Many individuals claim that history, as a subject of academic study, is of little interest to them, yet it is this same history which often arouses the most rousing debates among average Americans. Why is our history then so important to us, even as we disclaim it as an area of passion? The answer lies in our understanding of corporate identity, and how the past reaffirms and validates this identity, which is crucial to our sense of self.
Who we see ourselves as today is, to a great degree, defined by what we see in ourselves in the past. Just as the individual looks into his past for validation of his personal identity, so to a community will examine its past searching for reaffirmation of its shared identity, and to validate its present ideology. The past, or history if you will, is therefore crucial to the community’s self image. Events or images that do not support the popular paradigm are weeded out and reaffirming moments are highlighted.
This public cleansing of the past often sets in motion conflicts of its own, as competing versions of community identity clash over interpretation. In 1994, plans were being made at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum to commemorate the end of the Second World War. An initial release of the proposed script incensed veteran’s groups, who claimed that the exhibit would focus disproportionately on the horrors of the Atomic bomb, while downplaying its necessity in ending the war and sparing hundreds of thousands of American lives.
In an attempt to placate the protestors, revisions were made to the script that reflected their concerns, which almost immediately resulted in the offending of groups of peace activists, who protested that the exhibit had gone too far to mollify the veterans, and that the script deemphasized the suffering caused by nuclear weapons and the resulting nuclear arms race. The exhibit’s script underwent numerous revisions, teetering back and forth between viewpoints as it attempted to produce a version that would satisfy most, if not all, interested parties.
Eventually a scaled-back version opened to the public that only served to infuriate scholars, who called the exhibit “highly unbalanced and one-sided”. The extensive effort put forth by the Smithsonian to please everyone, had in the end, failed to achieve what may be an impossible middle ground. Clearly, the interpretation of even relatively recent events can have distinctly different meanings within the same community, largely because individuals within the group disagree regarding their corporate identity, and we tend to project our view of identity onto the past. Often times these disagreements unleash powerful emotions, because what is at stake is nothing less than who we are.
The key issue in the Enola Gay controversy is not, as it might appear on the surface, “Was using the Atomic bomb necessary to bring an end to the Second World War?” The issue is “Who are we as Americans?” Or, in other words, “What is our identity?” Americans think themselves a moral people, and a moral people would not have killed indiscriminately unless there was an absolute necessity to do so. The mathematics is a key component. If we can demonstrate that more lives were saved than lost by using the Atomic bomb, we allow ourselves to kill and still remain “moral”. It is said that the Atomic bomb killed nearly 200,000 Japanese, but also saved 268,000 American GIs from becoming casualties during an invasion of the Japanese mainland. By insisting that the bomb killed fewer Japanese than there would have been American casualties, we are able to maintain that position, thus reaffirming our essential morality, which is intricate to the American identity.
As nations struggle to reengage their pasts, often they are forced to admit to what are at best uncomfortable truths. Israel is only now beginning to discuss the 1956 massacre at Kafr Kassam, when 49 Arab residents were gunned down just before the start of the Sinai War. In Japan, a highly popular prime minister came under attack in 2001 for promising to visit a Shinto shrine to Japanese war dead, which revived memories of “emperor worship and militarism”, while simultaneously Japanese schools pondered the use of a new, nationalistic history text. Engaging the past can be a painful experience for a culture, especially if participants are still alive.
It is not only recent history that stirs the emotions of the public, the distant past can become a battleground as well, with some nations maintaining their historic identity by refusing to acknowledge an event that is universally accepted by others, while others attempt to reinforce their own identity through the same event. Despite the fact that the Turkish Ottoman Empire ceased to exist almost ninety years ago, the Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge crimes committed by that government against the Armenian people in the Empire’s last months. The Armenian people are equally determined that the “genocide” be publicly recognized. This far away struggle for control of the past visited Maryland in 2001, when a legislative move to commemorate the deaths aroused heated debate, and placed the Maryland legislature in the unenviable position of having to validate or invalidate an interpretation of history.
In Almo, Idaho, the people grow up believing themselves to be the descendents of tough, prairie survivors. Supporting this community identity is the story of an Indian massacre of almost 300 pioneers at Almo in the 19th century, with only five escaping to tell the tale, lending credence to the locals’ belief in themselves as having come from tough, gritty “can-do” Western stock. When historians revealed that the massacre probably never occurred, the people of Almo didn’t want to know, and defended the town’s monument to the event. The myth had become part of the people, bred into them from youth, and it was no longer possible to let it go. One resident likened it to “tearing your arm or leg off and throwing it away.”
Neither are ancient times exempt from dispute. In 1996, an intact skeleton was unearthed on the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington. What made this find so significant was that radiocarbon dating set the age of the bones at 9,400 years old, and the skull appeared to be a Caucasian male. If these findings were accurate, Europeans would appear to have been present on the North American continent long before previously thought, challenging long-held assumptions about Native American ancestry.
At stake also were Native American sensibilities regarding their own origin theories. One member of the local Indian tribe said, “We know how time began and how Indian people were created. They can say whatever they want, the scientists. They are being disrespectful…These lands have been used by our tribe since time began…” Native American heritage holds that their people have always been in the Americas, originating in the four corners of the American Southwest.
In this matter of heritage, accuracy has given way to tradition, and those who identify with the tradition defend its validity, regardless of evidence to the contrary. An assistant chief of a tribe in Delaware said “It’s very nerve-wracking to have people insist that they know more about your heritage than you do”. What gives heritage its power is its exclusivity, derived from belief in things that others outside the group do not share. Beliefs that are founded in accuracy cannot be held exclusively by one group, and cause the heritage to lose its power to differentiate the group from outsiders, thus costing the group its identity.
The power of this exclusive belief in what may be error distinguishes heritage history from purely academic interpretations of the past. Whereas heritage loses vitality as it is disseminated, academic history projects what it believes to be objective truths to the widest possible audience. It must be remembered, however, that while academic history aims for accuracy, all evidence is at some level derived from witnesses who are necessarily biased observers, thus limiting the potential for absolute truth, if there ever was such a thing. For example, people of different cultural backgrounds will perceive the same scene in different ways, according to researchers at the University of Michigan. Even the accounts of eyewitnesses are often unreliable, as has been demonstrated by psychologists at Iowa State University in an experiment described in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
It is here, in its approach to bias, that academic history distinguishes itself from heritage history. While historians accept that absolute objectivity is unattainable, they strive mightily to achieve it just the same. Where heritage benefits from updating, upgrading and excluding facts to fit with a present-day ideology, history searches for and exposes error, ever reexamining itself in an attempt to get as close to the truth as is possible. This approach, manifested in the application of the historical method, acts as a check on interpretations of the past that are unsupported by evidence.
In the historical method, evidence is first critically examined for authenticity and relevance with contrary evidence being weighed to assure a balanced interpretation. This interpretation is then convincingly presented, with great emphasis placed on the quality of argument, effective use of evidence and writing style. This writing style is expected to establish expertise in the subject area, be logical, well organized, honest, balanced and delivered in such a way as to persuade the community of historians. This community will then analyze the work, exposing what flaws there may be, acting as a final safeguard against the publication of either known error or unsupported interpretation.
It is through the consistent use of the historical method, an unending process of investigation, interpretation and self analysis that, over time, our understanding of the past becomes less heritage and more academic history, though many of us would still prefer the comforting world of heritage to the messy realities of history.