This week’s blog post is adapted from Season 3 Episode 6 (“Accurate History”) of my “Real Spies, Real Lives Podcast.” If you want to listen to it, you’ll find it HERE.
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about history. Well, I’m a history geek; I think about it most of the time. Recent sound and video bites of parents at school board meetings, the subsequent actions of those school boards, and behavior of the public have had me thinking about accurate history, history of things as they really happened, not as we want them to be.
Like science, history is ever-changing. New sources are uncovered, new artefacts are uncovered, and we have more first-person accounts, especially for recent history. All that sometimes contradicts what we believed about our country, the actions of people and our government. Finding that out can be uncomfortable, but, as the meme goes, if history doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you’re not paying attention. If you reject our accurate history, you’re not a patriot; you’re ignorant and deeply racist.
How It Started for Me
I was drawn to history even as a young child because my father was a history buff, specifically about the U.S. Civil War. His primary interest was battle tactics (some of which he used against the Germans in World War II) but also in the people, the soldiers who fought on either side. Their stories fascinated me, and he’d heard some of those stories from a great uncle who’d “lost an arm at Cold Harbor.” In the great Celtic tradition, he passed them on, and that sparked the desire in me to learn more history.
Unfortunately, my father came down firmly on the side of the debate about the Civil War that is inaccurate, namely that the war wasn’t fought over slavery but over states’ rights. My studies had shown me that “states’ rights” was a euphemism for “we have the right to enslave other people.” All you have to do is read the record of secessionist speeches, and it’s crystal clear what “states’ rights” meant to the south. We still hear it today over mask mandates and vaccinations.
I was lucky to have history teachers in high school who presented the truth about the “glorious cause” and the southern states: They were a traitorous group of insurrectionists and white supremacists. It’s not coincidence that there were so few American flags among the insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 and more confederate flags.
My view of history, especially Civil War history, didn’t go over well with my dad, but I still acknowledge he planted that love of history; and it certainly flowered.
History Stayed With Me
I went on to study history and get a degree in it in college. I still consider myself an historian because I continue to study it. I taught history briefly before I moved on to work for the U.S. government, again following in the footsteps of my soldier father to serve my country in my own way. But I never forgot that love of history. I’d hear someone express an opinion on the news or in a newspaper article, and I was spurred to go find out for myself. I still do that.
One of my first jobs on my agency’s aviation safety magazine was to write short, aviation history pieces, called “Famous Flyers” or “Famous Flights,” depending on whether the focus was a person or an event. Though I enjoyed writing the technical articles, the historical pieces were my favorite to write because I could dig into aviation history with the research skills I’d learned in college. When my editor questioned “how do you know that,” I started giving him a bibliography of my sources. (And this was way, way before Google; this involved trips to the Smithsonian’s aviation library and card catalogues.)
Along the way I met some of the people who made aviation history: Chuck Yeager, for example. That was total nerdom for a history geek.
Relevance To Today?
One thing that will drive me up a wall is to hear someone say, “History is boring. Who cares about what happened in the past?”
Well, I do. I know my parents wondered what kind of job I would get by specializing in Europe between the World Wars, but that meant in addition to studying post-Revolution Russia, I also studied the rise of Nazism in Germany, all the small steps and seemingly insignificant changes in laws that led to the attempt to eradicate an entire group of people.
So, twenty or more years ago when I started ranting to friends and writing letters to the editor about how one particular political party here in the U.S. seemed to be toying with fascist tropes, I could and did provide concrete examples for comparison. Of course, I wasn’t the only one. There were historians who’d gone further in their academic studies than I had, and they laid out the evidence with frightening specificity.
And no one listened, except for the choir to whom they preached.
When you study history, you hear over and over that we must learn from history or be doomed to repeat it. Anyone from statesmen to philosophers have voiced this in different ways. This is why we study history. To preserve the past, yes, but also to learn from it so we don’t repeat history’s heinous events.
I’m a believer in accurate history. This means, of course, that sometimes you learn your heroes had feet of clay. When I realized that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings wasn’t really a forbidden love story, I can’t look at him the same way again. Once I learned that Vladimir Lenin likely gave the order to murder the Tsar and his family, Lenin had feet of clay to me. What was the lesson learned there? Don’t put men or women on pedestals; they’re only human after all, and some of them are inhumane.
I believe in knowing the history of my country, the bad along with the good, all its foibles, warts, and egregious errors. My family goes back to when we were the “colonies,” to 1749, in fact. Over the decades, members of my family have participated in this country’s triumphs, like defeating fascism in World War II, of which I’m proud to acknowledge. But they’ve also participated in the enslavement of other human beings, for which I atone however I can.
