The past is not always what it seems. Sometimes it lines up with truth, as when we say that Beethoven died on March 26, 1827, or that Albert Einstein wrote several papers foundational to the General Theory of Relativity. When things like these actually happened, and we can confirm them in texts or other material sources, we say that they are history. If they are really important facts or events, we call them historic. But even this early into the introduction of our subject we run into problems.
Here is an example: It is factually true that James I of Aragon (1208-1276) had at least sixteen children by no less than six women, but the facts can be variously interpreted. A traditional interpretation is that, despite the crossbow wound, he was extraordinarily handsome. Today we might reinterpret the evidence differently. Given what we know about instinctive behaviors and the blind spots of those in power, today we might say that he was a sexual predator, a powerful man who felt entitled to take advantage of women.
But wait a minute! What about that scar? Remember? Here it is:
Here is an example a little closer to home, something perhaps more immediately troubling: The Confederate Army lost the Civil War. This is historically true, although evidence like the following – an image of a Confederate flag on the back of a truck – is confounding. We can imagine various interpretations. The one acceptable to most historians runs something like this: descendants of white southerners, and those who identify with the white south – even if they currently live in Michigan – feel some trauma about what they imagine was lost to their predecessors and thus to themselves, way back when.
As you know, the denial of verifiable factual history infects some people’s understanding of events like the Holocaust and processes like Global Warming. Evolution is a demonstrably real basis for animal cladistics, gene science, and much of our understanding of human nature and human psychology; still, some people prefer to cling to and conflate the two origin stories found in the book of Genesis. The truth is one thing, and it may or may not be easy to discern, but that does not stop us (all of us sometimes) from living in accordance with myths and falsehoods. Despite verifiable, historical truths, we sometimes act on ignorance or choose to ignore the truth.
We all imagine the past as we want it to be. Sometimes we imagine it so that it helps us navigate our present and future. Sometime we imagine it in false ways because other people tell us to do so. If you need proof, perhaps I should tell you about that time, around the time I was five years old, when I saw the Easter Bunny!
So, here is point one: This blog explores the boundary between the past as evidentiary truth, between history as an arena of research, and the past as a medium for human imagination and self-exploration.
Social scientists say that the past is socially constructed. By that they mean that we use it to manage who we are, and we change it for the purpose of remaking ourselves and our societies into what we want to be (write to me if you want references). The past becomes part of the vocabulary or inventory that define us as members of various communities, and from which we draw to redefine the customs and practices and values of our communities. We do all of this past-in-the-present social construction when, for example, we go to church or wave a flag. When we recite the Nicene Creed, declare “Jesus is Lord,” prepare Tamarind-stuffed Fish for an Eid celebration at Ramadan, or celebrate the Fourth of July we are participating in a past that our community imparted to us as an inheritance. That inheritance becomes something that we perform, like a play. Ample evidence indicates that, whether we like it or not, our inherited imagined pasts present us with scripts, which we read and act out in the roles we play over the course of our lives.
We construct the past when, for instance, we make it important for school children to know that George Washington had false teeth. Elementary school lessons like that one construct for our children what is important and what is not important for them to remember about the foundations of their American society. Some of our constructions are broadly unifying. It helps when they are relatively unproblematic, even trivial, like George Washington’s teeth. But you may find on this site examples of the past, real or imagined, put to work in some very consequential ways.
Some of our social constructions divide. Building a wall at our southern border has partly to do with how some Americans have learned to perceive non-citizens as “not like us.” But the debate about the wall is also dividing Americans, roughly let’s say, into haters and helpers. Whether we hold that gun possession is a constitutional right or that a loaded semi-automatic under the bed is not what the framers of the Constitution had in mind is similarly a debate that lines up with well-developed sets of alternate readings of the American past. What did the framers of the Constitution intend? Does it matter to us what they intended, or do we merely feign interest in their intentions when it gets us what we want?
For a wonderful assortment of alternate ways to consider the Wall, see the video by the architect Ronald Rael here https://www.ted.com/talks/ronald_rael_an_architect_s_subversive_reimagining_of_the_us_mexico_border_wall?language=en
Maybe even more significant than our construction of the past is the past’s construction of us. We enter into our lives with facts and fictions pre-scrambled for us. That the past presents us with scripts, with parts that we are bound to perform, presents a lot of problems for us. How many of the flags that you wave did you actually choose for yourself? Did you get the measles shot, or were your parents in the anti-vaccine crowd?
So, point two: This blog explores the imagined past. We’ll need to think about what it means to imagine, to remember, and to forget. We’ll also look at examples of people employing the imagined past like a tool to change what is into what could be. We construct our past the way we need it to be.
The past can have a life of its own. It is an agent in human affairs. More than something bygone and far-removed, beyond what we point to when we want to confirm a fact or learn a historical lesson, the past may be the most significant “influencer” or our time (and of any other time). It is the repository of culture, the locus of collective identity.
This blog offers essays about how the imagined past works upon us, how beliefs get constructed for us, get inside us, and become our own. Sometimes the results are positively strange and wonderful. Lots of us sometimes imagine ourselves in the fantasy world of an imagined past. Nonetheless, the inherited past can also infect us like a virus, or attach itself like a parasite. It was part of the terrible genius of Hitler and Mussolini that they used the ancient and medieval self-representations of their constituents to inject a venom into the tissues of societies across the globe. The posts on these matters will be the most difficult to write and read, because they will tell us things about ourselves that we don’t really want to know.