Selective eyes of history

When the mundane is too ... well, mundane

A few years ago, a publisher friend thought of a new idea for a history series called "The Year Nothing Happened." Authors would pick a year free of wars, revolutions, or depressions, and look at ordinary people - the food they ate, the books they read, the houses they built.

Don't bother looking for the books; they never got written. A senior exec killed the proposal. But my friend's idea illustrates the difference between history and the past. The past is what actually happened - the way people lived their often mundane lives. History, on the other hand, focuses on the extraordinary. By this process, we get a high-octane view of yesterday.

We've been led to believe, for instance, that the wild West was dominated by gunslingers who left behind a trail of bodies. In truth, Billy the Kid was an anomaly. Cowboys were peaceful chaps, and few pioneers had guns.

Social historians might protest that they indeed focus on the ordinary. The discipline, which has flourished since the late 1960s, seeks to uncover those hidden from history.

Some very noble, illuminating research has been produced, but all too often historians who set out to study the ordinary somehow settle on the extraordinary.

Thus, British and American historians have given disproportionate attention to left-wing groups like the Wobblies or the Communist Party, despite the complete failure of the far left to alter the political landscape. In contrast, right-wing groups, arguably more influential, are virtually ignored.

This tendency to focus on the unusual can be seen in the historical documentaries currently made. About a year ago, a producer sought my help on a documentary called "Love, Sex and War." She started from the premise that the sexual revolution usually associated with the 1960s actually occurred a generation before, when millions of women shed inhibitions during World War II.

I'm afraid I disappointed the producer. My own research has revealed that the vast majority of women remained chaste.

Undeterred, the producer pressed for names of lascivious women whom she might interview. When I tried again to correct her misconceptions, she politely terminated the conversation and never called back.

Needless to say, the documentary went ahead. A sufficient number of women were found to give the impression that the war was one continuous orgy.

History reflects the present more than it reveals the past. We mine the past for gems which mirror our current obsessions and leave aside the bedrock of mundane normality. That explains why historians are so obsessed with sex today. Does it really matter if Eleanor Roosevelt was a lesbian?

Over the last year, I've been asked to consult on two documentaries about World War I, one about conscientious objectors, another about soldiers executed for cowardice. While these are worthy topics, it occurs to me that no one seems to want to make a film about ordinary soldiers who served with dignity and went home - or died.

The fascination with conscientious objectors is understandable. The two world wars have inspired great abhorrence of conflict and consequent admiration for those who resisted. As for the "cowards," unequivocal judgment is difficult. Many were unfairly treated, but, as I pointed out to the producer of "Shot at Dawn," some soldiers were executed for crimes like murder, rape, or treason. They were called cowards to save their families from the ignominy of a more heinous crime. To make them into heroes now is an injustice to those who fought.

The outcome of a war influences the way it is viewed. There is, for instance, an enormous amount of work done on the detritus of Vietnam - those suffering from post-traumatic stress. There's also a lot on "atrocities." And on the home front, the books on the peace movement would fill a small library. All this fits in with the idea of an ignoble war, brought to an end by heroic protesters.

There's precious little on ordinary soldiers who fought hard and went home to a normal life - though many fit that pattern. And there's almost nothing on pro-war groups. Yet, since Vietnam was America's longest war, those groups must have been significant.

The past is too often viewed from the wrong end of a telescope. The desire for unusual stories is not surprising, since there is entertainment in all things weird. But those stories are misleading. We study the past not for the purpose of understanding, but rather to find bits that harmonize with current obsessions. In this sense, we shape the past in our own image. But, in the process, we fail to gain a sense of ourselves.

Like it or not, most of the time "nothing happened." But in nothingness there was stability. The renegades and misfits of yesteryear might make good copy for the historian and documentary producer, but they aren't really the shapers of our world.

The stability, tradition, and mundane normality of the past is the best explanation for who we are today.

*Gerard J. DeGroot, an American, is chairman of the department of modern history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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