History needs to show the bad with the good. If it doesn’t, the bad becomes too easy to repeat. A country’s history should never be white-washed, literally in some cases, even though knowing the bad parts makes us uncomfortable. Again, this is the whole point of studying and presenting accurate history–to learn from the uncomfortable bits so that we don’t do it again.
We Haven’t Learned Not to Ban Books
We’re in the midst of the latest frenzy to ban certain books, fiction and nonfiction, especially books that “make us feel bad.” When I read Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, or Ta-Nehisi Coates, I squirmed, I felt bad, but I also came away enlightened and determined to assure justice and equality. Some of you will jeeringly say I’m “woke.” Hell, yes. History has “woke” me my entire study of it, and I say better to be woke than ignorant.
In my own state, Virginia, we’ve always tiptoed around that whole “slavery thing.” White people in my state aren’t terribly interest in the accurate history of enslavement and prefer to cling to that fantasy, that false history that the enslaved enjoyed their enslavement and that they and their enslavers all lived happily ever after until the bad old Yankees came along and outlawed enslavement of human beings. They don’t want their children to feel bad about themselves, they declare, while from the other side of their mouths they say they don’t want to vaccinate those same children against a deadly virus.
But I digress.
To this end, parents who’ve likely never attended a back-to-school night or who’ve skipped all those “inconvenient” parent-teacher conferences or who’ve never participated in PTA feel the need to be consulted on what books their children can read and what history they can study in public school. My response is if that’s what you want, take your precious darlings down the road to that pricey, snobby private school and turn them into fledgling fascists.
Individual teachers don’t select the core books used in history or literature. A state curriculum board does, based on guidelines on what children need to learn at each grade level. Yes, sometimes what’s taught may make you or your children feel uncomfortable, but in that discomfort, your children learn to ask needed questions, to think critically. Some people, however, can’t abide being questioned.
To Some, Banning Books Isn’t Enough
Some people don’t want to simply ban books; they want to eradicate them.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Adolph Hitler developed a detailed mythology about the racial superiority of the German people, and everything–music, art, literature–had to conform to that mythology. No one was allowed to question that premise, that alternate history he’d created. The same was true in the Stalinist era in the U.S.S.R. In both countries, so called “decadent” art was removed from museums and galleries. Only “pure” German music could be played in Hitler’s Germany, and books. . . Books that did not portray this mythology of a master race were banned.
That wasn’t enough. As with now, the minute you ban a book, right-minded people will go out and buy it. In fascist Germany, those books had to be eradicated so no one could see them. The Brown Shirts and the S.S. removed these books from libraries and bookstores. Private citizens, fearful of having someone see such books in their homes and report them to the authorities, turned them in willingly.
And what did the authorities do with these books, many of them classics of history and literature?
They burned them.
They made a big propaganda show of burning them.
There is a rather famous picture of one such book burning: a smoldering pile of books glowing in the night, a crowd of people–some soldiers, some ordinary citizens–watching and giving the stiff-arm salute. That was in 1938.
This year, indeed only a couple of weeks ago, a mob of people in Tennessee gathered and burned books they decided were offensive to their whiteness. Someone posted a picture of it on social media. When I saw it, my aging historian’s brain pulled that 1938 picture from my memory.
The old picture and the new could be mistaken for the same event, minus the stiff-arm salute.
That made me sad, but more than that, it made me angry. We’ve slipped further down the slope toward autocracy, and I bloody well hate repeating myself about the dangers of that.
I use history in my fiction, as a backdrop or even as a springboard for the story. I’ve written (a lot) about rightwing extremism, racism, and white supremacy as clear and present dangers to the U.S. These are the things–if you’d learned from your history and others’ histories–that will drag us into authoritarianism. They are the threats to democracy, not meaningful books or accurate history, and much more of a threat than leftwing anything.
As with Germany in the 1930s, as with Stalin, as with Russia today, rightwing extremists want to return to a utopian past that never existed in the first place. One where women stayed in the kitchen or the nursery, where Black people knew their place, where LGBTQ people stayed inauthentic and in the closet. And if any of them questioned their status, or lack thereof, they deserved the harshest form of punishment.
My father fought and risked his life to assure fascism didn’t make it to this country, and I’m glad he’s not around to see book burnings here. I’ll fight, too, with my words, with my books, even if, especially if, they made bigots uncomfortable.
So, go ahead, ban my books, if you want. I’ll take the publicity and run with it.