy are harmful. All of it: the decision to remove them, the protests about it, the counter-protests, the videos of people using trucks to topple statues without city consent, these are all a vigorous argument that our society is having about who we want to be and which versions of history get to thrive while other versions get relegated to pockets where they are specifically discussed as ugly instead of glorious.

Also this week, I watched a movie I haven’t seen in a decade. It is a Western comedy film called Hallelujah Trail that my mother loved and we recorded it off TV to VHS and then I re-watched it dozens of times to the point where every line was familiar. It was delightfully ridiculous with mass covered wagon chases and gun fights where no one died because there was a sand storm and no one could see anyone else. It used all the props of a western, but the spirit was screwball comedy. It had come to mind lately and I wanted to see it again. I considered tracking down a copy (It was only on DVD once and has been out of print for a very long time) and watching it with my kids. But I knew it was a western from the era when Native Americans were treated as villains or as caricatures. I knew it would have things in it that are offensive. Instead I found it on YouTube and watched it by myself.

The opening bars of music made me so nostalgically happy. I still remembered every line of dialogue. The fun mix of western and comedy genres was still there. However there was also a veritable bingo-card of offensive stereotypes. Some of them were half-conscious: Native American Indians deliberately played as drunks for comedy purposes; some of them were unconscious products of the time the movie was made: strong-minded, independent woman’s plot resolution is to get married and give up being a suffragette and temperance marcher. And the whole movie centers around a shipment of whiskey with a wagoneer wanting to deliver cargo, a militia wanting to make sure it gets to them safely, US Cavalry trying to keep order, temperance marchers wanting to destroy it, and the Indians wanting to steal it. The whole movie is about being drunk, wanting to be drunk, or trying to prevent drunkenness but then getting drunk because of “emotional distress.” All of which (in hindsight) seems like a strange choice as a beloved movie for a family of Mormons.

As I watched I had a sort of cognitive dissonance as part of my brain loved each scene for its deep, personal nostalgia and another part of my brain viewed with a modern eye analyzing all the ways this movie gives offense to a swathe of people. I finished the film and knew two things: I still love this movie and I can’t in good conscience share it with anyone else or teach them to love it. I will quietly not show it to my children and they will have no grief that it fades into unwatched obscurity.

This is the choice all adults must sometimes make. Sometimes a movie, or statue, or ideology, or way of living, no longer fits the shifts of society. Sometimes we have to let the past go in order to have a better future. This can be hard when we love these past things. In my case, with this movie, it is only a mild wistfulness that my kids will never love a thing that I loved. The decision becomes heart wrenching if the thing that must be allowed to pass is a core part of your identity. I see that the rage and violence surrounding confederate monuments comes from a place of grief and fear, but the decision to relocate them is the one that helps us build a society where we’re trying to redress the wrongs of the past and a society where everyone is treated equally regardless of ethnicity or skin color.

4 thoughts on “History and Revision”

  1. Yes, history does get revised. I am currently reading a history published in 1905 and it is fascinating. Titally different to what I was taught in the 1950’s and different again from what is taught today. Which is accurate? Probably none of them! They all have elments of truth in them but the bias of the age is in them too.

  2. As a side note, a movie ridiculing drinking and what insane antics people will engage in over it, is NOT a strange choice for a non drinking family.That it was well written and remembered means that message was as well.

  3. Well said! The past few days, I’ve been thinking about a minor Utah brouhaha from a few years ago. Apparently, some U of U students were trying to change their fight song lyrics, something about a line saying “Our coeds are the fairest.” (I didn’t go to the U, so I’m not sure exactly.) I was listening to a local talk radio host discuss it, and there was a bit of push-back from alumni who had sung the song in their time at school and didn’t want it changed.
    Though I feel the issue was minor, it illustrates this idea to me: what version of ourselves do we want to be? Is it important to cling to something because of tradition, or can we rewrite the image we present to the world? And whose opinion matters most? The older generation or the younger? Interesting to think about – and scary to see how how it all actually plays out, especially in recent events.

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