History is an art form. Sometimes we get so caught up with the idea of learning about things apart from our own experience that we forget that the only real mode of understanding is through storytelling. This is why there are so many debates about our past–about what really happened. It seems that the further we get away from events being depicted, the more open to revision history becomes. After all, times are always changing. What was formerly acceptable transforms into a sin with a similar alacrity to historical villains’ evolution into misunderstood revolutionary saints. It is all a matter of perspective, we keep trying to tell ourselves, pleading against wisdom that everything is meant to be equal. And yet, if what has already happened continues to transform into the future, is it even possible to learn lessons from our past?
Take a look at a book bestseller list (https://www.amazon.com/gp/bestsellers/books/ref=sv_b_2/ref=s9_acss_bw_cg_KCGTM_1a1_w/ref=s9_acss_bw_cg_KCGTM_7a1_w?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=merchandised-search-2&pf_rd_r=QCF766W8Q2132KKZ7MD6&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=528a855f-b89e-4149-85f6-174808589b31&pf_rd_i=14413390011&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=merchandised-search-3&pf_rd_r=KT8JG6Q6WM9Z1Q8V0808&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=9fc1a809-4aca-46d1-8416-d6fbf0e4776f&pf_rd_i=16857165011 –and let us disregard that reading print material is becoming an increasingly lost norm; I suppose I must accept that my future projects will mostly be in digital formats, like what you are reading right now. Just allow me my dying fetish for the sake of this discussion–): We can gauge quite a lot about our culture just by studying what it is that people are reading (or, more probable in an increasingly post-literate culture, what they are buying and then setting aside, more a reflection of our intended interests about who or what we want ourselves to be.) Anyway, from the moment I checked, the top fifty sellers on Amazon included:
2 Memoirs, one the story of a very famous and influential person, someone both beloved and despised in nearly equal measure. And while this book is certainly a very credible, and even an inspirational story, cynics could with some justification write the whole thing off as a political message intended to set future policy agendas. And since our world is such a partisan battle royal, one person’s autobiographical take on success gets pettily transformed, from any angle you look at it, into a righteous call-to-arms to claim the world for whichever idea of the future you temporarily share.
The other memoir is just as heartfelt, but generally will be perceived as more so, because most of us have never heard of the person telling their story, and it is about overcoming personal hardship, so maybe we can be encouraged. Unless, of course, the troubles they faced were racial, or gender-based, or dealt with religion, or sexual identity, or some disability, or a self-imposed problem that we really shouldn’t sympathize with or–oh, to hell with that person too! Whiners! Me me me! All about me! It is so easy to claim another person’s story with the judgment of your own.
These are not the only memoirs, but several others fall within a far more popular genre heading: the self-help book. There are 16 within the top fifty that deal with how to gain self-confidence, or to look upon the world with graciousness and positivism. Of course there are also 15 diet cookbooks, and healthy eating manuals, so we can bump self-help to 31. Then again, there are 3 more craft/self-therapy books about finding inner peace, or drawing and coloring away your grown-up inner worries, and there is one of those inevitable runaway bestsellers that has, and probably always will, be very popular for a specific time in a person’s life, which offers suggestions on the best way(s) forward. In other words, 35 out of 50 books are narratives of different ways other people are telling you how to improve our lives. The fact that these books are so wildly popular certainly exposes an acknowledged dissatisfaction with ourselves, and also offers a rather morbid autopsy of our cultural age.
These self-help books range only in their target audience: there are several directed at women lacking self-confidence. These books may be religious, they might offer a right-wing or left-wing worldview. They may even be written in cynical, snide, hipster jargon, convinced of its own aloof importance by barely censoring the vulgarity in its title. The message of such a book is really no different than How to Win Friends and Influence People, but it also wants to tell you just how fucking cool you are for following the credo in this new millennial age There are strong woman declarations, and back-to-Jesus renunciations. The diet books may be studies of how-many calories or ketones, or far better diagrammed text books on body chemistry, with radical new outlooks on the ideals for future survival. Some of these books may also be about how to feed certain illnesses, from liver damage to diabetes. These are all instructive, all seeking the same thing. They are all telling us how we should live.
The remaining few bestsellers include 4 children’s books, all of them no doubt engaged in by adults unaware of their own children’s tastes or interests, or imposing such bland worldviews upon them, or even exploring the degenerating infantilism of modern young adulthood. There is always one among the variety of college-bound academic paper writing manuals, always a popular woman’s book club novel by one of maybe four different authors, and the latest guidebook in whichever fantasy roll-playing game the unpopular high school and college kids are playing to escape from their lonely lives.
Finally we have the bottom feeders, those books which always have, and which always will be on bestseller lists, sometimes going so far as to become the top-seller of the year. There is your buzzy true crime tale, soon-to-be adapted into a big-budget movie; a heavily sexed novel targeted at older women and widows; some new-age romp through an ecological or cult-infested wonderland. And the final few? Right-wing and left-wing conspiracy theories–the Commies are back! The planet is doomed! The Prophecies have been fulfilled! ‘They’ are all out to get us! These final ones tick like the time bombs they were designed to be, keeping that low buzz grating on our nerves until our only relief is to sink into someone else’s theory on how we can help ourselves survive in this hopeless, dying world!
Of course I have veered a little off topic in this discussion, but I believe this is to the larger point. What history is there being read or even discussed? The true crime book is probably the most accurate piece, but remains a popular niche market: a flat out reduction of popular culture. You are either interested, or you are not. And as previously stated, an autobiography opens itself up to personal attacks and self-serving motives. Most of the other works are merely distractions from the real world.
And so we are left with conspiracy theories–with panic, suspicion and mistrust. And this is where we come back into our ever-changing history.
I had meant this piece, far too subtly, as a response to an on-going back-and-forth I have been having with Dinesh D’Souza–a man whom I do not personally know, and who I have declared is a historical revisionist of exactly the same stripe of the left-wing historians he rightly charges with attempting to alter public memory of the facts. His responses to this have been aloof and general, but he has not answered any question put to him. He simply proves my point by digging in deeper with his unverifiable revisions of the past, based not upon the source materials, or anything so trite as genuine historical documentation, but on his arrogant belief that people like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln thought in the exact same way that he does today, and believed in contemporary issues which would have been profoundly alien to them with the same cynical, corrupt radicalism that he condescendingly brings to everything. And he does not base these ideas on the writings, the actions, or the acknowledged character of these historical leaders he pretends to hold so highly, but on a very intentional effort to transform modern day leaders into resurrections of past glory, or as the saviors of a collapsing world.
History has been used for many illicit means in every generation. The perversion of truth has given rise to religions and political movements, to revolts and revolutions, to world wars and genocide. And yet the one thing it has still not been used for is the lone purpose we are told history provides from our earliest education: learn from your mistakes. We are still not learning from our mistakes. And so we will keep changing the past in order to justify doing the same stupid things over and over and over again.